As promised, The Daily Princetonian presents the second installment in its countdown of the 15 greatest celebratory gestures in NBA history, taking you from No. 10 to No. 6.
10. Stromile Swift’s wings
The most intimidating instance of shadow-puppetry in the annals of human existence, there was a time when Swift followed every demoralizing block and rim-rattling put-back dunk by lifting his hands above his head — thumbs interlocked — and flapping them like a pair of wings.
Swift’s gesture isn’t seen as much these days, but it had a good run. The first recorded instance of the wings came during the finals of the 1998 McDonald’s High School Slam Dunk Contest, when Swift took a running start from the opposite end of the court, went airborne at the free-throw line and pounded one home. While eventual champion Ronald Curry prepared for his final dunk, TV cameras panned to Stro’ running gleefully around the court, wings flapping like a hummingbird.
In the nine years since — from his college days at LSU to his current gig with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies — Swift has established himself as one of the game’s most death-defying leapers. While never fulfilling the potential that made him the second overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft, Swift has churned out enough poster-worthy plays over the course of his career that the wings have lodged themselves in the consciousness of hoop fans.
9. Dikembe Mutombo’s finger wag
In today’s NBA, taunting rules explicitly prohibit any celebrations that are directed toward one’s opponent. For certain classic celebrations, the policy came down as a death sentence. Atop the endangered-gestures list was the finger wag of four-time Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo — perhaps the foremost advocate of manual expression this side of Ebert and Roeper.
Over the course of his 16-year career, Dikembe has followed the vast majority of his 3,229 blocks — second most in league history — by staring furiously at his retreating victim, raising his right arm skyward and shaking his grotesquely long index finger back and forth in wild-eyed admonition. All the while, Deke shakes his head with the vigor of someone deeply offended, as if the opposing player’s act of challenging him constituted a personal betrayal.
Mutombo must have had a similar response when the wag was banned by NBA Commissioner David Stern in 1999. Deprived of his trademark gesture, Mutombo’s career went into a tailspin, and he no longer possessed the defensive clout to demoralize foes or challenge Stern’s decision. That all ended in a 2004 game against the New Jersey Nets, when Mutombo erupted for 10 blocks against his former team and courageously began lifting his digit once again — but with a twist. Informed by a referee that the finger would only result in a technical foul if it was directed at another player, the gesture was given new life through a loophole. Fans who grew up on Mutombo the Demoralizer quickly learned to love the simple pleasure of watching a seven-foot, two-inch man wag his finger at no one in particular.
8. Tim Thomas’ "You can’t see me"
When sports and pop culture collide, hilarity is sure to ensue. When NBA trendsetter Tim Thomas, G-Unit stalwart Tony Yayo and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar John Cena join forces, you get the eighth-best celebratory gesture in basketball history.
Readers of last week’s column will recognize the hoops-rap-wrestling dynamic as the same one that produced LeBron James’ "Diamond Cutter" sign, which drew inspiration from both Jay-Z and Diamond Dallas Page and came in at No. 13 on our list.
Thomas beats out James because of the utter absurdity of the "You can’t see me" phenomenon. In 2002, as a rising WWE star, Cena starting winning over fans by waving his hand horizontally in front of his face after vanquishing adversaries in the ring. The gesture drew on the popular slang usage of "see" as an equivalent to the verbs "challenge" or "match." By telling someone they "can’t see you," you’re basically telling them they’ll never be on your level. Cena brought this phrase back to its literal meaning by using his hand to obscure his face from view.
Soon thereafter, rapper Tony Yayo burst onto the music scene along with childhood friend 50 Cent and introduced hip-hop culture to the "Tony Yayo dance," which essentially repeats Cena’s trademark move in a more vigorous fashion.
Thomas, of course, rolls with G-Unit, having performed in skits on the group’s album "The Clean Up Man," released in February. Two off-seasons ago, Thomas promised he would start doing Yayo’s "dance" on the court, and when Thomas had his breakout performance for the Phoenix Suns in last year’s playoffs, fans couldn’t help but see the "You can’t see me."
7. Reggie Miller’s choke
Close to the playground courts of New York City, Madison Square Garden was the perfect breeding ground for some of the best celebratory gestures of the 1990s. As the New York Knicks’ rivalry with the Indiana Pacers intensified during the middle of the decade, players began to feel the need to express their disdain for one another corporeally.
Pacer legend Reggie Miller got the gesticulatory ball rolling on June 1, 1994, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. After scoring 25 points in the fourth quarter and 39 points on the game to lead Indiana to a 93-86 win over New York in the Garden, Miller searched the courtside stands for film director Spike Lee, a notoriously vocal Knicks season-ticket holder. Having spotted Lee, Miller stared him down, lifted both hands to his throat and pantomimed choking himself while gasping for air.
Miller’s bugeyed, emaciated look — and resemblance to Edvard Munch’s painting "The Scream" — only compounded the gesture’s effect. As Reggie’s reputation as one of the cockiest players in the NBA grew, even enemy Knick fans were paying tribute to his bravado, replicating the choke sign on courts all over Manhattan.
6. Chris Childs and Eric Murdock’s throat-slashing gesture
It took the Knicks four years to produce a gesture to replace Miller’s choke as Madison Square Garden’s signature signage, but it was worth the wait.
In Game 3 of New York’s first-round clash with the hated Miami Heat in the 1998 Eastern Conference playoffs, Knick point guard Chris Childs crescendoed each of his team’s big plays by viciously drawing his right arm across his throat as if performing a decapitation. Murdock answered back in the fourth quarter, though, nailing a clutch three-pointer with 36 seconds left to secure Miami’s 95-89 win. He responded with a retaliatory throat-slash of his own, and a movement was born.
By the time the next National Football League season rolled around, New York Jet Keyshawn Johnson and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Warren Sapp were slashing their throats all over the field. On the gridiron, the gesture quickly drew the nickname "the O.J." in reference to NFL Hall-of-Famer O.J. Simpson’s 1995 trial for double homicide. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue banned the celebration in December 1999, subjecting offenders to a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
The throat-slash was censored from basketball courts as well, and commentators began to talk about First Amendment rights. Leave it to NBA players to turn a hand gesture into an issue of free speech.
Stay tuned next week, when we’ll reveal the five greatest celebratory gestures of all time.