It was nearly 40 years ago, at an awards banquet in Los Angeles, and Kerr, a seventh-grader, was in the room to pick up a season-ending prize. Emceeing the event was Roy Hamilton, a black basketball legend from Watts who went on to UCLA before playing two years in the NBA.
One by one, black players came up to the stage to receive their awards and finished the exchange by sharing a “dap” with Hamilton.
Most accounts trace the gesture to the late 1960s, when African American soldiers “dapped” — along with flashing the black power sign — with one another to show solidarity in the face of injustice during the Vietnam War. For Kerr, it was a gesture to fit in with the people of color in the room. So, when his turn came, Kerr gave his interpretation of a handshake.
“I went out and met Roy,” Kerr recalled. “And we gave the full black-guy shake. The bro [hug] into the hand lock.”
Walking back to his seat, Kerr’s father, Malcolm — a white Lebanese professor from Beirut — was confused.
“What’s up with the handshake?” Malcolm asked his boy.
“I don’t know. That’s just the black-guy basketball shake,” Kerr responded, offering little clarity to his perplexed pop.
“My dad didn’t spend a whole lot of time doing that handshake, apparently,” Kerr remembers today.
Kerr’s conundrum mirrors the dilemma of most of his counterparts. In a majority-black league, the white minority is forced to assimilate with different races. Along the way, players occasionally must reconcile the shortcomings of some coworkers, bringing humorous confusion between both parties.
“Culturally, they feel like they have to do that,” former Warriors big man Omari Spellman said. “When it’s like, ‘If y’all just being yourself and ain’t hurting nobody, we don’t care.’ ”
As Spellman speaks, a familiar example comes up to bring home his point. A Dave Chappelle fan, Spellman quickly mentions a bit from the comedian’s second special, “Killin Them Softly,” in which he explains a phone conversation with a white executive about business affairs.
Along the way, Chappelle — sensing the white executive is using vernacular that he assumes is hip — proceeds to end each call with made-up slang. By the end of the bit, Chappelle ends the call with a “zip it up and zip it out.” Flustered, the white executive responds with “zippity do dah,” and frantically ends the call.
In a league populated by blacks, Chappelle’s bit hits home.
“I think any person that has grown up in some tough environments, you can smell real and you can smell fake,” Spellman said. “Sometimes I’ll be having this conversation, and I’m like, yeah, but I’m like ‘you phony.”
Similar experiences are expected under the current climate. Of the 30 general managers in the NBA, four are people of color, including just two blacks. In a self-described “progressive league,” coaches of color make up just 23 percent of the total number. In a sport where blacks are more than 70 percent of the player population, most find themselves code-switching when dealing with power brokers.
“I mean, it’s the world we live in,” Warriors big man Marquese Chriss said. “Sometimes you have to assimilate and you have to be able to adjust who you are. I’m not saying change who you are but adjust to your audience, I think. And especially as professional athletes, I think we have to do that each and every day.
“But it’s not saying that we don’t get to be ourselves and things like that, but when you’re around certain companies, you absolutely should act a certain way, and I think that that relates to handshakes.”
The players’ riddle comes as the gesture has become a symbol of team unity. Before each game, an assembly line of players and coaches can be seen performing a variety of ritual-style daps. LeBron James, the face of the league, is notorious for implementing unique daps with each teammate. Last season, before a matchup against the Heat, he so intricately dapped up a Miami assistant — someone he hadn’t worked with for four years — that the video went viral.
But as players of color attempt to assimilate in a league run by whites, their counterparts are trying to relate to the next generation, giving each player a unique story along the way.
“I’ve had somebody tried to shake my hand and I go in for a dap, and then I turned to shake their hand and then they go to dap, and then it’s awkward,” Spellman said. “And now we’re just like reaching, trying to shake each other’s hand, and it’s like all right, then you just kind of keep walking.”
Added Chriss: “A lot of front offices nowadays, they dap you up like they’re on the team. So I wouldn’t even think of that’s them trying to fit in or trying to … I don’t want to say the word cultural appropriation, but it’s kind of like that, I guess. But it’s more like that’s just their personality. They’re relatable, and they’re just being as relatable to us as possible. I think it makes it more comfortable. It makes a more comfortable environment.”
While white, Kerr provides a unique case. As an adolescent in the 1970s, his predominately white learning centers in the Palisades were subject to desegregation school busing of black kids from South Central LA, giving Kerr a noteworthy perspective.
“I think we might have had three white guys on the basketball team, [which was] predominantly black,” Kerr said. “I was used to just being around kids who came from different places. It’s a little easier to just understand cultural differences, and you just go with the flow.”
Despite Kerr’s travels, the coach, along with his colleagues, still faces familiar conundrums when a handshake looms.
“You get into these situations where you actually have to think about how you’re shaking each person’s hand,” Kerr admitted. “Fellow white guy, do you give him the traditional white-guy shake? Do you give him a bro handshake, with a half hug? Do you go the full black-guy shake, do you finish it out with a full handclasp, or do you just go into a white-guy shake from there?
“So, but, starting out with a bro, and the hug, that breaks the ice a little bit, and then you just see what happens.”
Still, players of color desire a bigger sign of unity than a handshake.
“Me being black, I have a multitude of handshakes. Especially with all my friends. I don’t mind keeping it cordial,” Spellman said. “But when you try too hard to relate to me over some stuff that I don’t even care if you relate to me on, I’d rather you relate to black plight and struggle than how we do our handshakes.”
Nonetheless, for Kerr and the players and officials of color involved, the gesture has one common goal: Getting through the interaction in one piece.
“It’s actually amusing, to be honest with you,” Kerr said. “It’s just a classic cross-cultural action that, everybody’s a little bit confused, but it’s a source of laughter in a lot of cases.”