The darkness fades and gives way to the fluorescent lights overhead. A man — nearly seven feet tall — jogs toward a group of similarly sized men. He approaches one with both hands raised. Their fists meet with a brief collision before the two men step back and engage in a high-five that includes two slaps of the palm, a backhand, another slap of the palm and an elbow. The entire process ends with a pirouette, a meeting of their right elbows and a leap into the air where their hips touch. The men grin and carry on as if what just transpired was involuntary, pure instinct.
Before every contest in the NBA is a ritual moment, one rarely televised, but nearly as vital to the event as the national anthem or opening tip. Individually, players may have their own superstitions, ranging from special pre-game meals to which pair of socks they don on a given night. Once these men join together on the floor, however, all individuality evaporates into a thick mist of camaraderie and chemistry, asserted in a theatrical and choreographed ceremony.
When the lights go out, the moment begins, first expressed through high-priced video production, bright lights, the bone-rattling bass of a choice hip-hop track, and a city specific shout-out. Adrenaline levels rise and it is this exact moment — regardless of the setting, rooting interest or win-loss record — where fans come together as one in anticipation of what is about to unfold before their eyes, be it a decisive victory over a division rival, the upset of a more talented foe, or a crushing loss.
But first, this: Once the lights come back on and the high-decibel introductions are over, there are 90 seconds when each team floats together with seamless grace, nearly oblivious to anything else. Each player is subconsciously aware of where the others are, and each waits his turn to join in on a kind of hardwood dance, precise as a ballet, with flourishes of fist-bumps and high-fives, forearm bashing and courtesy bows, a well-orchestrated rite most players could perform blindfolded. To most fans, these elaborate gestures between teammates are just another evolutionary part of the game’s modern-day culture — one that includes increasingly exuberant sartorial choices, competitive friendships and countless pairs of Beats by Dre headphones. To others, these moves are merely signs of encouragement and support. But to most players, these moves are nothing shy of requisite, bordering on involuntary, ripe with meaning.
They are the players’ pre-game inspiration, their way of showing solidarity, of the one becoming part of the many, aka the "dap."
The origin of the term dap is rooted in mystery, but is universally understood among NBA brethren to be a greeting that, regardless of setting, doubles as a sign of respect. Word-of-mouth history suggests that the term, an acronym for "dignity and pride," was first introduced by African-American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Conversely, overwrought critics have recently offered that the dap is a sign of the deconstruction of formal Western culture, erasing the more formal — and far more obligatory and meaningless — handshake. A dap can be as simple as the mutual knocking of a fist or as complicated as a series of hand-to-hand gestures coupled with moves rooted in pop culture significance. Whatever the mechanics, and however animated the moves, the dap is rarely spontaneous. It is predetermined, orchestrated and usually executed flawlessly by the men who, for the next 48 minutes, hope to reach the same level of perfection on the basketball court.
The pre-game dap is rarely identical, skin-slapping snowflakes, colorful, animated and utterly unique physical graffiti, marking out their territory in the game. The dap has taken the brusque formality of the handshake and the "break a leg" good luck wish, turned both inside out and added one more key element: swagger.
"Swagger" is as prominent in today’s NBA game as the pick-and-roll or help-side defense. While perceived by some to represent a form of arrogance or aggression, many players in the league use it as a gauge of confidence. With confidence comes peacocking, and with peacocking comes presentation. And in those 90 seconds — the window allotted by the NBA thanks to a recent rule designed to limit time spent gallivanting about the baseline before the game — the presentation unfolds in a variety of ways.
Daniel Gibson, a guard on the Cleveland Cavaliers, is one of the many players in the league who serves as his respective team’s choreographer. While his rituals begin while the lights are cut — he plays air drums while the Cavaliers’ starting five is introduced and then runs around the pre-game huddle like a small child who cannot see over his or her larger peers. Once the music changes and the warm-ups come off, he morphs into the antagonist of a hardwood "Harlem Shake."
