History of the high five

It's a timeless gesture, but someone went up top first

Updated: April 12, 2013, 11:09 AM ET
By Jon Mooallem | ESPN The Magazine

History of the HIgh FiveIllustrations by Bruce Hutchison for ESPN The MagazineThe origin of the high five is as mysterious as it is timeless.

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's August 8, 2011, issue. Subscribe today!

PART ONE: INVISIBLE MARKS THE COURT

WHEN I FIRST PHONED Lamont Sleets this spring, I knew only the following: He is a middle-aged man living in the small town of Eminence, Ky.; he played college basketball for Murray State University between 1979 and 1984; and he reportedly created one of the most contagious, transcendently ecstatic gestures in sports -- and maybe, for that matter, American life.

I was calling Sleets because I wanted to talk to the man who invented the high five. I'd first read about him in 2007 in a press release from National High Five Day, a group that was trying to establish a holiday for convivial palm-slapping on the third Thursday in April. Apparently, Sleets had been reluctantly put in touch with the holiday's founders, and he explained that his father, Lamont Sleets Sr., served in Vietnam in the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry -- a unit nicknamed The Five. The men of The Five often gathered at the Sleets home when Lamont Jr. was a toddler. They'd blow through the front door doing their signature greeting: arm straight up, five fingers spread, grunting "Five." Lamont Jr. loved to jump up and slap his tiny palms against their larger ones. "Hi, Five!" he'd yell, unable to keep all their names straight. Years later, Sleets started high-fiving his Murray State teammates, and when the Racers played away games, other teams followed. In short, Lamont Sleets was both the inventor of the high five and its Johnny Appleseed.

The low five had been a fixture of African-American culture since at least World War II. It might seem impossible to pinpoint when the low five ratcheted itself upright and evolved into the high five, but there are countless creation myths in circulation. Magic Johnson once suggested that he invented the high five at Michigan State. Others trace it to the women's volleyball circuit in the 1960s. But the Sleets story quickly shot around the Internet and into local newspapers, displacing, or at least undermining, all other claims. Sleets was budging his way atop the high-five hierarchy.

When he answered my phone call, Sleets sounded tired. He was on his way to work, he said, and told me to try back at 4:30 that afternoon. So I did. But he never picked up my call again. In the following weeks, I dialed him more than a dozen times. I pleaded in voice mails and texts. I combed local newspaper archives and funeral notices, looking in vain for someone who knew him. Gradually, the man attained an elusive, gurulike aura in my mind.

"He was kind of a private person" was all his Murray State coach, Ron Greene, could tell me. (Greene said his memory is so fuzzy that he "couldn't confirm or deny" the high-five story.) Old-timers in Eminence, I was told, still point to invisible marks on the high school basketball court from where Sleets routinely sank jumpers -- spots well beyond where the three-point line has since been painted. Steve Frommeyer, Eminence High's principal, said everyone asked about the high five when the school inducted the guard into its hall of fame four years ago, but Sleets didn't show up for the ceremony. Years ago, Frommeyer added, the school retired Sleets' jersey, but it was mysteriously stolen off the gymnasium wall shortly thereafter.

In search of a definitive lead, I reached out to the founders of National High Five Day: Conor Lastowka, a comedy writer, and Greg Harrell-Edge, who was once named "Laziest Person in America" in a nationwide search by Jimmy Kimmel Live! Talking to them, I suddenly had the good sense to ask whether the Sleets story was even true.

"You know," Harrell-Edge said, "you are actually the first person to ask us that."

It was all a hoax, a publicity stunt. They'd concocted the whole story, then scoured college basketball rosters to plug in a name. "We just found the guy and made up a story about his dad," Lastowka said. He seemed amused that I'd gotten the actual Lamont Sleets on the phone, if only briefly.


PART TWO: THE HIGH FIVE OF LIFE

IF THIS PRANK HAS A VICTIM, it's Glenn Burke, a young outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1970s whose astonishing physique and 17-inch biceps earned him the nickname King Kong.

