Joey Buran’s World Tour career was bookended by two Pipeline Masters contests. The first was in 1978, and if you were a teenaged American surfer at the time—even better, if you had at least a passive acquaintance with Joey, as I did—it was a shocker. This raggedy-haired 17-year-old high school dropout stoner beat Rory Russell in the prelims and made the Masters final, where he finished one place behind Lopez and one ahead of Kealoha. We sputtered all over our Supertramp LPs. Joey Buran! Sand Crab! Sure, he’d been slaying the WSA opens for two years, and a couple months before Pipe he’d won the California Pro (his $3,000 winner’s check bounced like a piece of flubber; contest haters were chortling for weeks), but so what? Who among us West Coast plebes, in that beat down period of localism and all-purpose single-fin guns and the endless kowtowing to our Aussie and Hawaiian betters, had the drive, the stones, the imagination, to surf their way into a Pipe Masters final? Nobody but Joey. We were in awe.
Buran went on to have a solid mid-level pro career. Won the Waimea 5000 in Rio in 1980. Won the Katin. Got a ton of 9ths and 5ths, and had a comfy spot in the lower reaches of the Top 16. Not the smoothest guy in the water, never quite a world title contender, but always in the fight, heat by heat—Joey’s favorite song, straight up, no winking, was the theme from Rocky—and he was always fun to watch. Loud and confident and blond and funny, with triple-espresso energy. If Joyce Hoffman had a love child with Dewey Weber, it would be Joey. For four years after that ’78 Pipe final, he drove the length and breadth of Pacific Coast Highway secure in the knowledge that he was surfing’s one and only California Kid.
Then Tom Curren floated in on a golden cloud with bluebirds holding a banner aloft reading “Future World Champion,” and Joey—by God, Joey reached down inside himself to gather every molecule of overachieving energy and skill and put together his best year ever. Finished No. 7 in 1983, one slot ahead of Curren. Decided to go out on a high note, and quit the Tour. Then decided to give Pipe one last try, and un-quit the Tour.
Bringing us to the 1984 Masters. The contest had been kicked down to a “specialty event,” which meant that not only was it aced from the end of the schedule—that year’s Tour extended all the way to the ’85 Bells—but it didn’t even count toward the championship. (I will hurl brickbats at today’s ASP until my wrinkled biceps give out, but the 1980s will always take the prize for connoisseur-level World Tour idiocy.) Still, the Masters had more juice than any contest in the world, and every pro heavyweight from Gerry Lopez to baby-faced ASP sophomore Mark Occhilupo was taking aim at the podium. Buran wasn’t a longshot, exactly, but considering that he was semi-retired, and that no Californian had ever before won a Masters crown, he wasn’t on anybody’s shortlist to win.
Daybreak for the one-day event revealed what SURFER writer Leonard Brady called “15-foot take-off-and-die Pipeline.” Riding a throwback single-fin pintail, Buran became Rocky. Better than Rocky. No wipeouts, no falters, no close calls. Won all three heats he surfed. Hands down. Beat Tom Carroll, Derek Ho, Wayne Bartholomew, and Occy in the final. Looked utterly stunned, then transported, then ecstatic on the winner’s stand, where he announced to one and all that “dreams do come true,” and made the cliche ring with joy and truth. A victory for the ages.
Postscript. As Buran now recalls the ’84 Masters, the skies opened up moments after he hoisted the trophy overhead, a Biblical rain poured down, and 15 minutes later he was alone on the beach, devastated, depressed, and hollowed out. He’d caught up to his lifelong pursuit. And in the larger scheme, he realized, it meant nothing. He flew home, hit the bottle, hit bottom, found Jesus, turned things around, and went on to help others through his work in ministry.
I will not quibble. I will humbly point out, though, that Buran in fact returned to defend his Pipe title; that the waves in ’85 were even bigger and more hairball than the year before; and that Joey, with all his skill and bravery and drive intact, powered into the semis. I watched from the beach. Awestruck, again.