Science Explains Why the NBA Really Does Need 'Handshake Coaches'


The inaugural NBA Awards kicked off on Monday with a sketch called ‘Handshake Coaches’, in which Drake and Will Ferrell instruct players on the importance of a good handshake.

“After a clutch shot, the crowd wants to see you shaking hands, right?” asks Drake, playing the role of NBA Handshake Specialist Coach Palmer. “They want to know you’re really friends. Best friends.”

The video’s satirical tone, bolstered by its illustrations of handshakes like the “Jenga,” the “Black Dad,” and the “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” might make you think that Coach Palmer is joking. But he and Ferrell’s Coach Murphy, an NBA Dexterity Technician, make a pretty insightful observation here. It is important for fans to see cohesion on a team, and an absurdly complex handshake is a particularly efficient way to signal that.

When fans see an especially elaborate handshake between two players — say, J.R. Smith and Kevin Love — what they’re really seeing is an inside joke on display. Inside jokes are a signal that the two (or more) people involved in the joke have built their own private community by, an NBA fan would hope, spending time practicing as a team. When watching basketball, the pleasure of seeing a perfectly executed handshake is a lot like watching one player’s carefully placed pick and roll suddenly open up a shooting lane for his teammate — it’s a sign that they’re in sync.

It doesn’t even matter that inside jokes, by definition, leave people out; when you’re an NBA fan looking in on the camaraderie between Lebron James and Iman Shumpert, being left out means appreciating the sanctity of the private relationship between them — and is totally worth it.

In a sense, a showy handshake is a public display of affection, minus all the sex. While studies on PDAs (as with studies on handshakes) have shown that being sexually showy mostly benefits the individuals involved in the exchange — the idea is that one mate, seeing the other repeatedly profess their affection, will be more interested in raising the kids — they also suggest that they have an effect on the individuals observing it. PDAs and handshakes are a signal from one group to another: We’ve got something good going on here, and you’re not a part of it.

Ultimately, what NBA handshakes — like high-fives, fist bumps, and butt taps — signal are a willingness to touch and celebrate together. And that, as a 2015 video on NBA hand gestures from the University of California-Berkeley’s Social Interaction Laboratory pointed out, is a sign of good will and team cohesion. Teams that did a lot of touching, the researchers behind the video pointed out, did better over the course of an entire season and were an effective way to “build up cooperative communities.” And what fan doesn’t want that?

After all, consider what it means when members of a team don’t shake hands. Remember when, in February of 2015, Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook shook each of his teammates’ hands except for Kevin Durant’s? While Durant has downplayed their supposed feud, Thunder fans couldn’t help but wonder how much it contributed to his decision to join the Golden State Warriors.

At the time, Complex, commenting on Westbrook’s shady move, summed up the importance of handshakes succinctly: “If this team is going to make a serious run in the playoffs, they’re going to have to get better at doing the little things. Like shaking one another’s hand!”

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