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Kaluhiokalani, Montgomery "Buttons"


Loose, jiving regularfoot surfer from Waikiki, Hawaii; winner of the 1979 Sunkist Pro at Malibu, and one of the sport's most naturally gifted riders. He was born Montgomery Ernest Thomas Kaluhiokalani (1958) in Honolulu, the son of an army serviceman, and raised on Oahu's North Shore. At age five he moved with his two brothers and bartender mother to Waikiki; his grandmother said his black curly hair looked like buttons sewn to his head, and gave Montgomery his nickname.

Kaluhiokalani began surfing at age nine; at 15 he placed second to future world tour powerhouse Dane Kealoha in the boys' division of the state titles, and also finished second in the United States Surfing Championships. He shot to prominence in 1975, when he and surfing partner Mark Liddell, riding their new split-rail Ben Aipa-shaped stinger boards, set a new high-performance standard in small waves. Like Larry Bertlemann before him, Kaluhiokalani had spring-loaded legs and a riding style that was at once flamboyant and smooth. More so than Bertlemann—or virtually any surfer aside from eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater—Kaluhiokalani was spontaneous and innovative, stringing together turns, cutbacks, tuberides, tailslides, and 360s with offhanded genius.

Apart from his surfing, Kaluhiokalani was known for his sun-tinged afro (he once described himself as "half-Hawaiian, half black, a little bit Chinese"), and his chattering, laughing, often manic personality. He wore a curly blond wig for a surf magazine portrait shot, and ate sand in a brief but memorable surf movie clip.

Along with his win in the 1979 Sunkist, Kaluhiokalani placed third in the 1975 Pro Class Trials, third in the 1981 Pro Class Trials, third in the 1981 Pipeline Masters, and first in the 1981 Peru International. For the most part, though, he was unable to focus on competition or any other facet of professional surfing. "He approached his career," surf journalist Phil Jarratt wrote, "with all the steadiness and timing of a chicken with its head cut off."

Kaluhiokalani was featured on NBC's Real People in 1983, and the following year he appeared on the cover of Surfing magazine's "20 Who Rip" issue. Starting in 1985, however, heavy cocaine use all but removed Kaluhiokalani from the surf scene. He reappeared suddenly in 1996, surfing better than ever, announcing that "drugs are not where it's at." Later that same year, Kaluhiokalani was featured, somewhat incongruously, as a surfer-model in the J. Crew summer catalog. Nevertheless, he was arrested in early 1998 when Oahu police raided a North Shore crystal methamphetamine drug lab; charges were later dropped.

In 2007 he again reentered the public's consciousness as the bail-skipping target of a Dog the Bounty Hunter episode. Having his demons exposed to a national audience deeply affected the Hawaiian legend, and he seemed to finally pull himself free of his drug addictions. A 2012 Surfer profile detailed Kaluhiokalani's struggles, and ran a double-page spread of an extremely fit Buttons, now in his 50s, midway through a flawless carving 360. He was running the Buttons Surf School on Oahu. The 54-year-old had eight children and eight grandchildren.

Kaluhiokalani appeared in dozens of surf movies, including Playgrounds in Paradise (1976), Free Ride (1977), Fantasea (1976), and Ocean Fever (1983). 

In 2013, Kaluhiokalani, 54, died of lung cancer.