‘Small Ball’ rests between the head and the heart of Daryl Morey
Daryl Morey arrives early to Hugo’s and orders a lobster taco dish. His guest soon arrives and, minutes later, so does the dish. But Morey orders the same dish again because the number of tacos on the plate (one) doesn’t equal the number of diners at the table (two). As he begins to speak, he places the two smartphones he’s been juggling next to his plate, on top of a napkin, though he picks one of them up later to look up a word. Indeed, he used “progenitor” correctly. “I feel better,” he says.
The Rockets General Manager is all about balance. He’s precise but not neurotic, opinionated but a good listener and speaks with a gruff, intelligent style fit for both a locker room and a lecture hall. He wears a black blazer with a crew neck T-shirt and has short, slicked hair. “Obsessive” isn’t the right word to describe him because it suggests a lack of control. Morey is, rather, meticulous.
You can tell he always has several things on his mind — his plane leaves for Europe, for a scouting trip, in just a few hours — but when he hones in on a conversation he’s like a sniper rifle. Though the conversation bounces from eSports and the Commodore 64 to Morey’s ten favorite musicals of all time (“Les Misérables,” “The Pirates of Penzance,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Rent,” “Wicked,” “In the Heights,” “Ragtime,” “Evita,” “Into the Woods” and “West Side Story”), the primary topic tonight is “Small Ball.”
“Small Ball,” which premieres at the Catastrophic Theatre Friday, is the result of one of the most unlikely collaborations of the Houston arts scene this year. It’s a new musical written by Chicago absurdist playwright Mickle Maher, composed by two-piece post-rock outfit Merel and Tony and underwritten by Morey, one of the most influential NBA GMs working today, a man who uses data to refine and inform what he sees players do on a court.
A musical like this shouldn’t exist. But it does. That’s because Morey’s first obsession in life, he explains, wasn’t basketball analytics. It was musical theater — a rabbit hole he plunged down after playing the score to “Les Misérables” in high school band. After that, Morey couldn’t stop collecting tapes of musical theater albums. As a teen, he scavenged the music store at Summit Mall in Fairlawn, Ohio, and later scoured the archives of Ohio State. Today, he keeps up with Broadway, and regularly sees shows in New York.
“There’s only two people who know more about musical theater than me that I’ve met,” he says. “One is Seth Rudetsky, and the other is Lin-Manuel Miranda,” referencing the host of “Seth’s Big Fat Broadway” and the creator of “Hamilton.”
But wait, he’s asked. What year in high school did it all start again?
“I can get this right, hold on,” he says. This time, no phone. “I believe ‘Les Mis’ came out in ’86. That makes me 14. So that would make me a freshman.”
Morey’s meticulous mind, combined with his commitment to “getting it right,” is no trivial fact. His analytics-driven philosophy, rooted in the observation that three-pointers yield more points than two-pointers, has not only been central to the Rockets’ success this season — the team has the best record in the NBA — but has also helped shape the modern professional American basketball game. And now he’s helping to shape one of Houston’s most noted theaters, with a musical that’s been getting national attention for its co-creator and its bizarre premise.
Metrics and musicals
Before “Moreyball” — a phrase taken from Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” a book about the birth of analytics-driven baseball — was widely accepted, Morey took criticism for his approach to the game of Basketball. “I’ve always believed analytics was crap,” former Rockets player and current sportscaster Charles Barkley said in 2015.
Barkley and others made a compelling, if scientifically unfounded, case: “Heart,” not numbers, was central to basketball. Heart is partially why Jason Nodler, artistic director of the Catastrophic Theatre, Morey’s favorite theater company in Houston, loves basketball so much.
“Theater is the most collaborative art form there is and basketball is the most collaborative sport,” Nodler says. “The coach is the director, the GM is the artistic director, and the players are the people on stage. Basketball provides these metaphors.”
The focus on the human aspect over metrics is an idea that artists tend to champion. “Getting it right” through metrics, though originally controversial, makes sense for sports. There is a clear outcome at the end of a game. Winning can be a science.
