How (and Why) I Made Up the Origin of the High Five
This is a response/companion piece to this ESPN The Magazine article
It all began with Su-Huey Huey.
Su-Huey Huey is Kai Wang’s mom, and during the 8 years that I attended high school and college with Kai Wang, not a single fantasy football season passed where at least one team was not named after her. Su-Huey Huey, Dewey and Louie. Su-Huey Huey and the Gooey Kablooie. Su-Huey Huey and Sandy Pugh-y. (This involved my own mother’s name as well. The joke quickly and temporarily got a lot less funny.)
We didn’t know much about Su-Huey Huey, but one of the few bits of information that did surface made her all the more enigmatic: Su-Huey Huey had attended Murray State University. Murray State was one of those schools that is perennially seeded between 7 and 13 in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, so everyone has heard of it, possibly even rooted for them, but they are obscure enough that until about a month ago, I mistakenly thought that the Kentucky based University was located in Texas.
So when it came time to make up a story about the origin of the High Five, what better a place to turn than Su-Huey Huey’s alma mater.
Let me backtrack for a second. Casually mentioning that at one point in time in my life it was necessary to invent a story about the origin of the high five may not make sense without any context. In 2002, some friends and I created National High Five Day while we were in our third year at the University of Virginia. Decreeing that on the Third Thursday in April you should brighten a stranger’s days by offering them a friendly high five, we set up a table in the center of the campus and doled them out to our fellow students. The next year, a local TV station did a human interest story about us, and after we graduated and set up a website about the fake holiday, there was a substantial amount of media interest about it every April. The Today Show announced it, PTI has led the show off with a High Five on several occasions, Charles Barkley expressed his skepticism about the holiday on Inside the NBA, Jimmy Kimmell Live, Cold Pizza and much to our delight, The Tony Danza Show all brought up the holiday on the air.
The main places we were actually invited onto, were of course countless Morning Zoo radio shows, the kind with names like “Dingo and The Baby” or “Sully and The Smoot Tariff.” These were always fun to do. You call in, assume an overly enthusiastic tone of voice, and hope the sound effects guy goes easy with his use of the fart button. After doing a few of them, you’re pretty well prepared for the questions you’re going to face: “When did you come up with this idea”, “How drunk were you at the time”, “How do you feel about the fist bump”, etc. But one question kept coming up over and over again: “How did the high five get started?”
We didn’t have a good answer. Granted, there were some theories out there. But nothing that I felt confident passing along. They all had an Urban Legend type of feel to them, the type of thing that Snopes.com should be verifying. I’m usually one of the first to ruin someone’s day by pointing out “That adorable kid isn’t actually Dr. Dre” or “That picture of the royal wedding that looks like Cinderella was photoshopped.” So why pass along a High Five story that I couldn’t verify myself?
The most prominent origin story on the matter is covered in this article on Outsports.com about Glenn Burke. (It’s the first non-Wikipedia google result for “Glenn Burke high five”.) It had a little bit of everything: As the first former ballplayer to come out as being gay, Burke was an intriguing fellow even without high fives. His story was also quite tragic as well, a once-promising career cut short, he got into drugs, eventually serving time in prison and dying before his time from AIDS. The recipient of the supposed first High Five was Dusty Baker, who was still a recognizable name as the manager of the Cubs and Giants. But the story was still vague enough that it didn’t really sit well with me. Read that first paragraph, and despite the familiar names, and specific teams involved, it still warrants a big fat wikipedia style [Citation Needed]. (Not to mention the fact that it only claims that it was “The first high five in baseball.”) But the fact that it was printed somewhere on the internet was enough for several radio hosts to bring it up and to get it credited on the wikipedia page for High Five.
So I realized that what that article really had going for it were three things. First was the names of some people that you could confirm had existed. Second, it was vague enough that it couldn’t really be disputed. (Note that it doesn’t even mention who the Dodgers were playing.) Third, and most important: it had the feeling about it of “Why on earth would you make something like this up?”
Why indeed. Well if you’re speaking to radio hosts every April and they keep asking you who invented the High Five and you don’t have an answer for them, that seems like reason enough to come up with a good story.
