The Metaphysical Significance, Staggering Ubiquity and Sheer Joy of High Fives

March 14, 2010

The low five, the high 10, the low 10, the forearm bash, the fist bump, the flying chest bump, the shug, the leaping shoulder carom, the ass slap, the pound, the man hug, the dap, the volleyballers' smack-'em high and smack-'em low, the gimme-skin slider, the helmet head butt, the soul shake, the body slam and the grip-and-rip

Sometimes a man just can't contain himself: He has to celebrate. And for a certain type of man, that means rearing back, cocking his arm and unleashing a high five of resounding power, a high five that says, "Goddam, I'm excited about that which just occurred," a high five that in its very execution creates a vortex of enthusiasm into which everyone within its vicinity is sucked. It was this urge that took hold of Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie on the afternoon of Dec. 28, 2008. Sitting in a luxury box at Lincoln Financial Field, he leaped to his feet as, below him, the Eagles took a 24--3 lead against the Cowboys in the regular-season finale, a game that would determine which of the two teams went to the playoffs. Clearly, the moment called for punctuation. So after turning to his left and detonating two quick high fives upon a fellow blazer-wearing exec—Bam! Bam!—Lurie swiveled to his right, raised his arm and looked into the eyes of his wife, Christina, who'd borne him two children, who'd been there for him during 14 years at the helm of the franchise. Smiling broadly, she leaned in with her right hand raised as Lurie prepared to consummate a hand-smack of stupendous force.

And high-fived her right in the face.

The nose, to be exact. Still, no one outside the luxury box would have been the wiser had not a network television camera zoomed in on Lurie at that very moment. Which meant that within 24 hours one could find the slap looped and archived on YouTube, Lurie's palm forever dancing back and forth. In that moment Lurie learned what many others already knew: The high five isn't as easy as it looks.

Just ask Tiger Woods. Who can forget the 16th hole of the 2005 Masters? After holing a 30-foot chip shot, a feat that required world-class hand-eye coordination, Woods turned to his caddie and memorably whiffed on a high five, his hand diving past his partner's, two men stuck in the awkward middle between a hug and a handshake. There is a reason Tiger has since stuck to fist pumps.

What is it about the five and its innumerable permutations that grabs us so? After all, it is a simple act, one that many two-year-olds learn before they can talk, yet we relish it, embellish it, mock it and bungle it. From Borat's yelling, "High five!" to President George W. Bush's inexplicably chest-bumping an Air Force Academy graduate to the Obamas' much-discussed First Fist-Bump, we are a nation forever trying to find the right way to celebrate, and in no arena is the physical vocabulary richer than in sports. There is the low five, the high 10, the low 10, the fist bump, the bash, the shug, the flying chest bump, the helmet head butt, the ass slap, the pound, the man hug, the dap, the volleyballers' smack-'em high and smack-'em low, the gimme-skin slider, the soul shake, the leaping shoulder carom and, last but not least, the grip-and-rip.

All may be performed in a variety of ways, but in the end they say the same thing. "It shows your brotherhood out there," says Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups, a proponent of frequent, emphatic fiving. "It's beautiful, man. In a way, I think that's what this game is all about."

It began with Magic Johnson. Or Dusty Baker. Or perhaps a bunch of volleyball players. Which is to say that no one agrees upon the origin of high-fiving.

We do know how the handshake came to be, eons ago. It involved swords and knives and the lack thereof; by extending a bare hand, one told a fellow traveler that he was unarmed, that he was friendly. Centuries later, jazz musicians are said to have invented the hand slap, which in time led to the slap five favored by athletes because it could be done on the move. This in turn led to all manner of soul-shaking and finger-snapping. Finally, either in the 1960s (with those smack-happy volleyball players) or the late '70s (when Magic claims to have started the high five at Michigan State, and Dusty Baker hit a grand slam during a playoff game and purportedly greeted Dodgers teammate Glenn Burke with hand upraised), the high five.

Soon it was everywhere. Players on the 1979--80 Louisville basketball team broke out fives on national TV. NFL players began punctuating touchdowns with leaping renditions. Later in the decade Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco of the A's invented a move that in retrospect perfectly summed up the Steroid era: the forearm bash.

