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The Surprising Origin of the High Five

It’s a gesture so innate that we rarely think about it — reaching one hand out with a flat palm and slapping another person’s mirrored hand in joyous celebration. Whether it’s teammates bonding over success at a sporting event, strangers offering their hands out to marathon runners, or families teaching it to their babies — and even dogs!—there’s no doubt that there is a universality to the high five.

While it would seem the habit has been ingrained in human DNA for generations, surprisingly, the origins of the action go back less than 50 years, no matter which story you choose to believe. Some say it began with women’s volleyball in the 1960s, while Magic Johnson once claimed that he invented the move. But finding out that for a simple tradition, the history is far more complicated.

Taking It From Low to High

A basketball in the air under a hoop.
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Since at least World War II, the low five had been a part of Black American culture, thought to be a sign of solidarity. During a college basketball practice session at the University of Louisville in the 1978 to 1979 season, forward William Brown reportedly went to slap teammate Derek Smith’s hands low. However, Smith said to him, “No, up high,” and Brown obliged. After all, it made sense for this team since they were known for playing above the rim. “I thought, yeah, why are we staying down low? We jump so high," Brown said.

And so a tradition was born, often seen in footage of the team on the court that season. “Occasionally, they're jerky, thrusting fives — more like spears thrown perpendicularly at the other guy's torso,” journalist Jon Mooallem wrote. “But they're clearly among the first high fives ever broadcast into American living rooms.”

While Smith tragically passed away in 1995 from a heart condition, Brown says that he wore the badge of honor as the high five’s inventor with pride: “[Smith would] talk about the high five constantly...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.”

A Symbol of Gay Pride

Rainbow pride flag waving.
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While that is one beautiful origin story to the tradition, the actual tale may go back further —  by just one sporting season — to a different kind of ball game.

On October 2, 1977, 46,000 baseball fans were screaming at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium — and for good reason. It was the sixth inning of the final game of the regular season and with Dusty Baker’s 30th home run, they had just become the first team in baseball history to have four players with at least 30 homers. (Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, and Reggie Smith rounded out the foursome.)

The crowd was going wild, and so was a young outfielder named Glenn Burke. The rookie couldn’t help but go up to Baker at that moment. “His hand was up in the air, and he was arching way back,” Baker remembers. “So I reached up and hit his hand. It seemed like the thing to do.”

Even those on the sideline could tell what a momentous occasion it was — with the home run soon being overshadowed by the high five. Sports reporter Lyle Spencer, who covered the Dodgers from 1977 to 1981, said on the ESPN film The High Five, “I know I wrote about it that day — it was such a moment. It was the energy of it, it was just this explosion of emotion.”

That was just the beginning of Burke’s legacy with the gesture. Despite a strong record, the young player was traded to the Oakland As in 1978. Though it was never articulated, Baker said in the film that they all knew it was because Burke was gay. At a time when the LGBTQ+ community wasn’t accepted in professional sports, he was often ridiculed — and eventually demoted to the minors, retiring in 1980.

Instead, he started playing softball in a local gay league in San Francisco’s Castro district. “He was basically a symbol of what all these guys were showing the rest of America they could be which was masculine and athletic and the high five was really part of that mystique for Glen Burke,” Mooallem said in the film.

Burke came out publicly in 1982 in Inside Sports magazine, and in the feature, gay activist Michael J. Smith wrote that the “legacy of two men's hands touching, high above their heads” became a symbol of gay pride.

A Fake Story Makes News

A newspaper with the headline Press Release.
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Both Smith and Burke went to their graves believing that they originated the high five. Yet there’s a third man who also shares the credit.

Lamont Sleets had played college basketball at Murray State University from 1979 to 1984 and was credited as the inventor of the high five in a 2007 press release from National High Five Day, celebrated every third Thursday in April.

The founders of the holiday, comedy writer Conor Lastowka and Greg Harrell-Edge, said that Sleets’ father served in the Vietnam War in a unit dubbed The Five. So when his former army buddies would visit when Sleets was a kid, they’d hold their palms and say, “Five!” Little Sleets couldn’t remember each of their names, so he would slap their hands and say, “Hi, Five!” — later bringing that tradition with him to the basketball courts.

The trouble was Sleets ignored all attempts to verify the story. No one, from Sleets’ old college coach to his high school principal, had concrete answers until Mooallem asked Lastowka and Harrell-Edge an unusual question: Was the story even true?

Turns out it wasn’t. They confessed that they had come up with the story as a publicity stunt and pulled a name from a college basketball roster.

Cementing Its Place in History

Two hands giving a high five on an orange background.
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As turns out, the high five is as filled with folklore and fairytales as it is with momentous power and elation. It’s woven its way into pop culture with high five-addicted characters in Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother, but also into hard-hitting headlines, like the New York Times March 2020 story, “In Coronavirus Outbreak, the High-Five Is Left Hanging.”While the future of the high five remains

yet to be seen — they were even specifically banned from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics — one thing’s for sure, the instinct to share that energy and excitement with another human will never be replicated in any other way.

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