This story appears in the Aug. 8, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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.
History of the HIgh Five
Lamont Sleets says the high five came from his dad, who served in the 5th Infantry.
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.