Gibson begins his particular routine by standing proudly on the baseline near the Cavs' bench and is greeted by teammate and superstar-in-the-making Kyrie Irving. The two players first simultaneously rock back and forth and take a slight jump backwards before lunging at one another for a series of low-fives with alternating hands. Once these are complete, both players stand upright, point their right hands to the sky and shake their heads with childlike smiles gracing their faces. Before Gibson releases Irving to the next teammate, he turns to his left and is met by power forward Tristan Thompson. The two players exchange sets of fives (or tens, depending on the technicalities) before elevating their hands for a set of overhead fist-pounds followed by a chest-bump. Without taking more than a step, Gibson next finds himself with Cavaliers’ small forward Alonzo Gee. The two engage in their own form of handshakes before spinning away from one another with a series of small leaps. After giving a five and a chest-bump to new teammates Marreese Speights and Chris Quinn, Gibson sidesteps into veteran small forward Omri Casspi and the two players enact a quick Kung-Fu-esque pattern of would-be strikes and blocks. They finish with a ritualistic bow of respect and an open-palmed thumb to the forehead — American Sign Language for "father." Gibson then turns to longtime teammate Anderson Varejao. The two greet each other with alternating double-fisted blows to the chest and a "bro" hug. Gibson then caps off the entire routine with a hip-bump to teammate Luke Walton. But not just one hip-bump — there is no minimalism in the world of pre-game dap, oh no. The two players engage in two quick hip-bumps before feigning as if each man is walking away — they then quickly turn and sprint toward each other for a third, and final, bump.
"It’s all about finding out what each player is about," says Gibson with his trademark smile. "It’s about that swag. It’s about that flavor."
According to Gibson, the dap traditionally takes a considerable time to create but remain fluid; they can evolve if they become stale. This evolution is often ruled by superstition; some players stick to a certain gesture if the result of the subsequent game is a victory or an exemplary individual performance, while a loss or bad shooting night can lead to a change. A seven-year veteran, Gibson has executed countless pre-game daps with players ranging from two-time MVP LeBron James all the way down to players whose time in the league has been limited to a 10-day contract. Every player, regardless of his status, takes part.
Frequently used gestures include anything rooted in the sport of boxing or the martial arts or other pursuits specific to an individual player. When current Houston Rockets guard Jeremy Lin broke onto the scene, he and former teammate Landry Fields drew up a dap that blended book reading — Lin attended Harvard — with a respectful bow — because Lin is of Chinese descent. Today in Houston, Lin and teammates James Harden and Chandler Parsons engage in a three-way dap involving karate-like strikes capped off with, naturally, a ritualistic bow. Gibson’s favorite dap this season, however, is the one he created with rookie shooting guard Dion Waiters. The two players merely do a double fist-bump and then wiggle their arms as an homage to the J.J. Evans character portrayed by comedian Jimmy Walker from the ’70s sitcom "Good Times."
A litmus test for swagger, these daps are created before or after practice, in the locker room or on the court, during pre-game shootaround or while spending a night on the town after a game on the road. Their own biographies and the world of pop culture provide an unending stream of inspiration. Good times, indeed.
Gibson’s pre-game routine is just one of the many within the league. They occasionally include not just players, but even security guards, ushers, coaches, trainers, play-by-play men, family members, assorted hangers-on and fans. As a sign of team chemistry — and to keep from interrupting a successful sequence — injured and inactive players often continue to participate. Many players claim their dap is rooted in high school, beginning behind the scenes in the privacy of cramped prep locker rooms, without all of the lights and fanfare, performed only for each other. As each climbed higher on the basketball-playing ladder, however, the handshakes and hip-bumps became that much more intricate and visible.
Gibson’s former coach, Byron Scott, considers himself something of a bit of an NBA historian. He sometimes finds today’s players baffling, not only for their friendship with opposing players whom they are supposed to loathe, but also for their lack of knowledge concerning basketball's past. At one point last season, he became incensed when a few of his players had never heard of longtime point guard and five-time NBA All-Star Sidney Moncrief. Scott, however, understands that today’s players do not share the same mindset as his teammates during the days of Jack Nicholson and the Showtime Lakers. Today’s players are often more concerned with building their own brand and trade more in tomorrow than yesterday. While it may be tough for him to embrace their behavior, the paternal Scott knows that some battles are just not worth fighting.