And now? Well, now the high five, delivered without irony, is often deemed the pinnacle of dorkdom, at least in the real world. Sure, there is a National High Five Day (the third Thursday of April) and a Guinness record for fives delivered in 24 hours (5,000, by Dubliner Michael Cotter last year, topping the 3,131 by Blake Rodgers, who stood outside a Dunkin' Donuts in Providence and let loose upon unsuspecting customers in 2008). But the guy at the office who rises up for a high 10 after the earnings report? That's a guy you don't want to hang with at happy hour.

Still, in the sports world the five and its brethren remain in heavy rotation, timeless salutes at arenas and stadiums, and the simplest, most effective way to celebrate. But they are much more than that: They are gestures of significance, a ballet of the hands and, occasionally, changers of lives.

High Art

Watch a master at work and stand in awe. Before each start Johan Santana, the Mets' ace, struts past his teammates, smacking and fist-bumping and shimmying, as if performing a dugout Macarena, personalizing shakes for each teammate while throwing fake pitches. The innovation is ongoing (his shakes often change from week to week) and the complexity staggering—Santana is a veritable Baryshnikov of the hands, a choreographer of camaraderie.

His most emphatic greeting is reserved for fellow starting pitcher John Maine and has evolved into something akin to hug warfare. "We go to my left, then to the right three times and then three times we absolutely slap the living crap out of each other's backs," says Maine, who describes Santana as a "handshake genius." In fact, Maine says, "It's gotten to the point where, when I'm not pitching, I put my heavy jacket on so I don't feel it so bad."

Artists can be found in all sports. Just watch—sorry, witness—Santana's NBA counterpart, LeBron James, before a Cavaliers game. During player introductions, amid all manner of slapping and bumping and shoulder shaking, James engages in a solo game of charades. He salutes his teammates, shadowboxes with them, mock-bows to them and even poses them and pretends to snap a picture—or, in a variation, sets an imaginary timer and then joins them.

James and Santana are of course descendants of the soul-shakers of the '70s and the '80s, men such as former NBA giant Darryl Dawkins and former major league outfielder Ralph Garr. Garr employed a 14-part handshake, though it was said that white players need only master four segments to be considered a "brother" by Garr.

The Overheated Five

Imagine hitting a walk-off home run against your archrivals. You'd feel good, right? Real good. Well, so did Dodgers infielder Steve Sax in 1985 when he went deep against the Giants. As the crowd roared, Sax rounded second and saw third base coach Joe Amalfitano waiting, hand extended. So Sax reared back and, with one mighty low five, broke Amalfitano's hand.

"All I remember is, after I hit him, I turned around and saw him jumping up and down and I figured, Damn, he's really excited that I hit a home run!" says Sax, now a financial consultant and motivational speaker in Roseville, Calif. "I was like, Wham, and he was like, Yeeee-ahhh, and I was like, Right on, Joey," Sax says, and then pauses. "He came to the park the next day, and he had a cast on."

Indeed, one must always gauge the power of one's celebratory swat, as well as its accuracy. In February 2009, as the first half ended in a Penn State--Ohio State game, Buckeyes center Kyle Madsen hit a tough baseline jumper, turned and jogged back on defense. In a fit of jubilation, Ohio State assistant coach Alan Major stepped on to the court to slap Madsen on the rear end as he ran by—or at least he tried to. Major misjudged Madsen's speed, as a quarterback might underestimate a receiver's, and meeting no resistance for his sidewinder, toppled to the floor on his side.

The Winning Touch

In a recent study with the daunting title, Tactile Communication, Cooperation and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA, to be published in the journal Emotion later this year, a team of researchers at Cal examined the effect of "touch" in the NBA. During the first two months of the 2008--09 season they observed 294 players, a sampling from all 30 teams, and tabulated how often and for how long each player touched teammates—touch being defined as any of 12 interactions, including high fives (by far the most common), head slaps and leaping shoulder bumps. The result? An impressive, if not surprising, correlation between smacking one's teammate on the head and winning lots of games.

The touchy-feeliest teams were the Celtics and the Lakers, both 60-game winners that season, who combined for nearly 100 seconds of touch in games against two separate opponents. The two least inclined to butt-slappery were the lottery-bound Bobcats and Kings (a paltry 16.5 seconds of touch and 52 wins between them). Furthermore, the most avid touchers were some of the league's best players, led by Kevin Garnett of the Celtics (far and away the highest at 15.7 seconds a game, or twice as much as the entire Kings team) and including Chris Bosh of the Raptors, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, and Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks. "We found that position didn't have an effect," says Michael Kraus, the lead author (who, proving one should psychoanalyze what one knows, came up with the idea while playing pickup basketball). "It's the leaders of the team."