For at least a generation before the Sleets story surfaced, the conventional wisdom had been that Burke invented the high five on Oct. 2, 1977, in front of 46,000 screaming fans at Dodger Stadium.

History of the HIgh Five
Lamont Sleets says the high five came from his dad, who served in the 5th Infantry.

It was the last day of the regular season, and Dodgers leftfielder Dusty Baker had just gone deep off the Astros' J.R. Richard. It was Baker's 30th home run, making the Dodgers the first team in history to have four sluggers -- Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith -- with at least 30 homers each. It was a wild, triumphant moment and a good omen as the Dodgers headed to the playoffs. Burke, waiting on deck, thrust his hand enthusiastically over his head to greet his friend at the plate. Baker, not knowing what to do, smacked it. "His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back," says Baker, now 62 and managing the Reds. "So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do."

Burke then stepped up and launched his first major league home run. And as he returned to the dugout, Baker high-fived him. From there, the story goes, the high five went ricocheting around the world. (According to Dodgers team historian Mark Langill, the game was not televised, and no footage survives.)

The high five was a natural outgrowth of Burke's personality. The Oakland native was an irrepressibly charismatic man who, even as a 24-year-old rookie that season, had become the soul of the Dodgers' clubhouse. He did Richard Pryor standup from memory and would stuff towels under his shirt and waddle bowlegged around the dugout, imitating Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. "He was a joyous, gregarious person," sports agent Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim says of Burke, a friend since childhood. "He could high-five you without necessarily going through the motion with his hand."

History of the HIgh Five
Burke often high fived Dodgers teammate Dusty Baker.

What most people didn't know was that Burke was gay. Following his retirement in 1980, he became the first major leaguer to come out. Even though he tried to keep his sexuality a secret during his playing days, there had been rumors in the clubhouse. And as the 2010 television documentary Out: The Glenn Burke Story revealed, Dodgers executives scrambled to squash those rumors at all costs: In the off-season of 1977, team VP Al Campanis offered Burke $75,000 to get married. (The Dodgers executive later explained the offer not as a bribe but as a "helpful gesture" to pay for Burke's honeymoon.) According to a friend, Burke rejected the marriage deal with a mix of wit and rebelliousness. He told Campanis, "I guess you mean to a woman."

It was around that time that Burke struck up a relationship with Spunky Lasorda, aka Tommy Lasorda Jr. Spunky was a lithe young socialite who frequented West Hollywood's gay scene, smoking cigarettes from a long holder. A 1992 GQ profile of Spunky portrays his homosexuality as an open secret. But his father was in staunch denial and remained so even after Spunky's death in 1991 from pneumonia. GQ reported that the death certificate said his illness was likely AIDS-related. "My son wasn't gay. No way," Lasorda Sr. told the magazine.

Burke and Spunky's relationship didn't become public until years later and remains ambiguous. Burke's sister, Lutha Davis, insists the two men were just close friends. In his 1995 memoir Out at Home, co-authored with Erik Sherman, Burke went out of his way to leave the true nature of their relationship unclear. "That's my business," he wrote. He also explained that Lasorda Sr.'s homophobia was something he and Spunky commiserated about. Burke described them turning up together at Lasorda's house one night, done up in pigtails and drag, hoping to stage a kind of gay Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. They chickened out before knocking on the door.

Whatever the case, Burke's association with Spunky marks the point at which his big league career took an irrevocable left turn. Lasorda stopped being amused by the player's dugout antics and, according to Burke, once turned on him and chewed him out. "Glenn had such an abundance of respect and love for Tommy Lasorda," says Burke's sister. "When things went bad at the end, it was almost like a father turning his back on his son." Early in the 1978 season, the Dodgers abruptly dealt Burke to the Oakland A's, among the most lackluster teams in baseball, for Billy North, an outfielder past his prime. LA sportswriters described the trade as sucking the life out of the Dodgers' clubhouse. A couple of players were seen crying at their lockers.