"I know when I was in Indiana in the early ‘90s, the lights didn’t go down, but Reggie Miller had a couple of little handshakes that we did, but that was about it," said Scott of the evolution of the pre-game. "When I got to Jersey as a coach [in 2000], the lights didn’t go down, but when I got to New Orleans, you started to see the Megatron or whatever and guys doing their little rituals.
"I think the chemistry thing is probably the thing I would think that would be the big reasons. I think some of it from a basketball standpoint has to do with entertainment. I think our players are more into entertaining than we were in our day; I think the league has obviously evolved around entertaining."
Entertainment, as Scott notes, is unquestionably an integral ingredient of today’s NBA experience. The league itself even pieces together the most interesting pre-game dap and handshakes and put them on their official YouTube channel. In the latest version of NBA 2K13, the officially licensed video game, players engage in a handful of pre-game rituals ranging from mere handshakes and hugs to something a little more involved such as Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade doing pull-ups from the rim or Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett head-butting the stanchion.
The pre-game ritual of Reggie Miller described by Scott is one of the trailblazing daps in the history of the league. In 1994, when the Pacers were in their playoff heyday, Miller created a complex routine that involved his teammates, including bashing elbows, multiple fist-pounds, a chest-thump, under-leg claps, a kick, a moonwalk, two spins and then concluded with the violent, Hulk Hogan-like removal of his warm-ups.
In 2009, a pair of Golden State Warriors unveiled what may have been one of the most discussed pre-game daps of all time. The ritual created by guard Monta Ellis and forward Corey Maggette lasted almost a full minute. While facing one another, the two players started by shuffling their feet 15 times before, in unison, doing the same thing twice more at half speed. Then, while still facing one another, both Ellis and Maggette would hop — again, in unison — back and forth along the baseline 16 times before faking three low-fives, ultimately engaging in a single low-five before standing upright and executing one of the more complicated, multi-step handshakes known to man. Ellis would then throw two fake jabs at Maggette who would, naturally, act as if he had been hit. Then the two men would hug and be on their way.
As these rituals began to expand in complexity as each player and team tried to top others, like two rappers doing battle, they took longer and longer to play out — Gibson’s Cavaliers were among the chief violators when James was a teammate. As a result, the league decided to put its freshly shined, wing-tipped foot down and exert its authority. Beginning in the fall of 2012, the NBA instituted the infamous 90-second rule, which means that once introductions are completed, officials add 90 seconds to the game clock, signaled by multiple blares of the buzzer. If a team does not complete their choreography before the minute-and-a-half mark, the referees assess a delay of game penalty. Two delay of game penalties, in turn, result in a technical foul. Given that it is not unusual for games to be won or lost by a single point, this new rule was effective from the start even as it drew the ire of top stars like Miami’s Wade and James, and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant.
"To be clear, the goal wasn’t to speed up the games but to start on time," said NBA representative Tim Frank. "The actual time of game wouldn’t change because that starts when the ball goes up. This focus is on the time leading up to the tip.
"We feel that [with this rule] we have had success in doing that. We have had only 11 delay of game warnings this season. So, clearly, when you consider we’ve played almost 1,200 games to this point, it’s pretty clear the focus has had its desired impact."
Gibson’s fellow choreographers include other guards like Miami’s Mario Chalmers and Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday. Both of these younger, more energetic players can be found amidst their pre-game scrums, pinballing their way through the chaos while flawlessly executing their dap.
Chalmers has kept his rituals since his high school days at Bartlett High School in Anchorage, Ala., when the point guard created elaborate handshakes with two of his closest friends. He then took both his game and his dap to Kansas for the Jayhawks, where he hit game-winning shots in the NCAA tournament. After joining Miami in 2008, Chalmers developed daps with fellow guards Wade and James Jones. Today, he spirals through the entire Heat roster before a game, even including the team’s security guards and courtside broadcasting crew within his routine.
In 2011, Chalmers became an Internet celebrity when a pre-game handshake with LeBron James went viral. In it, the two players casually walked up to one another and began flailing their arms until they executed two low-fives before flailing some more and thrusting their hips toward one another. Meanwhile, veteran center Zydrunas Ilgauskas walked between them as if they were invisible to everyone but themselves.