If you are skeptical of his findings, just observe an NBA game. Any game. Two weeks ago I watched the lowly Warriors host the Northwest Division--leading Nuggets. Everywhere I looked within the vicinity of the Nuggets, there was fivery. Players hugged players. Trainers dapped players. Coaches fist-bumped trainers. Even The Denver Post beat writer Benjamin Hochman and Nuggets p.r. guy Tim Gelt had their own handshake: the DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince slap-and-hiss reverb. Point guard Billups in particular appeared to be leading group counseling sessions—hugging and head-cradling and fist-bumping before free throws and after free throws and even while running down the court. In all, by my unofficial count, Billups finished with 44 fives, slaps and bumps for the game. In fact, it seemed as if the Denver players were incapable of any communication without accompanying fives or daps. My favorite: After the game reserve forward Chris (Birdman) Andersen conducted a radio interview at midcourt, head down and headphones on, and when a Nuggets fan walked by Andersen raised his arm and, without looking up or interrupting his sentence, fived him with authority.

And woeful Golden State? With the exception of point guard Stephen Curry and jovial power forward Ronny Turiaf, the Warriors were relatively aloof from one another. When they celebrated, it seemed perfunctory, whereas if the Nuggets didn't celebrate, it stood out. For example, when Denver forward Nenê went to the free throw line in the second quarter, as usual he received quick fist bumps from the two teammates lining up along the key, and then he extended his hands back, without turning around, to give no-look fives to guard J.R. Smith and forward Carmelo Anthony. Except in this case only Smith participated. So Nenê held back one hand and waited ... and waited ... and eventually peered over his shoulder to find Anthony at midcourt, hands on hips. Quickly, Nenê recalled his palm. "You make or you miss the free throw, you give the love either way," the native of Brazil explained. But if the slap doesn't come? "I wait two seconds," he said. "I cannot wait longer."

Theft of Five

The free-throw-line ritual that Nenê engaged in is one of the most common in basketball. Player A shoots foul shots and players B, C, D and sometimes E zip in for a quick dap. It was between two such teammates that Lakers reserve forward Adam Morrison found himself on a Sunday night in January, during the fourth quarter of a game against the Mavericks. Dallas forward Tim Thomas was at the line, and after he made his first free throw he took a step forward to collect his daps. Only this time, so did Morrison. Quickly and efficiently, like a burglar of the five, he stepped in front of Mavericks forward Kris Humphries's slap and snuck his hand in. Did it rattle Thomas? Undeterred, he made the second free throw.

The Dap Deconstructed

If you think the high five is only about innocent celebration, you're wrong. Mark T. Morman, a Baylor associate professor of communication studies, has spent years analyzing male-to-male communication, and he has a message for all you fivers out there: You're in love, or at least in like. "We call it covert affection, as opposed to overt," explains Morman. "Punching somebody in the arm or punching somebody in the chest, that doesn't look very affectionate, mainly because we tend to frame affection in very feminine ways—hugging, kissing, soft touching. So when a guy punches another guy or pushes or shoves him or wrestles him to the ground, it's covert affection, but it's real."

Of course, Morman points out, this can lead to discrepancies when both genders are involved. For instance, Jeff Lurie and his wife. "I remember that—it was hysterical!" says Morman. "That's an example of the masculine and the feminine crashing into each other. Sometimes there are affection disasters."

In the realm of same-sex interactions, however, it ends up being all about context. In public places, such as a baseball field or a basketball court, men feel comfortable with all manner of physical interaction. "An audience negates any type of [sexual] interpretation, because so many guys are around," Morman explains. "I can slap you on the butt if you hit a home run in front of 500 people, and that's O.K. But if you come over to my apartment and I slap you on the butt and it's just me and you, there's no other potentially reasonable explanation for why I did that."

Crash Landings

Celebrating is risky business. Cardinals placekicker Bill Gramatica tore his ACL in 2001 while jumping for joy after making a field goal, an accident that landed him on one list of Lamest Sports Injuries Ever. But that was a solo act. Chest bumps involve far more coordination. The run-up. The launch. The connection. And, of course, the landing.