To be fair, North was a proven player, whereas Burke wasn't yet delivering on his potential. And that's how Campanis explained the deal at the time. But for Burke, and several teammates, the trade had everything to do with his sexuality -- though the outfielder sounded off to the press about it in only the most cryptic terms. "I never got a chance here," he said. "I felt I was supposed to kiss ass and I didn't. As far as getting along with Lasorda, that didn't work out too well."

After unproductive years in 1978 and '79, Burke hoped for a fresh start in 1980 under new A's manager Billy Martin. But the gay rumors followed him to Oakland. Martin threw the word "faggot" around the clubhouse and didn't play Burke. Some teammates even avoided showering with him. Burke, accustomed to being the heart of the clubhouse, felt crippled by the discomfort he was causing. His unhappiness was compounded by a knee injury and a demotion to Triple-A. After playing just 25 games in the minors in 1980, he abruptly retired, feeling it was his only option.

He was 27 years old. "It's the first thing in my life I ever backed down from," he later said.

Burke started hanging around San Francisco's Castro district. He became a star shortstop in a local gay softball league and dominated in the Gay Softball World Series. "I was making money playing ball and not having any fun," he said of his time in the majors. "Now I'm not making money, but I'm having fun." Jack McGowan, a friend in the Castro who has since passed away, once said of Burke: "He was a hero to us. He was athletic, clean cut, masculine. He was everything that we wanted to prove to the world that we could be."

In the Castro, Burke's creation of the high five was part of this Herculean mystique. He would regularly sit on the hood of a car -- whichever one happened to be parked in front of a gay bar called the Pendulum Club -- flash his magnetic smile and high-five everyone who walked by. In 1982, Burke came out publicly in an Inside Sports magazine profile called "The Double Life of a Gay Dodger." The writer, a gay activist named Michael J. Smith, appropriated the high five as a defiant symbol of gay pride. Rising from the wreckage of Burke's aborted baseball career, Smith wrote, was "a legacy of two men's hands touching, high above their heads."

By that time, however, Burke was struggling with a drug habit. It escalated in 1987, when a car plowed into him as he was crossing a street, breaking his right leg in four places and stealing his athleticism. He couldn't hold a job. He went broke. He did some time at San Quentin for grand theft. Then in 1993, he tested positive for HIV. He passed away on May 30, 1995, after a sharp and grisly decline. One obituary noted that, at the end, the man who invented the high five "could barely lift his arm."

As Burke's life sputtered downward, the high five madly ascended. Even by 1980, the Dodgers were selling "High Five" T-shirts with a trademarked logo of two upraised hands connecting. A promotional poster explained: "The 'High Five' salute has become the Dodgers' standard salute during the 1980 season. It is given customarily following a home run, good defensive play or Dodger victory."

It wasn't just LA. The high five was being celebrated as a welcome injection of style throughout sports. In 1981, the Canadian magazine Maclean's noted that, thankfully, "when a black guy has hit a home run," the players scoring ahead of him don't just stand around anymore and "shake his hand like a bunch of Rotarians at lunch on a Tuesday."

Burke's friend Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim argues: "The high five liberated everybody. It gave you permission to enjoy your high points." And not just in sports but at your kid's spelling bee or your office after a killer PowerPoint presentation. In this interpretation, Burke didn't just add a bit of flair to baseball -- he uncorked a repressed longing for personal expression and connection in all of American society.

Burke's sister, Lutha Davis, says Burke himself was pleased to see the high five spilling out of sports to punctuate smaller, everyday joys. "Now when something great happens in life, people do the high five," she says. "I call it 'the high five of life.'"

Years after her brother died, Davis was watching Jeopardy! when a question about the inventor of the high five popped up. People who knew Glenn have always known "the truth," she told me, but it was gratifying to watch some anonymous, Midwestern-looking contestant buzz in right away and say, with unflappable certainty, "Who is Glenn Burke?"


