Before the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe and forced the NBA's monthslong pause, the Los Angeles Lakers stacked a Western Conference-leading 49 wins. Many a postgame celebration unfolded at Staples Center. Cameras surrounded Lakers superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis for their nightly on-court interviews, breaking down what exactly went right during yet another Los Angeles victory.
After fulfilling their media obligations, cameras still rolling, James and Davis often found each other amid the sea of personnel flooding the arena floor, where they'd proceed with a well-choreographed, in-sync handshake.
James and Davis would low-five twice in a row, raise their hands for two consecutive high-fives and then engage in a third sequence, in which they tapped paws, swiped the backs of their fingers against the other's and then tapped the inside of their hands a final time.
James has orchestrated handshakes with NBA teammates dating back to his first stint in Cleveland, when the young Cavaliers would notably pose for a mock team photo after pregame player introductions. In Los Angeles, James doesn't just uncork a handshake routine with Davis. He slaps hands twice with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope before they lift their arms over their heads like they're firing bows and arrows. James' routine with Lakers center JaVale McGee ends with double-tapping hands before thundering the inside of their elbows together. James and Los Angeles wing Danny Green slap hands before pointing to an elbow.
James remembers patterns with each and every teammate, and he still unleashes a lengthy greeting with a Heat ball boy whenever he returns to Miami for games. Yet while the Lakers mount their title chase during the NBA's restart, in establishing a "bubble" at Disney's expansive campus-like properties just outside Orlando, Florida, the league office is encouraging all team personnel to refrain from unnecessary physical contact, specifically listing high-fives, handshakes, fist bumps and hugs among many celebratory faux pas. "People don't shake hands anymore," Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "We bump elbows."
Across the league, players and coaches have substituted slapping hands for touching elbows as teams have restarted practice. The Brooklyn Nets, who have seen several players test positive for COVID-19, are also congratulating teammates with air-fives. The Utah Jazz end practice by shoving their feet into the middle of their huddle.
Overall, players and coaches are required to maintain at least six feet of distance from one another during virtually all activity outside on-court work and outdoor meals. Masks are required at all times when inside a team facility (except for games and practices) or otherwise outside individuals' rooms.
The league office has also firmly suggested players limit other on-court behaviors that, by nature, could factor into spreading the virus. "Some guys chewing their mouth guards, some guys wiping sweat off their face," Malone said, "certain things that the NBA wants our players to get away from doing, just to create as safe an environment as possible." Especially in Florida, where cases have reached 315,767 cases as of Friday morning.
And while even the most casual observer can recognize the benefits of limiting the transfer of saliva and sweat between players, we can actually quantify what teams may lose from an inability to touch one another as a form of communication.
In 2009, researchers at DePauw University and the University of California observed two strangers could decode eight emotions—anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, love, gratitude and sympathy—at above-chance levels simply by touch. The volunteers were instructed to convey each of 12 different emotions based only on contact.
Cal researchers also conducted a study of all 30 NBA clubs, attempting to determine if the tactile communication of 294 players—during one game for each franchise in the first two months of the 2008-09 regular season—would predict team success later in that campaign. Two teams of coders logged the duration of each touch in seconds, the players involved, the touch initiator and the type of touch, highlighting 12 types of celebratory contact, ranging from high-fives and chest bumps to full hugs.
The study determined that winning teams touched one another far more often and for far longer than losing teams, and happened to utilize playing styles that encourage more cooperation, shown in higher totals of passing, setting screens for teammates, helping on defense and talking on the court.
"There's a lot of people in leadership positions, coaches, etc., who have said 'I make it a point to go and touch all of my players every day, put my hand on their shoulder and tell them they're doing a good job,'" New Orleans Pelicans assistant Chris Finch added.
When Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry piloted Phoenix during the 2009-10 season, in which the Suns finished 54-28, Phoenix had an intern determine that two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash touched his teammates 239 times per game. "When you're celebrating, or consoling sometimes, human touch is important," said Dan D'Antoni, a former Suns assistant coach. "Without it, I do think you lose some of the bonding that goes with it, the sincerity that goes with it, the exhilaration in victory and the compassion in the losses."
D'Antoni, of course, assisted his brother Mike D'Antoni, now the head coach of the Houston Rockets, in Phoenix from 2005 to 2008. And while Houston harbors its own championship aspirations during the NBA's bubble experiment, the 69-year-old head coach—while confident amid his own health considerations—acknowledges MVP guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook will have to involve their supporting cast without making much physical contact. "The time that we're in today, I guess it'll test it a little bit," D'Antoni said.
The CDC maintains that while the coronavirus is most commonly transmitted through talking, coughing or sneezing, it can also be transferred by close personal contact, such as shaking hands and then touching one's mouth, nose or eyes before washing one's hands.
"We'll find other ways," Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said. "Whether it's jumping in the air, body-bumping or something. We'll always find ways to support our teammates."