April 19 is.....
April 19, 2007 5:28am CST
National High Five Day One of the most frequently asked questions the founders of National High Five Day receive from the countless High Five fans all across the world is "How did the high five come into existence?" In the past, whenever someone would pose this question to us, we would either jokingly proffer an outrageous response or dismissively brush aside the question as an unknowable piece of history, lost to the ages. Both responses were designed to mask the same rather obvious fact: we just plain didn't know. Of course, we weren't alone in this capacity. The High Five is such an ingrained and omnipresent part of our culture that, like chocolate milk, it is strange to imagine that somebody actually had to invent it. There were some apocryphyl stories floating around the internet, many of them dealing with an exchange between Glen Burke and Dusty Baker. None of these stories seemed to have their facts straight though. They mainly featured the words "Supposed" or "alleged" and are unclear whether the duo performed the first ever high five, or the less impressive feat of the first high five ever in baseball. Regardless, it seemed the kind of story that the internet is designed to promote: Vague enough to be unverifiable, but specific enough to catch on. I was reluctant to perpetuate the story without doing some research of my own, but this seemed unlikely to occur. And so, the history of the High Five appeared condemned to being muddied by rumor and conjecture. Until I received an email two weeks ago. It came from Victor Sleets, a resident of Eminence, Kentucky. Mr. Sleets had been introduced to National High Five Day by a friend who thought that based on his unique family history, he might be interested in the holiday. I spoke in detail to Mr. Sleets and his father Lamont on the phone, and based on what they told me about their family's history, I have no doubt that the true history of the High Five can finally be revealed. Victor's father, Lamont Sleets Jr, known to his friends as Mont, is one of the greatest basketball players in Murray State University's history. Twice named to the Ohio Valley All-Conference team, Mont's true legacy has not been recognized until now: Mont Sleets invented the High Five as we know it today. Sleets grew up in Campbellsburg, KY and starred on the basketball team at Eminence High School. When he was young, his father, Lamont Sleets, Sr. would frequently entertain visits from his old army buddies. Sleets Sr. served in Vietnam, in the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry regiment. "It was the Bobcat division," Mont said, "but my dad and his friends always called it 'The Five.'" Sleets Sr. and his army friends started an informal greeting between them while serving in Vietnam. It consisted of extending their arm straight up in the air with all five fingers parted and saying the name of their division: "Five." Sleets thinks that when he was around 2 or three years old, it was only natural to want to emulate the old army men that gathered in his house. Since it was tough for a youngster to keep track of all the different names of the visitors, the saying of "Five" became young Mont Sleets' universal salutation for his fathers friends. Sleets recalls the story with the weariness of anybody recounting the family stories they heard over and over while growing up, but not without telltale signs of enthusiasm throughout: "They'd walk in the door, and a three year old kid, he doesn't know the difference between all these grown-ups. But they're all sayin' 'Five' with their hand up like this, so I just start saying to them, 'Hi, Five!' like it was their name." Sleets Sr. and his friends found Mont's desire to emulate them charming and would often kneel down on the ground so little Mont could return the salutation to them as well. Mont would hold his hand up and say "Hi Five!" back. "And when you're a little kid, you're curious," said Sleets. "You see all these old veterans, and their hands are so much bigger than yours, and you want to put your hand up and compare it to them." From there, the gesture simply evolved over time. As Mont got older, he of course learned the proper names of his father's visitors. But his childhood greeting of a hand held high and a "Hi, Five!" had stuck. Though he stopped wanting to compare hands with his dad's friends, teenage Mont remained willing to give their hands a quick tap with his own. "When I got older and started playing basketball," Sleets explains, "it didn't even seem weird to me. Some things you just grow up around and they seem normal to you." His teammates at Eminence High School were in awe of Mont's skill on the court, and because of this respect, Mont's unique gesture became contagious. Members of the basketball team were soon both giving and receiving High Fives. Mont excelled at Eminence, and was recruited heavily out of high school. He chose to attend Murray State, and the high fives followed him to Racer campus. "That was how it got big. Going to college and playing against teams all over the country, that's how the high five really spread." The Racer's enjoyed success during Mont's tenure on the team, and Mont himself made the All-Conference team two consecutive years, 1979-80 and 1980-81. Sleets excelled at Eminence High before starring at Murray State When asked about the Baker/Burke home run that reportedly happened in 1977, Sleets makes no attempt to conceal his scorn. What he has heard over the years regarding the interaction was that it was much closer to a handshake. "Whatever those guys did, that was not a High Five. Maybe after the fact, someone went back and said 'Those two high fived,' but they didn't call it that, and they didn't think they were doing that." Besides, Sleets adds, he was High Fiving his dad's army buddies, and calling it a high five, back in the mid 60s. "So any talk of that being the first high five, or Burke inventing the high five is bull. That story is a fraud," Sleets states bluntly. So how does the inventor of the High Five feel about the status it has attained in modern culture? He's happy about it, but acknowledges that though he and his father and his fellow Fifth Division veterans may be responsible for the gesture and the name, there was only so much they could do to propagate the High Five on their own. "We started it, and we named it, but I'm really only one small town Kentucky boy when it comes down to it," says Sleets. "Once it gets out there, once people start seeing you do it, it really becomes out of your control what happens to it." Sleets doesn't mind the fact that, until now, the historical record regarding High Fives has omitted him. "Some people invent the computer, and it makes them rich. The High Five was never gonna make me a penny. But it's made some people happy... a lot of people happy." Indeed it has. Mont Sleets, the inventor of the High Five, has finally received his due. We here at National High Five Day salute the man whom without, our holiday would not even exist.