Bryce Harper crushes a home run. Lionel Messi slaloms through the defense to score. Lebron James throws down an alley-oop. After all of these scoring plays, the scorer's teammates rush towards them to high-five and celebrate. The high five is now so common that it can be seen routinely throughout every episode of Sportscenter. Some use it as a greeting, while others reserve it only for these celebratory occasions. It has become an unconscious aspect of American culture. To leave a friend hanging on a high five is now widely regarded as a breach of gentlemanly conduct. Where did this all come from?
The origin of the high-five is still widely disputed. Magic Johnson claims that he had invented the high five during his college career at Michigan State, but there are two equally credible claims that also fight for the honor of originator. The first comes from the same college basketball era at the University of Louisville. The Cardinals had become known as the "Doctors of Dunk" for their high-flying, above-the-rim style of play and their preferred celebration had to match.
To do this, forward Willie Brown and teammate Derek Smith decided to make a simple change to the more traditional low five. During a practice in 1978, Smith and Brown went "up high" and the rest was history. The most compelling piece of evidence in this case would be highlight reels of Louisville's 1978-79 season showing the earliest recorded evidence of the high five. The gesture's popularity grew when the Cardinals won the 1980 NCAA Championship. Smith would go on to have a successful ten-year career in the NBA, but died suddenly in 1996, widely credited as the co-inventor of the high five.
Our final claim comes from baseball and it offers the earliest chronological date of inception. On the last day of the 1977 regular season, Dusty Baker hit a home run and teammate Glenn Burke rushed out to celebrate with his hand raised above his head. Confused by the gesture, Baker slapped Burke's hand. Burke later stepped up to the plate and hit his first Major League home run, which he celebrated by high-fiving Baker.
Burke would go on to have a four-year MLB career before managerial disputes, possibly due to Burke's homosexuality, forced him into the minors and eventually out of baseball altogether. Rumors circulated about Burke having a relationship with Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda's estranged son Tommy Jr. or Spunky. Spunky's homosexuality was regarded as an open secret. Burke would become an icon in San Francisco's Castro district, where he was the star of the Gay Softball World Series. He could often be found sitting on the hood of a car in front of the Pendulum Club high fiving passersby. Burke's high five eventually becoming a symbol throughout the gay community, the act of two men touching hands.
Burke's tragic death in 1995 due to complications from HIV means we;ll never know for certain the true origin of the high five. Four men share the honor of co-originator, but the symbolic gesture they created has eclipsed the boundaries of sport. Their creation belongs to all of us as a way to acknowledge the accomplishments of our fellow man.