(As a side note, this is the worst example of a High Five Origin story I’ve seen. I just checked my gmail archive and I’ve been sent this by five different people claiming it is the real origin story:
Five Yard Fogerty
In the 1931 Rose Bowl game, `Five-Yard` Fogerty carried 25 times and gained exactly 5 yards on each carry. It was in that game that teammates celebrated the oddity of Fogerty`s achievement by slapping palms – this practice is now known as exchanging `high fives.` The results of that game were Alabama, 24, Washington State, 0. Fogerty played one year of professional football before breaking his leg in a skiing accident. He became a bank president in Wichita, Kansas. Sadly, he died five days before his retirement.
Again, notice the important factors here that make this a story people are willing to pass along: A specific date. Real teams, with a real score. These make people willing to ignore that “Five Yard” Fogerty’s first name is never mentioned, and that it is astronomically improbable that someone would gain exactly five yards on each of his 25 carries in a game. Like the Burke story, it even has the tragic element with “Fogerty’s” career being cut short. Guess that just gives it a human touch…And let’s not even get into the worn out movie cliche of him dying five days before retirement.)
So we decided that if these vague stories were good enough for people to pass around, we could come up with one of our own. The trickiest part was just going to be: who invented the high five?
For whatever reason, my thoughts drifted to Su-Huey Huey on that day. Perhaps the origin of the High Five could be traced to her old stomping grounds (Should Su-Huey & The Stomper be a Morning Zoo hosting duo? Yes it should.) The Murray State basketball team is probably the school’s most recognizable institution to the public at large, but off the top of your head, you probably couldn’t name anybody who played there. (It turns out that Popeye Jones went there, as well as a Hall of Famer named Joe Fulks.) In order to usurp the Burke story, the High Five would have to have been invented before the claimed 1977 date, but it would be best not to date it back too far, lest the gap between claimed inventions seem too implausible.
Perusing the Murray State records towards the late 70s, one name stood out from the rest: Mont Sleets. Sleets was an all Ohio Valley Conference player twice, during the 79-80 and 80-81 seasons. The guy was good, but he never went on to the NBA. We found an article reminiscing about his playing time at Murray State and Eminence High School, where the below picture came from (we can’t find it now, for some reason all the google results for Mont Sleets are now about him inventing the high five.) In short, he fit the bill perfectly: he was verifiably at Murray State, people who were there would remember him, but the general public wouldn’t know him at all.
Mont Sleets in high school
So we came up with an utterly ridiculous, long winded story about young Mont Sleets coming to develop the high five as a way to greet his father’s army buddies who served with him in the fifth division in Vietnam. We made sure to include place names and dates, as well as to challenge the Burke origin story outright. You know, things that would make it sound believable. We posted the story on our website, and announced to any and all radio hosts who would listen that we had found the true origin of the high five.
People believed it. And why wouldn’t they? We had nothing to gain from making up this story, it was posted on a website, the people and places in it were real. We watched in delight as it got added to the High Five wikipedia page, and people created flyers for that year’s National High Five Day that featured Murray State’s own Mont Sleets going in for a layup. We figured our work here was done.
There was just one problem. We hadn’t got a few details right.
We were informed of this by Stacey Sleets, Mont’s wife. She wrote two emails to us, about a year after we first posted the story:
I am Lamont Sleets wife and I recently read the information on the High Five Day which includes some information about my husband. You did not speak with him as your article states, but if you would like to, e-mail your telephone number to me and he will call you. Happy High Five Day!!!!!!
We wrote back and she sent this email, which I’ve excerpted:
We are a little confused about who you spoke to who claimed to be Lamont. Also who pretended to be his father, who by the way is not Lamont Sleets , Sr. His mother’s maiden name is Sleets and she and his father were never married. The story about the high-five and the fifth batallion is a great one but it is just that…a fabricated story. Since I read the article I have been trying to get to the bottom of it myself. He admits he may have invented the high-five but not the way it was explained. Nevertheless, I would like to get some of the flyers that “Support Mont Sleets… Give a High-Five.”
