Pursue god, the elusive perfection of math, love’s transcendence, the truths in big fat Russian novels and drugs that make you feel like the sun melting into the lake at dusk, or like you are speeding across state lines with hot stereos in the trunk.
You are made of distinctly American trash. Newsweek, CBS sitcoms, ephebophilic slumlords winning the mayor’s office. Small talk with your dad’s friends about how they’re opening a Ruby Tuesday on the east side of town. Any intelligence you pick up will not come from your natural environment. You build your whole teenaged identity out of hating it. And yet you feel in your atoms its sour, rocky soil, casual racism, the movie theater that only plays crap. You spend a lot of time at malls in the next county, shoplifting from H&M, inspecting jewel cases at FYE and thinking about other people you could be.
Daryl Morey grew up reading Bill James, Frank Miller comic books, watching the Cavs and Browns lose. Trying to find stuff to win at. He wasn’t a bad athlete, but was much better at table tennis than basketball. “I was once ranked in the top 100 players nationally under 21,” he told Chris Ballard in 2012, brandishing a hundred dollar paddle. He plays chess too. For a 2014 feature, the Houston Chronicle photographed him pretending to study a chess board, because chess is smart. “The strategy Daryl Morey uses when playing chess translates to how he runs the Rockets,” the caption reads, “as he's always looking ahead and trying to ensure that one move positively impacts another.”
Sportsworld didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about someone like Morey when the Rockets made him general manager in 2007, and it hasn’t really developed one. He came out of Northwestern, STATS Inc., MIT. A numbers guy met by people with minds like hammered steak with stupid awe and stupid skepticism. Like older men congregating in parking lots of chain retailers on Saturday nights, men in half-zips who made all their money in sales—incurious sorts, but miraculously certain in their opinions—feeling one way or another about what the Fed is up to.
Long magazine pieces, of which there were approximately five million, often remarked with some surprise at how competitive Morey is, as if he were not a type you can find in abundance on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, the insurance industry, halls of government. The world is run by dweebs as vicious as any boxer, but yes, Morey’s got a paunch and an MBA. His words travel as if through pudding rather than air. That he turns red when the score gets close is unremarkable. Dogs of every size bark at traffic, and sometimes it’s hot in the shade.
The most famous bit of press Morey got was probably Michael Lewis’s 2009 New York Times Magazine feature, in which he became the twin subject of a piece that argued for Shane Battier’s unsung effectiveness. Bringing Battier to Houston was Morey’s call; he pushed for it when he was the franchise’s GM-in-waiting in 2006. It was, until he swung the James Harden trade six years later, his most notable achievement, not because Battier was a great player, but because he was much better than most people thought. Outside of acquiring stars in the draft or trade market, this is how you make your name as a GM: you identify talent the rest of the league doesn’t value. It suggests a premonitional power. You’re measuring the paths of storms with instruments nobody else has access to.
Morey comes off like a gnostic in the piece. Though that’s due mostly to Lewis’s press release-y tone, there are moments when his mumbly modesty falls away, where Morey’s coining aphorisms (”someone created the box score, and he should be shot”), throwing around made up numbers (“I’ll bet [Battier]’s in the hundredth percentile of every category”), and describing himself in language typically reserved for hip filmmakers (“a lot of people who are into the new try to hide it; with me, that was never an option”). At the time, the Rockets were a middle of the pack Western Conference squad that had lost in the first round the playoffs the previous season. Morey was the brilliant architect, well-schooled and admired by all the right folks, of a suburban office park.
What did you think was going to change? There is no growing up, only getting older. You have the same anxieties, fear of people, a sense that there’s an invisible net just beyond your fingertips, and that even when you feel yourself soaring, it’s the illusion of movement. You have some really good days, but nobody else seems to agree, and so you stop thinking of them that way. For years, your mind is like the night sky washed featureless by city light.
The Rockets hibernated for a while. They weren’t bad exactly, but poor luck set in, then a period of transition. Both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were physically spent by age 30, and you can only do so much with clever finds: Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes, Kyle Lowry before he got himself together. Morey was just about out of time when he acquired James Harden in October of 2012. That maneuver—shipping out Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, picks that became Steven Adams and Mitch McGary—saved his job.
Morey would have taken pretty much any unhappy superstar given that his roster was in desperate need of elite talent, but he particularly liked Harden, the bearded embodiment of his math-driven belief that NBA teams weren’t shooting enough threes, and that all their other shots should come from either the free throw line or within whispering distance of the rim.
