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Buttons Kaluhiokalani | TheSurfersView Exclusive Interview

Written by  Mike Reynolds
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Buttons getting "radical" back in 1978

There was no more radical time in surfing than in the 70’s. Convention and nostalgia were trampled underfoot by a litany of cosmic inspirations and revolutionary board design that didn’t all stand the test of time. In a few short years, boards went from 9’5” to 4’11”.  Multi-channel concaves got carved into once pristine bottom contours. Prim and proper single-fins became loosey goosey twinnies.  Wide points went way forward, then way back, then on the rails.  Nothing was sacred and it was like a sort of a schizophrenic approach to progress.  Some boards set design back a few years, but at the same moment, others propelled it decades forward.

The only constant was the wish to make surfing more like skateboarding.  While skateboarding came out of the need to “surf” on flat days, the ability to try new tricks over and over again on a stationary stage started to give back to surfing.  Suddenly, the two were woven together tighter than ever before and inspiration exploded.  And at the center of the newly formed universe was a big afro’d Hawaiian nicknamed Buttons.

You couldn’t miss Buttons in the mid-70’s.  He was a force that couldn’t be ignored, like a hurricane ripping apart the Velzyland peaks and Kaisers bowls.  He was infamous for his pocket surfing, tailslides and 360s, executed with such fluidity, people were never quite sure what they’d just seen.  Along with guys like Larry Bertlemann and Mark Liddel, he redefined what it meant to ride a wave and just like the boards of the era, blew the doors off any notion anyone may have thought they had.  For me, the most extraordinary moves he pulled were those switchfoot. Not because he could ride both ways, but because he changed his stance in the middle of maneuvers. And while it was a bit showy, it was also purely functional. There’s no doubt that you get more power off your backhand when throwing a hack. So, in Button’s world, why not switch from your forehand to your backhand as you enter into a hack to make the move that much bigger?

Buttons Kaluhiokalani Surfing 
Photo: Liquid Salt Magazine
But Buttons wasn’t limited to small waves.  He also had a penchant for spots like Waimea and Pipe.  Spurred on by such contemporaries as Eddie Aikau, Reno Abellira, Jock Sutherland, Jeff Hakman and Gerry Lopez, he established a solid reputation among the Twiggy’s and Greg Longs of the day.  Reno, in particular, is someone he still runs with and who was another massive influence during this period.  While good in small waves, Reno’s shining moments were in gigantic surf and culminated with his ’74 Smirnoff Pro win at Waimea.  You can hear him talking about that butt puckering day HERE.

It’s no secret that despite his success, Buttons did succumb to addiction for many years, which culminated with an unfortunate starring role on the show “Dog The Bounty Hunter” when he was apprehended.  But like a phoenix, he’s since risen from the grips of nasty drug use and has everyone cheering his success and survival.

And that support was palpable when he jogged across the beach at the Belmar Pro to surf his Masters and Longboard heats.  I’ve not seen a buzz from a crowd like that since Slater ran to the water for the Quiksilver NY final.  You were happy because he looked happy.  People grabbed every opportunity they could to hold their kids up next to his ripped body, tamed afro and big toothy smile.  They lined the beach to watch his heats.  It was rock star. It was Hollywood. Buttons was back and man, the world loved him.

As you’ll see in my quick conversation with him and Reno below, he was just happy to do his thing, inspire and be in the moment with his beautiful wife, 7 kids and 7 grandkids.  Life was good for this game-changer and because of that, life was good for each of us too.


TSV:  So, first impression of NJ?

Buttons:  Ohhhh…my first impression is that the Jersey people are like the Hawaiians, where we live. Friendly, open-hearted, kind…that pretty much says it all.

TSV:  What got you guys here for the Belmar Pro?  It’s a long way.

Buttons:  Well, my friend, Jerry Matthews, who comes to Hawaii for the Duke Fest every year…we’ve known each other for about 2 years now…so, he’s been to Hawaii and he called and asked if I wanted to come up for the Belmar Pro and I said, ‘Yes! Absolutely. I would love too.’  It’s been three years since I’ve been here and Reno overheard the conversation and said, “I wanna go! I wanna go! I wanna go! Can I go?” (Both buttons and Reno laugh hysterically with this). And of course, my wife hands him Jerry’s number and Reno called him and here we are today, man.  You know, it’s a beautiful place…

Reno:  What I heard when I first got here are that ‘the Hawaiians are coming’ and I said, ‘What other Hawaiians are there that can still surf?’ (Both get a good laugh from this too)

Buttons:  Yeah, true, true, true.  But then Mark Liddel was coming, but couldn’t make it.

Reno:  Mark Liddel’s a good friend of Jerry Matthews.  But we got here and like Buttons said, the hospitality has been overwhelming and the lifestyle and love of surfing that everyone has here is incredible….Unfortunately, we’re just a few days behind waves.

TSV:  Well, they’re saying tomorrow’s gonna be 4-5ft.

Reno:  I’ll believe it when I see it (laughs).  Unfortunately, Buttons and I didn’t make it through the Masters. We got nicked at the end, so we’re licking our wounds right now.

TSV:  I think we need a recount on your heats. Ha!

Reno:  Yeah, me too. Definitely my heat. (Big laughs from them)

Buttons:  Yeah, I thought Reno did 2nd, maybe 1st

Reno:  I heard 2nd all the way til I got out of the water.

Buttons:  I had that impression too and that’s what they said, but then he got out of the water and got 3rd and he was bummed. But it was all good.

TSV:  So, what do you guys do now?  You hanging out in NJ for a bit?

Buttons:  Hanging out. I’ve got a Longboard division coming up next.

Reno:  Me too. 

Buttons:  We came all the way this way and just want to go out there and have fun.

TSV:  We love having you out here and really appreciate it.

Buttons:  Yeah man, this is awesome, brah.  Hopefully we can come next year and bring more Hawaiians to the East Coast and have fun.

TSV:  You’re all more than welcome.

Reno:  I don’t care about bringing any more Hawaiians. I just want me and Buttons to dominate. (Laughs).   We want to be the only two Hawaiians here again.

Buttons:  True, true,  true! Leave all the other Hawaiians home. (Hysterical laughing bellows out of both of them) . 

TSV:  Are you guys doing more of these kinds of contests going forward?

Reno:  We’re still doing legends and masters events.  We just finished the Duke Fest on Oahu. We were on corporate teams. I was surfing for a bank and he was surfing for a tiki restaurant.

Buttons:  Yeah, we had fun, man. We were the captains and…

Reno:  He had more girls on his team, though. I was bummed. Ha!

Just then Reno got whisked away for his massage and Buttons gave another big smile and a handshake that I swear made me want to go out and pull some switchfoot 360 tailslides.


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