The Catastrophic Theatre, on the other hand, avoids clear outcomes at all costs. “Song About Himself,” the last play by “Small Ball” author Maher that the Catastrophic Theatre produced, is about the loss of logic and language, and features incoherent babbling. It doesn’t end with any perfect value or lesson. The Catastrophic has staged men turning into rhinoceroses, clowns singing standards while on the toilet and boys dressed in Roman garb dreaming about bonobos. Their plays often end in despair and confusion, tinged with dark humor.
In other words, it’s impossible to imagine what a Daryl Morey-Catastrophic Theatre collaboration means. And yet there Morey is, at Hugo’s, talking with excitement about his first full-fledged passion project with a local theater company, hinting at a story about a man landing in a fictional island and helping six-inch-tall people form an international basketball team.
It’s why, on Friday, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and players Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza will sit at the MATCH theater in Midtown to watch Lilliputians dispute the existence of the number five while singing at a press conference. When Morey is asked about what his Rockets family thinks about all this, he smiles.
“They just think I’m … weird.”
GM and dramaturg
“Small Ball” has been in the works since 2015, the result of a friendship between fanatics.
Nodler, who is the basketball obsessive in the relationship, suggested the idea to Morey, the musical theater fanatic, and the GM jumped at the idea. Morey, who is funding a significant portion of the costs for producing “Small Ball,” first wrote up an outline for the basketball musical to Maher. Morey said Maher could keep anywhere from zero to 100 percent of its ideas. The playwright kept none.
“If you ask someone to work on something, then they’re going to be the driving force, it has to be theirs,” says Morey, whose official title for “Small Ball” is producer and dramaturg (another word for in-house basketball expert). “I’d love to say I had any creative part in it but I can’t take any credit.”
On the surface, the story of “Small Ball” doesn’t follow the standard rules of reality. Its protagonist is an American basketball player named Michael Jordan who’s not the Michael Jordan. He finds himself on the island of Lilliput — the one from Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” — and helps this nation of tiny people form an international basketball team. The Lilliputians aren’t just vertically challenged. They don’t understand the concept of five. So their team consists of four players, since the very idea of having five players conflicts with their worldview.
A Director of Analytics for the Lilliputian team wants to do what Morey did with basketball — use math to make a better basketball team, and add a fifth player. But the coach, whose name is Phil Jackson but isn’t the Phil Jackson, throws a fit. When asked to comprehend the number five, he picks up a binder of charts from the press table and flings it across the room.
“Your cold calculations,” he sings a haunting melody by Merel & Tony, one that harkens back to Nodler’s and co-founder Tamarie Cooper’s early days as frequent collaborators with the Houston punk scene. “You’re ripping the heart from this beautiful game.”
Morey told the writers that the scene didn’t make sense. How could the islanders not know the number five? But the bit of Lilliputian mathematical existentialism underscores precisely the unlikely existence of “Small Ball.” How do people who think utterly differently —like an NBA GM and an absurdist playwright — play as a team?
“That’s the mysterious question at the heart of this,” Maher says.
In Lilliput, “five is more than four” is met with as much rancor as Morey’s “three is more than two” philosophy was by basketball tradtionalists. But Nodler says that, in reality, the “heart” debate suggests a false dichotomy.
“They’re not at odds with each other. They work in concert, beautifully,” Nodler says. “Head versus heart … it’s gone, it’s done. We’re past it.”
For Morey, collaboration meant walking away from creative control, trusting that Maher and Merel & Tony would end up with something different from what he expected, but compelling nonetheless. He’s asked if, next time he wants to be involved in an arts project, there’s a possibility of a metrics-driven approach to theater, what a “Moreyball” mindset would even look like on stage.
“If I ever had time to write my own thing, I could think about applying analytics,” Morey says.
Hugo’s has livened up, and the corner of the restaurant where he sits is becoming loud. He’s about to call an Uber, and spitballs that idea a bit more as he waits for the check to return.
“There’s been analytics on music and what kinds of structures appeal to people. Boy meets girl, a big dance scene. There’s definitely a formula to these things,” he says. “It takes a bit away if you just go in with that idea. But if Jason came to me and said, ‘I want to make a show that’s big,’ sure. I would play analytics.”