It’s a symbol of togetherness. The high five.
Players perform this consistently in huge mega-stadiums and arenas, as well as sandlots and gyms. It is a simple task with no special equipment required.
A person holds up their hand as an invitation, while the secondary party slaps it. Then the open uplifted palm is offered up to another person who then does the same act.
It is called “the high five.”
Everyone’s grandma has done a high five. Every little kid knows exactly what to do when you offer up a raised hand and exclaim, “Gimme five.”
But the high five is more than just a motion shared among athletes in a moment of jubilation, it is now an act that is ingrained into society and everyday existence. It is one of those things in life that transcends sports and becomes woven into our culture.
Who hasn’t slapped the open raised palm of a complete stranger at an athletic event after a touchdown, home run, 3-point shot, or a goal? It has become part of our social cultivation. The very act exudes triumphant excitement.
Military war rooms high five when strategies are won. Board members high five when a key acquisition is finally bought. Teachers high five when a failing student begins to make passing grades. Parents high five each other when little Timmy finally doesn’t fall when learning to ride his bike without training wheels.
There is even a day that celebrates the simplest of celebratory gestures. The third Thursday in April is National High Five Day.
But where did this come from? What was the inspiration? Was this gesture planned out, or an accident? And why didn’t the originator trademark the move?
During the 1970s, the black culture would offer each other an open palm about waist level and state, “Gimme some skin” on the “down low.” This was called the “low five” and was considered to be the soul handshake. The high five is just an elevated variation.
Lamont Sleets, Jr. was a basketball star in his hometown of Eminence, Kentucky who was known for his long pinpoint shots. Years later, he would be inducted into their Hall of Fame and have his jersey retired. After high school, he went to play for Murray State University as a recruited freshman in 1979.
Sleets’ father Lamont, Sr. served in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry. This unit was nicknamed “The Five.” While growing up, these men would gather at the Sleets’ home on a regular basis. Their greeting to the very young Lamont was a straight-out hand to which he had to jump in order to slap.
Not knowing all of the men’s names of The Five, Lamont would shout out, “Hi, Five!” In high school and later college, he would do the same gesture to his teammates who would also hold up an open palm.
Two men were the persons pushing for a National High Five Day, Conor Lastowka and Greg Harrell-Edge. It takes a lot to get a day set aside for anything into the National Day Calendar. Once the pair submitted their idea, they needed a hook and made up the story of Sleets and his father’s war buddies in order to get some national traction for their cause. It made national news.
Yes, a hoax. A feel-good story whose origins would pre-date any other urban legend in order to give their mission some national attention in the hopes that their request would be placed on the docket on a permanent note.
Myths, whispers, and other assorted maybes
Magic Johnson was a basketball high school standout and highly recruited. He accepted a scholarship to Michigan State. Later in his career, Johnson stated that he was the creator of the high five while in college during the second half of the 1970s. Johnson has never offered any concrete substantiation.
Yet another claim is from a different college basketball program in 1978. The Louisville Cardinals men’s team has a story of its own. Seems that forward Wiley Brown was offering a low five celebratory gesture to teammate Derek Smith at a practice who then told him, “No, up high.”
There is video in which the Polish men’s volleyball team from the 1976 Olympics high fived each other all throughout each game. Did they name it? Are they making a claim for its existence?
Another version is that women’s volleyball teams in the 1960s started doing the high five as congratulatory gestures toward each other, and then the process slowly caught on.
This video is about the evolution of women’s volleyball. After each serve, players exchange a hand touch usually around waist level as either encouragement or congratulations. After winning a point, the motion is elevated over their heads and clearly is high fives. At the 1:06 mark, several women offer up high fives.
And then there is the television sitcom version.
The Phil Silvers Show was a comedy on CBS that starred Silvers as Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko of the U.S. Army. The series ran from 1955 to 1959 and won three Emmys for best comedy.
Sgt.Bilko was a con man who was the head of the motor pool at Fort Baxter, a fictional military base located somewhere in Kansas. Bilko was always trying to rip off people out of their money with a get-rich-quick scheme but had a heart of gold.
The character Bilko used to do high-fives with his army buddies quite often on the series usually when the men would get over on somebody or a favorable situation fell just right. And this pre-dates anything else. Yet, the show has never came forward with any intention of having invented the gesture. But Bilko and his fellow soldiers were very familiar with the practice.
Most accepted beginning
The year was 1977. It was the last regular season game for the Los Angeles Dodgers who were about to head into the postseason. They were about to win the National League West with a record of 98-64, 10 games out of first place.
The October 2 game against Houston at Dodger Stadium was in front of 46,501 fans in preparation for their upcoming playoff series against Philadelphia to determine who would go to the World Series.
The Dodgers’ middle batting order was all power hitters featuring Dusty Baker, Ron Cey, Reggie Smith, and Steve Garvey. Young leftfielder Glenn Burke was listed after them and was on deck with Baker at bat.
Against Houston pitcher J.R. Richard, Baker hit a home run. As the other players greeted Baker at home plate, Burke hoisted his hand high with his back arched to which Baker smacked it. Burke’s subsequent at-bat also featured a home run. As Baker greeted him at the plate, he also held his hand high to which Burke slapped it.
Is this the definitive beginning of the high five? There is no method to know who - or when - others have used it yet never thought about it being something of an icon and needed a label. Who invented pockets? Early renditions of the toothbrush have been in existence since 3000 BC yet nobody from that era has laid claim to its invention. Pharaohs in ancient Egypt used spoons, but who made the first one?
One thing for certain: of the above possible situations that the high five was used and has been documented, only Burke and Baker (and Magic) lay claim to its conception.
Sometimes folklore and facts become the same thing. The stories occupy sports stadiums to the basketball court to the Hollywood set to the volleyball court to everyday living concerning the origins of the high five.
High five, down low, in the middle, too slow. Yeh, the victim’s smug look plus the taunting finger point are all classics.
The sports metaphor has been well-worn on this topic.