"Chemistry feeds a lot into it," said Chalmers. "We all have different handshakes and things that we do, it’s all about personalities.
"It’s a little bit of trial and error. The one with LeBron, we came up with; the one with D-Wade, I came up with. It’s just thinking of something, seeing if the other person agrees with it and going from there."
Holiday echoes Chalmers’ sentiments in regard to dap being all about chemistry and camaraderie. He calls his individual handshakes "special," a kind of sacred bond between teammates. Close friends with Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner, Holiday has individual handshakes and gestures with both.
In Indiana, the choreographer is not a shifty point guard but 6’9 center Jeff Pendergraph. Although Pendergraph is just in his third year in the NBA, he is chairman of the Pacers’ department of motivation, creating elaborate routines with some of the team’s biggest stars including point guard George Hill and All-Star small forward Paul George.
"I’m the guy who got it started — I’m the one initiating it," said Pendergraph of the pre-game daps. "I lead the pre-game huddle. All of the stuff we do to get everybody going, I don’t know if it’s choreography, but we definitely just try to get everybody going. It stems from that pre-game huddle — every guy, we all have a little thing that we all do together that we do before the game.
"It doesn't change game to game, but it does evolve every year. The only thing that’s different is the pre-game huddle — it’s not scripted, it’s whatever comes to mind. The stuff that I do individually with the guys, it’s stuff that we might have done on accident one game, or something that we did during practice or while hanging out with each other one day that we like and just stuck with it, and it’s what we do with each other during the game."
Pendergraph, like many of the other choreographers, is part of the NBA’s younger generation who has not only grown up with dap, but seen the pre-game show evolve over time. He, too, found himself in a cubicle-sized locker room in high school, trying to "get everybody going," and he views the rituals as public displays of team chemistry. When the Cavaliers give high-fives with the backs of their hands, it has specific meaning. According to veteran guard Shaun Livingston, it refers to "leaving no fingerprints on the crime scene." When the Heat thrust hips and the Los Angeles Clippers put on pre-game dunk contests, per Pendergraph, it demonstrates team unity and togetherness.
"A lot of best friends have funny handshakes," said Pendergraph. "Something that they always talk about when they see each other. That’s kind of like our thing, it helps build that togetherness."
The generational gap intimated by Scott, however, is not specific to the dynamic between players and coaches. Despite the current trends, there are some teams in the league that prefer to focus more on the task at hand — the game — than anything fabricated in the name of entertainment. While he may represent a dying breed, Brooklyn Nets swingman Jerry Stackhouse prefers to prove his worth on the court after the tip-off rather than on the sideline before it.
Before a recent late-season contest, as the latest from hip-hop artists Drake and 2 Chainz echoed throughout the Nets' locker room, several of the younger members of the team sat outside of their lockers at the far end of the facility. At the near end, closer to the training room door, a seasoned Stackhouse sat idle outside of his locker, filling out forms to allow friends and family to gain access to the bowels of the arena. While the Russell Westbrooks of the league opt for flamboyantly bright patterned shirts and hipster glasses, Stackhouse wears beige head-to-toe — a cable-knit sweater and a pair of slacks. If the younger generation represents the peacock, Stackhouse represents the bland walls of a corporation — statuesque and strictly business.
The Nets, despite moving to New York and being partially owned by hip-hop mogul Jay-Z (née Shawn Carter), are one of the less active teams when it comes to exotic rituals and pre-game dap. During opening night this past fall at the beautifully pristine Barclays Center, instead of fighting off a gauntlet of teammates, each awaiting a specific handshake, the team came out of the tunnel unadorned, one-by-one.
"I think our lack of an elaborate show is typical of who we represent," said Stackhouse. "Being in Brooklyn, more of a hardcore-type borough, we keep it in between the lines. You look at the teams that get excited like that — the Los Angeleses, the Miamis, more of the high-profile-type cities — I think we keep it simple. We have a routine that we do, we support each other and dap each other before we go out on the floor, but we have a rhythm. It’s a bond, but we’re not over the top with it. I think we just try to be consistent."