Those two were meant for each other: unwaveringly committed to their processes, indifferent to aesthetics, constantly working every advantage. Marcelo Bielsa, the brilliant but also blaringly insane soccer tactician, once said that if his players weren’t human, he would never lose. You get the sense Morey and Harden believed this about the refs. After losing Game 1 of the 2019 Western Conference Semis against Golden State, the Rockets—read: almost definitely Morey—leaked an audit they had done of the previous season’s Western Finals, in which they looked at every missed foul call, the basketball dork equivalent of running through your high school yearbook and counting how many girls would have slept with you, and determined that the officials cost them 93 points over seven games. Morey, as media-savvy as any exec in the league, had to know that people were going to laugh at him for releasing this report. He didn’t care; he wanted calls. The Rockets proceeded to lose in six. The refs didn’t have much to do with it.
Here’s the thing people hate about Daryl. He knows that his methods work. If you’re a really good team, which the Rockets have been for the past six or seven seasons, you should eventually be able to win a title by bombing threes and drawing fouls. You’re better than most opponents already, and even against superior squads like the circa 2018 Warriors, there’s a significant chance you’re going to have a couple hot shooting nights that allow you to overcome their talent and swing the series. The Rockets have come very close to realizing this. The necessary shots just haven’t gone in. Morey has a tendency to pout over this fact. In his head, he’s already won, because he’s certain that it’s possible. At his worst, he seems to resent that games actually happen: jumpers rim out, referees make mistakes. You can do everything right and end up a loser. That is the great and awful thing about sports. If it’s not easy to appreciate this in the moment the team you run has been eliminated from the playoffs, it takes a special kind of bitter effort to complain about it a year later, in an attempt to give yourself an edge. Morey probably thought of the leaked report as an effort toward restorative justice.
This is not a gift you want. You have to tell yourself that it’s special, a product of decisions you’ve made, but it’s probably something a lot of people have. And anyway, you don’t want it. You see the ugliest in others, the appetite that moves them. You see it most clearly in writers, because you’re a writer. On your most miserable days, you encounter a word choice that’s a little too too and huck the book across the room.
“I should shut up more,” Daryl Morey told Bill Simmons in February of 2018.
“You’ve been better lately,” Simmons reassured him.
“No, but my personality… people expect me to be one thing… they expect me to be this very introverted guy—I’m not. I think I talk too much.”
Self-loathing will always win me. I have arrived, through an untraditional path, at a Calvinist understanding of humanity. I like Daryl Morey, the overhyped genius, anti-aesthete, guy who could definitely, if his life had taken a slightly different shape, be a finance psycho making millions off the misery of others. Primarily because he’s a little bit embarrassed about what he’s become.
When he enraged mainland China by standing with Hong Kong, whatever the hell that means, an under-remarked upon aspect of the fiasco was that he tweeted a JPEG. That’s pussy hat, Lincoln Project-level stuff, the kind of nigh-apolitical activism you can do from your living room, ostensibly because you’re a decent person who doesn’t like to see protesters beaten in the streets, but also because you lazily want to feel something. A momentary correctness.
He quit in Houston because Tilman Fertitta is an overleveraged restaurateur with a conspicuously thin business advice book titled Shut Up And Listen. Plus, the Rockets are capped out with no assets, headed nowhere in a Western Conference where LeBron currently reigns and the Warriors are reloading. Why go to war with an impeccable intellect and a pool noodle? He didn’t want Russell Westbrook anyway. Morey half-admirably followed his vision toward its absurdist apotheosis—what if we played with no big men at all? what if we ran absolutely everything through two players?—and having come up empty, bounced himself from the table.
You want to believe there’s more than your own dumb ego, but there isn’t. You are, alternatively, a passengerless car locked from the inside and a car that you are locked inside of. You have acquired in time knowledge that has failed to transform you in the ways that you’d hoped. You are finally yourself, and only the shape of your circumstances will change. Folks who know him made noise, when he left the Houston job, that Daryl Morey might pivot away from basketball and go into finance, because he has the mind and training for it. But who would remember his name, if he did that? What could he win, other than money? If the self is inescapable, if you can just barely stand it, you will go on failing forever in search of success you feel is just around the corner. Maybe in Philadelphia, maybe soon.