So pretty much the most basic details of our story could easily be proven false. There was no Lamont Sleets, Sr. There was not even a Mr. Sleets. Sleets is his mother’s maiden name. Fortunately, nobody who repeated this story really seemed concerned with this major, jarring detail. After all, why would anyone make something like this up?
(Another side note, the claim I bolded above that “He admits he may have invented the high-five but not in the way it was explained” is one of my favorite sentences ever. We never got to speak to Mont or Stacey to get to the bottom of this (we did send them the jpg of the flyer), but I’ve always been curious what his story of inventing the High Five would have been. Just imagine that: if in our efforts to assign a creator to the high five, we stumbled across the one guy who all his life had been claiming to anyone within earshot that he had in fact invented it. That would be a terrible, terrible movie that I would definitely see on opening night.)
Sample dialogue from that movie:
Conor: So the guy that we made up a story about actually invented the high five???
Greg: It appears so. And if we don’t track him down and get him to change his story, I’m gonna get kicked off the school paper and my dad will move the family to Manitoba.
Conor: I’d totally go with you, but the prom is in…FOUR HOURS!?!
So, our hoax had been unleashed into the wild and circulated as those things tend to do. We’d get an email every now and then telling us we were crazy, that the Louisville men’s basketball team had invented it, or that there was a video of jazz musicians exchanging high fives in the fifties, or the damn idiotic Five Yard Fogerty story. But for the most part, the story circulated as printed: unverified, unresearched, like so many things on the internet. I always wanted to announce to people that it was fake, but wasn’t really sure what the best way to do it was.
Turns out that we caved the instant a legitimate reporter asked us a question. Granted, it took five years for this to happen. Joe Mooallem, a writer for ESPN the Magazine reached out to us for a piece he was writing about the murky origins of the high five. I talked it over with my co-conspirator Greg and decided that we should tell this guy the truth. We forwarded him the emails from Stacey, and he seemed to think that our efforts to cloud the record on the high five origin would lead to a more intriguing story for him. He even got in touch with Sleets once before he talked to us, but didn’t get a chance to ask him any questions, and Sleets didn’t respond to any follow up calls.
In my mind, the most fascinating part of the story is that it took five years for someone to even question the origin we made up. Most of the time the story was just passed along with the same vague lead that cable news channels also use: “Some say that Mont Sleets invented the high five…” “Mont Sleets is often credited with the invention…” Sure, of course he is ‘often’ credited with it, but all by people who read a fake article two idiots came up with when they were bored one afternoon!
No he doesn’t! We said that!
Mooallem even expressed skepticism about our coming clean about the story (I had never thought about it as a “hoax” until he referred to it that way.) When we forwarded him Stacey Sleet’s two letters, he said that he thought it was fairly obvious that they were written by two different people. Once you’ve admitted to someone that you willfully created a five year web of lies, it’s surprisingly hard to convince them that you’re not lying to them. But we weren’t. We found Stacey Sleets and Mont on facebook, looking happy. I have no reason to believe it wasn’t her that emailed us back in 2007.
The tone of the article Mooallem wrote surprised me. Calling our hoax “tragic” seemed like quite a bit of overkill, but by focusing on the sad end to Burke’s life, it’s hard to avoid that. (Identifying Greg as the man “who was once named “Laziest Person in America”" feels pretty pejorative; let the record show that the man worked in a creative role on Kimmell for four years, left to work for the Obama campaign, has worked for the past few years organizing a urban renewal non-profit and has spent the past 8 months or so starting the National High Five Project as an effort to raise money for charity via our fake holidays.) I still don’t feel like he turned up any new evidence to suggest that Burke “invented” the high five, and I feel like this sentence from it probably sums up the tricky nature of trying to track down the “origin” of something that may not have one:
“such things are invented many times, by many people — there are multiple mythologies rewritten over time”
It honestly seems like the type of story that has taken on its own life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the people he interviewed have told the story so many times that they believe it to be true. But to Mooallem’s credit: at least he asked the damn questions.
So, despite the rather overdramatic tone of that ESPN article, all that really happened was that for five years, a bunch of people thought Mont Sleets had invented the high five, and we had a good story to tell to drive-time DJs like Stinky and The Dung Heap.
I just pray that we never learn Su-Huey Huey was made up all along too.