It came down to one fateful choice: A snow globe or a yo-yo?
For Mission district resident and yo-yo master Doctor Popular, the decision was the difference between becoming a regular tourist or a bona fide champion.
“I was buying a souvenir [at a gift store] in the Space Needle in Seattle and the choice was literally between the two cheapest things there,” said the 31-year-old also known as Brian Roberts.
At $1.50, the yo-yo was the obvious bargain. But at the time, Popular had little idea it would become a rather lucrative career choice as well. In just 10 years, Popular has become an international yo-yo sensation, earning the inaugural National Trick Innovator Award and a third-place finish at the world championships.
And even today, as Popular enters his veteran years, he maintains as one of the favorites heading into the state Yo-Yo Championships on Saturday, which will take place for a second year at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
“I don’t know anyone like him,” said Dave Capurro, founder of the Bay Area-based Spin Doctors Yo-Yo Club. “He’s very innovative and a unique kind of guy. He has a style that nobody can reproduce.”
Popular chuckles when he looks back on what may not have been had his souvenir yo-yo cost a few cents more. Those who know and admire his abilities wonder if the world would have lost one of the most influential yo-yo tricksters in the game.
But within one month of buying his first yo-yo, Popular quit his job at a coffee shop and took a position at a stand selling yo-yos and accessories. He went on to invent a number of popular yo-yo tricks that others still to try to replicate today, including the Washing Machine, Moebius, the Martini and Skin the Gerbil, among others.
“My only goal is to be perceived by other yo-yoers not to be that guy who was good once,” Popular said. “It’s really hard to keep on top, but I’ll always have new tricks up my sleeve.”
These days, Popular not only travels the world to compete and judge in yo-yo tournaments, but also runs an online store stocked with everything yo-yo. And if that wasn’t enough for his résumé, he is also a well-established musician and magician.
“Overall, he’s a professional performer,” Capurro said.
State Yo-Yo Championships
WHEN: Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
WHERE: Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon St., S.F.
PRICE: Free with Exploratorium admission