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The mysterious origins of the high five

Whether it is a wicket or a goal, sports is filled with celebratory moments and no gesture is more commonly used than the high five. What’s not commonly known is the high five’s origin story. The gesture comes naturally and we rarely think about who invented it. After diving deep into its history, we realized that the answer is not straightforward. It could have been invented many times by many people.

The Lamont Sleets story

For many, Lamont Sleets was the inventor of high five. He played college basketball for Murray State University between 1979 and 1984. During his matches, he would high five his teammates and it was there that the gesture started getting noticed. When asked about it, Sleets said that it was his father (Lamont Sleets Sr.) who really invented it. Lamont Sleets Sr. had served in the Vietnam war and his unit was called The Five.

When all the men of that unit congregated at Lamont Sr.’s house, they would always start their meeting by stretching their arm, spreading their fingers and slapping each other’s hands. They would grunt ‘Five!’ every time they did it. Lamont Jr. was a kid when it happened but he too enjoyed the gesture. People believed this story, but it was not the truth. In an interview with ESPN, Conor Lastowka (a comedian who organized the National High Five Day) said that the Sleets story was merely a publicity stunt. “We just found the guy and made up a story about his dad,” he said.

The Glenn Burke story

Glenn Burke was a young outfielder for Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1970s. Before the Sleets story took over, people believed that he had invented the high five and exhibited it for the first time on October 2, 1977. There were 46,000 screaming fans at the Dodger Stadium when he did it.

Despite being the inventor of the gesture, Burke faced a lot of problems because of his sexuality. He was gay and even though he kept that fact a secret, some rumours had started doing the rounds.

Consequently, he was released by Dodgers and sold to another team.His new teammates at Oakland A’s avoided showering with him and his career was cut short. In 1980, when he retired, he became the first Major League player to come out. Even though he had retired, the high five started catching on like wildfire. It wasn’t just a Dodgers gesture anymore. With it, Americans found a way to celebrate their high points. It unlocked a repressed longing for personal expression and was used everywhere – from spelling bee contests to corporate offices.

As time passed, Burke picked up a drug habit and his income started declining. He even met with a car accident while crossing the road that broke his leg into four pieces. He never really recovered from that setback and was unable to hold any job. In 1993, he tested positive for HIV and passed away two years later on May 30, 1995. An obituary writer noted that the man who invented the high five was not even able to lift his arm on his death bed.

The Wiley Brown story

During a practice session in 1979, University of Louisville’s forward Wiley Brown went to give a low five to his teammate Derek Smith. Smith looked at him in the eye and said, “No. Up high.”

Brown realized how the low five went against the character of his team (they jumped so high) and responded accordingly. Even now, Brown insists that the high five was Derek Smith’s brainchild. You can see the gesture’s earliest manifestations in the highlight reels of the 1978-79 Louisville team. Besides being on the same team, Smith and Brown had one thing in common – they were both raised in poor towns in Southern Georgia.

In an interview with ESPN, Brown said that Smith was overwhelmed by how his invention had left such an impact. “He'd 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,” Brown said. “Derek was talking about how this was going to go down in history. 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,” he added. Unfortunately, Smith passed away in 1996 due to an undiagnosed heart condition but Brown is still around. He works as a basketball coach for Indiana University Southeast program.

Derek Smith vs Glenn Burke

In a September 1, 1980 news item in The New York Times, Derek Smith was credited as the inventor of the high five. Glenn Burke wasn’t even given a mention despite him inventing it three years earlier. Was Burke’s legacy stolen from him because of his sexuality? Did Los Angeles Dodgers purposely hide his invention? There are no clear answers here too. Burke had once told a newspaper reporter, “You think about the feeling you get when you give someone the high five. I had that feeling before everybody else."

The Urruda take

We don’t want to take sides in the high five argument but we hope that one day, the inconclusive debates are put to rest. Sports has evolved considerably in the last 40 years and we have seen some wild celebrations. From Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘Siii’ celebration to Peter Crouch’s robot dance, a lot of players now have their trademark style. Closer home in India, star all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja does a sword celebration after a great knock while opening batsman Shikhar Dhawan is known for slapping his thigh after every catch he takes.

Every once in a while, we see a player pull off something new and unique but we doubt anything will be able to match the legendary status achieved by the high five.

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