The last part is where it all went wrong for Chris Halliday. Last June the senior at Auburn (Mass.) High was brought in to close out the state Division 2 championship game against Plymouth North. With the final pitch of the season, he induced a fly ball to center. Bedlam ensued. And then, well, here's how Halliday remembers it:

"I throw my glove up in the air and I just fall on the ground and I'm doing like a snow angel. It felt awesome. I couldn't believe that we won. After that I get up and I look toward the bench, and all the guys are running toward the field. The first guy I run toward is Kyle Beede, our backup catcher. So I go up for a chest bump, and I think we miss—my memory gets blurry about here—and when we landed, he landed on my leg. I'd never broken a leg before, but when I landed I felt something ... bad. I was lying there and I said, 'Man, I think I broke my leg,' and he said, 'Shut up. Let's go.' Then I looked at my left leg, and it was at a 90-degree angle. And he looked at it and ran away to get help. And the rest of the guys are coming at me, running at me to do a big pileup, and then they all saw my leg and they turned and ran the other way, like they'd seen a friggin' ghost."

Eventually Halliday was taken off the field on a stretcher, triumphantly holding the championship trophy aloft—a pose that was photographed and ran alongside a Boston Globe story. Within 24 hours doctors inserted a titanium rod and three screws in his leg. He spent weeks in bed, forbidden to walk. Only now, nine months later, can he run again, but memories of his accident haunt him. "I want to play basketball with my friends, but I can't because I get so scared," Halliday says. "Every time I see someone jump off the ground and land, I cringe."

Threatened Fives

Sometimes there is a complete disconnect between the fiver and his fivees. Take Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien. In October, against Ohio State, Tolzien was having a nightmare game; he'd thrown two interceptions that were returned for scores. In the third quarter he finally led a field goal drive and, understandably pumped, headed down the sideline, arm upraised, hand extended. But no fives were forthcoming. Tolzien paused, then turned and headed back the other way, again offering up his palm, but again he had no luck; several players walked past him as if he were invisible. Finally, after 14 seconds, he lowered his hand, his five unrequited.

Uncommon as the Unrequited Five is, it's still seen more often than the Official Five, perhaps the rarest species. Its most famous practitioner was Titans quarterback Vince Young. After the final play of a Tennessee victory in November, Young saw referee Jerome Boger approaching the line of scrimmage with an arm raised, most likely to signal the end of the play. But Young, perhaps thinking that Boger couldn't contain his enthusiasm for the Titans' win, met the ref's hand with a high five. (The NFL, being the NFL, reviewed the play later and released a statement saying that it was "not Jerome Boger's intent to exchange a high five with the player.")

Finally, there is the Illegal Five, which would not be mourned if it became extinct. Last year, during the seventh and final inning of a junior college softball tournament game in Minnesota, Ashly Erickson of Central Lakes broke up a no-hitter and won the game with one swing of the bat, only to be called out upon reaching home because of an NCAA rule prohibiting high fives, a bevy of which she'd exchanged with teammates on her way from third to home. Opposing coach Jean Musgjerd of Rochester Community and Technical College, who informed the umpire of the rule, offered no sympathy. As she later told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "You don't want to win in that way, but you have to play by the rules." It was not noted whether, after providing the quote, she exchanged high fives with her assistants.

Of course, the examples above are but a sampling of famous fives. Were there more space, I could go into the So Sorry! Chest Bump (Kings coach Paul Westphal recently popped one on center Spencer Hawes during player intros in an attempt to smooth over a disagreement), the Imaginary Friend (employed by Bucks center Andrew Bogut, who, after hitting a free throw, stepped forward for the customary slaps but, upon receiving no love from his teammates, instead unleashed a flurry of convincing air fives) and the dreaded Repetitive Fiving Injury. (Some years ago at Southern University, coach Cass Jackson dispensed so many emphatic smacks after a big win that he suffered a chipped elbow.)

In the end, fiving is as simple or complicated as you want it to be, and ultimately it's a personal choice. When I asked the Nuggets' Birdman, he of the many daps and even more tattoos, how players settle upon a handshake of choice, he looked at me gravely. "It's important to decide that and stick with it," he said. "Everybody's got his own handshake, like mine, the fist bump." With lightning speed Andersen then extended his right hand, knuckles up, and at the instant we consummated the move, he half-shouted, "Boom!"

Then, looking at me still standing there, he said, "Uh, yeah, that's it."

Now on

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Santana is a Baryshnikov of the hands, a choreographer of camaraderie.


During player introductions, James performs a solo game of charades.