The Surf Prince of Long Beach, as he's been called, eats lunch quietly, an hour before the biggest competitive moment of his life – a first-round heat that includes Kelly Slater, the world's best surfer. Balaram Stack turned 20 last night and exudes all the laid-back cool you'd expect from a surf star on the rise. Birthday texts roll in every few minutes to the iPhone clutched in Stack's right hand as he grips a seared-tuna slider with the other. In his tournament bio, under "influences," Stack cites "Victoria's Secret models." He's surrounded by three buddies, one of whom is waiting for his mother to come and unlock his Jeep. Another wears a yellow trucker hat that says PARTY AT BALARAM'S HOUSE!
Though the ASP World Tour's stop in New York – its first ever – proved to be a smash, with exceptional four- to six-footers for the finale, courtesy of Hurricane Katia, it did not go well for the hometown hero. Nicknamed "Bottle Rocket," the wiry, 135-pound Stack is known for spontaneous aerial maneuvers – loose, improvisational skateboard stuff. But in that morning's contest, Stack surfed tight and nervous. He caught air but couldn't buy a landing. Late in the heat, as Stack and Slater were an arm's length apart in the water and a rideable wave approached, one looked to see if the champ would let the local kid have one.
Slater, then easily in the lead, took the wave for himself and rode it out, scoring points he didn't need to win the round. "I wondered if he would hardball me!" says Stack. Asked about it later, Slater is genial about his would-be challenger. "I was expecting him to pull out something big, but it didn't happen," he says. Slater, who cut his teeth on less-than-ideal waves in Florida, says he sees a familiar East Coast mind-set in Stack: "We take less for granted."
Stack is the most talented surfer to come from New York in decades, and he had the luck of being noticed early. He was raised at Kashi Ashram (he is named after the brother of the Hindu god Krishna) in Florida until age five, when Mary, his mother, moved the family to Point Lookout, Long Island, on Labor Day weekend. On the drive up, they stopped at Daytona Beach, where Balaram's two older brothers watched him stand on a surfboard for the first time. By 12, he was surfing off snow-covered Long Beach in 40-degree water in a woman's wetsuit he unwrapped for Christmas. People started to talk.
"It was a little odd. Most guys get out of the water by December," says Mike Nelson, co-owner of Unsound, Stack's local surf shop. "But this kid would be out there in January, February. He was different." His mother watched from an idling car, heat blasting. When Mary grounded Balaram, unlike his brothers, she didn't keep him away from the water. "I learned to never use someone's passion against them," she says. Stack started to win contests. Quiksilver saw that by 14, "the kid had the gift," says the company's surf-program coordinator Chad Wells, and it's been the world's best waves ever since, from Hawaii to Australia to Peru. The next step, however, will be the most difficult. In 2012, Stack is out of eligibility for the junior circuit, where he ranked in the top 20; apart from exemptions, he'll need to qualify his way into the bigs. "He has the tools," says Nelson. "He's fearless. He's just gotta put it together in his head."
The well-groomed Stack represents a different New York than that of its last great surf talent, Rick Rasmussen, who was killed in a 1981 drug deal in Harlem. And he comes from a less edgy local surf scene than even 1997, when the 'New York Times' reported on a Rockaway surfer who taped a knife to the bottom of his board for protection. The city is in the middle of a surf boom – some of the hippest boutiques in SoHo and Williamsburg are surf shops, and local lineups are dotted with lawyers and accountants. "New York is its own surf planet," says Wells. "And Bal, as the best guy there, is a huge role model for a thriving young surf culture."
I see that firsthand on contest day when a tan, shaggy-haired grommet of eight or nine stumbles across the sand. "I got his autograph!" he shouts to his buddies. "The kid from New York."