Stackhouse’s mentality is indicative of his roots. His coach at North Carolina, Dean Smith, taught him to act as if he had done it before. While he may have let his emotions get the best of him after a particularly monstrous dunk over the Duke Blue Devils in Cameron Arena, those days are in the rearview mirror. Since that dunk, Stackhouse has played in Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, Dallas, Miami, Atlanta and now Brooklyn. Today, the 38-year-old punches his timecard and proceeds accordingly, ignoring the chaos and heeding the lessons of Smith. If he happens to dunk on two opponents, so be it. While he’s aware of the ever-growing juggernaut called "swagger," it is an ingredient that he would much rather cook without.
"I think the word ‘swag’ has taken on a life of its own," said Stackhouse. "Some people feel like it’s a way they can market themselves or bring attention to themselves — maybe more attention than they deserve. So whether it’s right or wrong, in my mind it’s wrong, but in society’s mind it might be OK and be accepted. I have a lot of old-school values, I don’t knock it. But I understand it’s the evolution of the game."
It is difficult to envision a day in the modern NBA where "swag" is no longer a chief item in most players' skill set. Before his rookie debut in 2010, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall broke out a lengthy version of "The Dougie," a nearly unavoidable dance craze at the time. While many fans enjoyed it, the show drew the ire of some who chastised the player for acting in a way that was not earned — he had, after all, not yet played a minute in the NBA. And when the Cavaliers were in the midst of their perennial playoff runs, LeBron James and Gibson often took part in an elaborate, fake family photograph session before each tip-off that took several minutes to unfold. The move was deemed "clownish and classless" by at least one impatient member of the national media.
Byron Scott is not the only recent or current NBA coach who generally pays no attention to the pre-game dap. Brooklyn's interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo completely ignores what goes on in front of his bench before games, regardless of how business-like it may be. When pressed for his thoughts on the matter, Wizards coach Randy Wittman, protégé of Bobby Knight, treated the topic of pre-game dap as if his team was just assessed one of the 11 delay of game warnings. "You’ve got to be kidding me," he said when probed on the topic.
Siding with the league and the new mandate, Scott feels that the new rule is fair for both sides. "I think what the new rule has done is it’s speeding up the process in terms of ‘Let’s get it done and get the game going,’" he said. "Before, there would be one guy at the scorer’s table, and he’s doing something. One guy’s over here with his partner and they’re doing something. Meanwhile, officials are out there with the ball waiting. That minute-and-a-half, guys still get it done. It’s just quicker now — more efficient and quicker."
For today’s players, "getting it done" is the point. They have seemingly taken the quintessential pat of the rear end and cranked up the dial exponentially. In a game where everything is commercialized and marketed, the pre-game dap, often taking place before the camera is turned on, is something owned by the players, and for the players, and still relatively free of marketing and commercialization. Priceless possessions, pre-game daps are something that some fans (and coaches) may never understand simply because of their apparently out-of-proportion significance to the players who use them. When he played for Cleveland back in 2008, eccentric point guard Damon Jones pointedly told The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg not to ask questions about the pre-game gestures. "I can't tell you anything about the handshakes, I'd have to kill you," he said. "I do a handshake with each individual guy, and that's sacred." He was not kidding — not entirely, anyway.
In the end, while the league has tried to reign in these ever so cherished daps, and confined the practice to 90 seconds, the league has not been able to stop the practice and is almost powerless to do so. Even as dap is restricted by time, it becomes ever more creative and elaborate.
Just as Jones referred to the pre-game dap as "sacred" several years ago, Holiday uses the exact same adjective today. While today’s players covet championships and individual accolades, they also take great pride in each other. Every arena in the league might use pyrotechnics or strobe lights in their pre-game introductions, but only in their pre-game rituals, in the dap, can players express their individuality and demonstrate to one another what it means to be a teammate in today’s NBA. While dap may not jive with the "old school," and causes the league — paranoid about anything it cannot control — some consternation, the practice is unlikely to go away. And in a game and a sport in which everything has a price tag, today’s players make certain their pre-game display of dignity and pride — secretive, sacred, subversive, and served with a side of swagger — is theirs and theirs alone.