For many fans, the competition at a basketball arena begins once the ball is tipped. For Shavonte Zellous, the competition begins after the lights go and starting lineups are announced.
Zellous holds an important role on the Washington Mystics this season that doesn’t get recognition from the hometown crowd. It doesn’t earn her playing time or buffs her stat sheet. The first-year Mystic is the designated high-fiver at the end of the lineup tunnel. As each starter is announced, Zellous waits at the end to welcome each starter with a wide smile a high-five routine.
With Natasha Cloud there’s often a pre-planned dance, Theresa Plaisance breaks out the dance moves from the club scene in ‘White Chicks.’ Shatori Walker-Kimbrough gets the double high-five above her head. Others go with a semi-traditional running shoulder bump.
Her job is where the competition with the opponents begins.
“I think we just outdo the other team,” Zellous said after practice last week. “Honestly, it's like competition everywhere. I think we try to have the best handshakes, dance routines, better than the other team. So, for us, I think that's the key, we still in competition mode.”
So how did Zellous get chosen for such an important role? Well, you have to have the right energy and creativity [check]. Obviously, you can’t be a starter [check]. There was no election process, Zellous just got up and took the responsibility on herself.
But there’s no debate from her teammates: it’s her job.
“I think [selecting a high-fiver] just depends on who's the hypest,” Zellous said. “Who can get everybody prepared and get them excited for the game. And I guess I'm that person to do that. Since [Natasha Cloud's] a starter, it would be me or her that would be doing it.”
“I don't know if it was like a decision, but I think that [Zellous] was born for that spot,” Theresa Plaisance said.
Her energy is one of the reasons Washington signed her to a one-year deal in the offseason. Throughout her professional career, she has been known for her defensive ability. And while her shot hasn’t fallen this season, her palpable attitude shows why she’s been able to last 12 seasons in the WNBA.
For her, it’s not forced. It’s not only the outward emotion that she displays. When on the court, she knows what needs to be done. That’s why she has such a vital position in just her first season with the Mystics.
“The other night [against the Storm] is a perfect example; everything is going wrong and she kept playing,” head coach Mike Thibault said. “And she wasn't going to let anybody feel sorry for themselves, she made some big shots. She has struggled with her shooting during the year, but she has never been down, every day I know what I'm going to get every day.”
The high-fives are all well and good. They get the team motivated and in the right mindset for the game. The crowd gets into it and everyone gets pumped up. But there are even more intricacies to those moments that meet the eye.
Not everyone on the Mystics had the luxury to plan for a high-five. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough arrived in Washington in the middle of the season and missed out on one-on-one time to come up with an organized handshake. Right now, it’s just the double high-five above the head, but what makes these high-fives unique is that everyone gets something different. For Walker-Kimbrough, it’s what the two discuss in that moment.
“Because she's so high energy, she always gives me like a tidbit before the game, while I'm walking up or going into my high-five,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “'Tori I need you to be aggressive today. Tori we need your defense today,' so, like, even though my high-five is just a simple two-hand high-five, she always gives me that sidebar that I really, I actually look forward to. She probably doesn't know.”
It’s not a position that thrusts one into the spotlight – typically they’re just outside of it being shined onto the floor or slips in it for mere seconds. No one gets an award at the end of the season for being the best. If Zellous wasn’t there, someone else would step up and fill that role.
The Mystics are just fortunate that their handshake person is Zellous.
“I think that she does a really great job. She has so much energy, and she's always so energetic and she's just pure comedy, so her being able to take that last spot is like a good burst of energy right before the game starts and there's no better person than [Zellous],” Plaisance said.