PART THREE: THE FOUR-FINGERED MAN

BURKE DIED BELIEVING THE HIGH FIVE was his legacy, and the more I learned about him, the more tragic the Sleets hoax seemed. It's nice to believe that something as magnificent as the high five could be invented only once, in a romantic, unforgettable flash. The truth is, such things are invented many times, by many people -- there are multiple mythologies rewritten over time. I've come to realize this because I happened upon a third, entirely credible story of the high five. It goes like this:

At a University of Louisville basketball practice during the 1978-79 season, forward Wiley Brown went to give a plain old low five to his teammate Derek Smith. Out of nowhere, Smith looked Brown in the eye and said, "No. Up high."

The Cardinals were known as the Doctors of Dunk. They played above the rim. So when Smith raised his hand, it clicked for Brown: He understood how the low five went against the essential, vertical character of their team. "I thought, yeah, why are we staying down low? We jump so high," says Brown, now head coach at Indiana University Southeast. Brown insists it's Smith who invented the high five and Smith who spread it around the country.

In fact, high fives turn up in highlight reels of the 1978-79 Louisville team. Occasionally, they're jerky, thrusting fives -- more like spears thrown perpendicularly at the other guy's torso -- but they're clearly among the first high fives ever broadcast into American living rooms. Midway through the second half of the 1980 NCAA Final against UCLA, Brown posted up against Kiki Vandeweghe and overpowered him, banking in a shot and drawing the foul. In footage of the game, Brown immediately rams his left arm up to slap Smith five. (Brown always made a point of high-fiving with his left hand because as a kid he had his right thumb amputated and it somehow didn't feel right to high-five with four fingers.) The announcer, Al McGuire, shouts: "Mr. Brown came to play! And they're giving him the high-five handshake. High five!"

Both Derek Smith and Wiley Brown grew up in small, poor towns in southern Georgia. Smith is said to have arrived on the Louisville campus as a shy stutterer with all of his possessions in one bag. According to Brown, Smith was always blown away that someone with an undistinguished background like his could make an indelible impact on the entire world. "He'd talk about the high five constantly," Brown says. "It was one of those things he was most proud of, right up there with getting his degree, having his kids and marrying his beautiful wife."

I couldn't ask Derek Smith about his invention of the high five. After a respectable NBA career, he died suddenly in 1996 from an undiagnosed heart condition. (His son, Nolan Smith, was drafted out of Duke by the Trail Blazers in June.) But Brown told me about one particular day at Louisville, after Smith got a call about the high five from a big-city newspaper. "Derek was talking about how this was going to go down in history," Brown says. "It would be something we could tell our kids and grandkids about. I've got a smile on my face now just talking about it."

I think I found the newspaper story: a tiny item in The New York Times on Sept. 1, 1980, about a burgeoning fad called the high five and the man who apparently invented it, Derek Smith. There's no mention of Glenn Burke, even though he also apparently invented the high five three years earlier. In fact, aside from Smith and his teammates, there's only one other person mentioned in the story. The piece begins: "Manager Tom Lasorda of the Los Angeles Dodgers has joined the growing list of 'high-fivers' ... But the veteran of 35 years in baseball admits he does not know where it all began." It's just one of those things, Lasorda told the paper. "Who knows?"

So here's the question: Did Lasorda purposefully not mention Glenn Burke? Or did Lasorda just forget? I don't know what to believe. (Through an assistant, Lasorda reiterated that he doesn't know who invented the high five but didn't respond to requests for an interview.) Ultimately, the story of the high five is a ghost story, about how we remember and how badly we want to be remembered.

Glenn Burke walked away from baseball after four seasons with a career .237 batting average. But as he told a newspaper reporter years later: "You think about the feeling you get when you give someone the high five. I had that feeling before everybody else."

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