NBA players are among the most graceful athletes in the world, and they showcase their skills almost nightly. Their movements are precise, their timing impeccable.
But for all of the dazzling dunks and clever passes, some of their most impressive choreography often goes unnoticed: the brief ballet that plays out between free throws, when teammates come together to exchange an assortment of high-fives, pats on the backside and hand gestures.
“I don’t even know why we do it,” Mike Miller of the Cleveland Cavaliers said, “but we have to do it.”
Of the things players seem to enjoy most, high-fives between free throws rank somewhere in the vicinity of private air travel and large headphones. And while nobody seems to know how, when or why the practice began, most players said they would feel lost without it – an expression of bonhomie and a psychological boost for the teammate at the line.
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“If you miss, you want your teammates to say, ‘Hey, I’m here for you,’” said Jon Leuer, a reserve forward with the Memphis Grizzlies. “It’s just one of those things.”
Whenever Leuer heads to the line for two shots, he leans in after his first attempt to slap hands with teammates along the lane. Once Leuer backpedals to his spot on the line, he reaches out for any remaining teammates who are stationed in the backcourt and want to either congratulate Leuer on his first attempt or wish him better luck on his second.
Lest anyone think this is a meaningless exercise, it is fraught with danger.
“If somebody’s walking away or doesn’t do it, it kind of messes you up,” Leuer said. “You’re like, ‘What’s his deal? I’m waiting for you.’”
At the same time, Leuer is aware of teammates’ idiosyncrasies. For example, if Jeff Green is in the backcourt, Leuer avoids reaching out for a high-five that will never come.
“I just do a little wave,” Green said.
For most players, though, those few precious seconds between free throws have become festivals for the high-five. James Jones, a guard with the Cavaliers, suspects the practice is rooted in youth basketball. When Jones was growing up, his coaches preached the importance of tactile encouragement.
“We’d even high-five the opposing team,” Jones said. “For us now, I know it slows the game down. But it’s a big part of the fabric of team sports.”
The formula for high-fives is not always simple. Having teammates who are horrible at free throws introduces its own set of challenges: Do you high-five the poor sap after yet another miss? Or do you just pretend it never happened?
“If you know the person, you know whether he likes to be coddled or likes to be left alone,” said Jon Barry, an analyst for ABC and ESPN, who noted he had played with his share of bricklayers during a 14-year career. “Maybe you don’t want to bring any more attention to their struggles than necessary.”
Teammates did not have to worry about that fragile calculus with Barry, who made 84.8 percent of his free throws. At the line, Barry was a man of hard routine. He went to his spot and refused to budge between attempts.
If an official threw him the ball and moved him off his desired location, Barry tossed the ball back.
His teammates also knew not to go out of their way to give him high-fives after his many makes or his rare misses.
“Because they assumed I was going to make it,” Barry said. “It’s just, like, whatever. I’m not looking for anybody to dap me up.”
Why celebrate a miss?
Isiah Thomas, a two-time champion with the Detroit Pistons, said high-fives at the free-throw line were highly uncommon during his career.
“People weren’t thinking about it,” he said. “You really were just playing the game, and the foul line was a place for concentration and trying to make the shot.”
Thomas said he could at least appreciate why players today would offer high-fives after successful free throws. As for reaching in and providing consolation after a miss?
“I don’t understand that,” said Thomas, an analyst for Turner Sports. “They reward you now and clap for you when you miss. You get congratulated when you miss a free throw! Everybody comes in, and they slap your hand and say, ‘Hey,’ or whatever they say. What are you high-fiving him for?”
In other words, the practice has its critics. Ed Palubinskas, 64, a former Olympic basketball player from Australia who has tutored players in free-throw shooting, said players who accepted high-fives after errant foul shots were quietly advertising their willingness to be mediocre.
“You got the two guys behind him giving him a low-five,” Palubinskas said, “and the two guys in front of him saying: ‘Hey, it’s OK. Don’t be sad. You’ll get the next one.’ I would say: ‘Don’t give me a high-five. I don’t deserve one.’”
Palubinskas, who described his occupation as “shooting engineer,” said he had worked with players like Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard and Brandon Bass.
When Palubinskas was reached by telephone last week, he said he was feeling a bit glum because in the middle of sinking 200 straight free throws that afternoon, he had hit the rim on one attempt. He said he shoots 99 percent from the line.
When Palubinskas coaches younger players, he tells them they ought to feel insulted if teammates line up along the lane for their free throws – a tacit acknowledgment that a miss could be coming. And whenever Palubinskas heads to the line? Forget about it.
“You’re wasting your time and energy standing there, watching me, thinking I’m going to miss,” he said. “So what if I miss once every five years?”
Given today’s liberal standards for even marginal free-throw shooting in the NBA, Palubinskas said he would be treated like a god.
“I’d have people kissing me and carrying me off the floor,” he said. “You know what I mean?”
For most others, high-fives will suffice.