The Winning Touch
In a recent study with the daunting title, Tactile Communication, Cooperation and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA, to be published in the journal Emotion later this year, a team of researchers at Cal examined the effect of "touch" in the NBA. During the first two months of the 2008--09 season they observed 294 players, a sampling from all 30 teams, and tabulated how often and for how long each player touched teammates—touch being defined as any of 12 interactions, including high fives (by far the most common), head slaps and leaping shoulder bumps. The result? An impressive, if not surprising, correlation between smacking one's teammate on the head and winning lots of games.
The touchy-feeliest teams were the Celtics and the Lakers, both 60-game winners that season, who combined for nearly 100 seconds of touch in games against two separate opponents. The two least inclined to butt-slappery were the lottery-bound Bobcats and Kings (a paltry 16.5 seconds of touch and 52 wins between them). Furthermore, the most avid touchers were some of the league's best players, led by Kevin Garnett of the Celtics (far and away the highest at 15.7 seconds a game, or twice as much as the entire Kings team) and including Chris Bosh of the Raptors, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, and Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks. "We found that position didn't have an effect," says Michael Kraus, the lead author (who, proving one should psychoanalyze what one knows, came up with the idea while playing pickup basketball). "It's the leaders of the team."
If you are skeptical of his findings, just observe an NBA game. Any game. Two weeks ago I watched the lowly Warriors host the Northwest Division--leading Nuggets. Everywhere I looked within the vicinity of the Nuggets, there was fivery. Players hugged players. Trainers dapped players. Coaches fist-bumped trainers. Even The Denver Post beat writer Benjamin Hochman and Nuggets p.r. guy Tim Gelt had their own handshake: the DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince slap-and-hiss reverb. Point guard Billups in particular appeared to be leading group counseling sessions—hugging and head-cradling and fist-bumping before free throws and after free throws and even while running down the court. In all, by my unofficial count, Billups finished with 44 fives, slaps and bumps for the game. In fact, it seemed as if the Denver players were incapable of any communication without accompanying fives or daps. My favorite: After the game reserve forward Chris (Birdman) Andersen conducted a radio interview at midcourt, head down and headphones on, and when a Nuggets fan walked by Andersen raised his arm and, without looking up or interrupting his sentence, fived him with authority.
And woeful Golden State? With the exception of point guard Stephen Curry and jovial power forward Ronny Turiaf, the Warriors were relatively aloof from one another. When they celebrated, it seemed perfunctory, whereas if the Nuggets didn't celebrate, it stood out. For example, when Denver forward Nenê went to the free throw line in the second quarter, as usual he received quick fist bumps from the two teammates lining up along the key, and then he extended his hands back, without turning around, to give no-look fives to guard J.R. Smith and forward Carmelo Anthony. Except in this case only Smith participated. So Nenê held back one hand and waited ... and waited ... and eventually peered over his shoulder to find Anthony at midcourt, hands on hips. Quickly, Nenê recalled his palm. "You make or you miss the free throw, you give the love either way," the native of Brazil explained. But if the slap doesn't come? "I wait two seconds," he said. "I cannot wait longer."
Theft of Five
The free-throw-line ritual that Nenê engaged in is one of the most common in basketball. Player A shoots foul shots and players B, C, D and sometimes E zip in for a quick dap. It was between two such teammates that Lakers reserve forward Adam Morrison found himself on a Sunday night in January, during the fourth quarter of a game against the Mavericks. Dallas forward Tim Thomas was at the line, and after he made his first free throw he took a step forward to collect his daps. Only this time, so did Morrison. Quickly and efficiently, like a burglar of the five, he stepped in front of Mavericks forward Kris Humphries's slap and snuck his hand in. Did it rattle Thomas? Undeterred, he made the second free throw.
The Dap Deconstructed
If you think the high five is only about innocent celebration, you're wrong. Mark T. Morman, a Baylor associate professor of communication studies, has spent years analyzing male-to-male communication, and he has a message for all you fivers out there: You're in love, or at least in like. "We call it covert affection, as opposed to overt," explains Morman. "Punching somebody in the arm or punching somebody in the chest, that doesn't look very affectionate, mainly because we tend to frame affection in very feminine ways—hugging, kissing, soft touching. So when a guy punches another guy or pushes or shoves him or wrestles him to the ground, it's covert affection, but it's real."
Of course, Morman points out, this can lead to discrepancies when both genders are involved. For instance, Jeff Lurie and his wife. "I remember that—it was hysterical!" says Morman. "That's an example of the masculine and the feminine crashing into each other. Sometimes there are affection disasters."