Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, has a feel for evaluating prospects and identifying talent.
But this was different.
Last year, during a brief hiatus from his day job scrutinizing jab steps and jump shots, Morey was able to partake in another interest — by sizing up love ballads submitted by composers who were vying to work on a musical comedy that he is producing. He later huddled with the show’s writer and director.
“I made them follow our pre-draft process,” Morey said. “So I was like, ‘We all have to rank the players. And we can’t talk before we rank them because you have to eliminate group think.’ And then after we did all the rankings, we talked about it.”
The musical, called “Small Ball,” which is now bound for rehearsals and a six-week run in Houston, bridges two of Morey’s great loves: basketball and Broadway. Known for his savvy, analytics-laced way of leading the Rockets, Morey — former high school trombonist, current theater obsessive — has relished the chance to sneak behind the curtain.
“Someday,” Morey said, “I want to live in New York and just go to shows.”
For now, he will settle for moonlighting as a producer.
“Daryl has as much of a passion for musicals as anybody I’ve ever met,” said Mickle Maher, a Chicago-based playwright who wrote the book and lyrics for “Small Ball,” which is set to start in April at the Catastrophic Theater.
Morey, who teamed with Maher and Jason Nodler, the artistic director at Catastrophic, to select Merel van Dijk and Anthony Barilla as the composers for “Small Ball,” has had a hand in the project throughout — offering feedback as Maher developed the story, making appearances at a recent workshop — even as he plays down his direct involvement. He does have a basketball team to run.
“We’re just a bunch of friends doing this at this point,” Morey said in a recent telephone interview. “I guess we do have official titles: book writer, composer, director. So I’m a producer of some ilk, whether that’s executive producer or just producer.”
He paused to consider his role.
“I provide the money,” he said.
The story that Maher wrote tells of a newly discovered island nation that decides to join the modern world by fielding a team for an international basketball league. The country — Lilliput, from “Gulliver’s Travels,” which, lo and behold, exists in Maher’s fantasyland — proceeds to sink its entire treasury into building a court and signing Michael Jordan, a journeyman point guard who just happens to have the same name as the iconic star. But that is all they share.
“He’s not a very good basketball player,” Maher said.
There are other problems: Lilliput is a land of small people, so all of Jordan’s teammates are 6 inches tall. Also, the country has no concept of the number five, so the coach is limited to sending just four players onto the court at a time. When Morey learned that Maher had included this plot twist, it bugged him.
“I’m very logical,” Morey said. “I just didn’t get it: How would these people not know that you need five players? And Mickle is like, ‘Look, I’ve done 40 plays. This is going to work.’ And he was 100 percent right.”
But the driving force behind the musical is none other than Jordan — the other Jordan, a basketball vagabond who bounces around at the margins before landing in Lilliput. The story addresses big themes: how a man without a true home finally finds one, how a small community tries to marry itself to the larger world.
“And there’s a love story,” Maher said.
Long before he became one of the most respected executives in the N.B.A., Morey was a band geek at Highland High School in Medina, Ohio. After performing excerpts from “Les Misérables,” he was hooked. He recalled coming across a rare cassette recording of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” a thrill for a young fan of the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Today, Morey’s appreciation for Stephen Sondheim runs so deep that he recently paid an artist to re-create “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” the seminal work by the painter Georges Seurat that became the same work upon which Sondheim based his musical, “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Whenever Morey visits New York for work, he tries to find time for a show.
“You can walk up 15 minutes beforehand and ask for a deal on a single,” he said. “No one else is lame enough to do this, but I’m lame enough to do it.”
The genesis of “Small Ball” dates to a scouting trip that Morey took to France a few years ago. To pass the time while traveling from Paris to Marseilles, Morey answered questions from fans on social media. Someone asked Morey what he would be doing if he were not involved with basketball. Morey wrote that he would probably be working in theater.
Nodler, the artistic director at Catastrophic, learned of Morey’s response from a fellow denizen of ClutchFans.net, a popular online forum for fans of the Rockets. (Nodler is so devoted to the team that he records games that overlap with evening rehearsals.) Nodler reached out to Morey by sending him a message on Facebook. He did not necessarily expect to hear back from him. Morey responded within a half hour.
“And it was just this wall of text,” Nodler said. “Here I was, thinking that I was contacting this great hero of mine. It turns out he was so excited to hear from somebody in the theater.”
Nodler invited Morey to see one of his plays at Catastrophic, and a friendship developed. Morey soon joined the theater’s board of directors.
“I didn’t think the worlds of theater and basketball intersected,” Morey said. “I thought the Venn diagram would be one person: me. As it turns out, there are a few of us.”
Eventually, Nodler pitched the idea of collaborating on a basketball musical. Morey sketched out a few ideas. Knowing they would need a writer, Nodler gauged Maher’s interest; Catastrophic had staged several of his plays. Plus, Nodler knew that Maher was a fellow basketball fan.
“I think I said, ‘That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,’ ” Maher said.
Maher had his reasons for being apprehensive. A lot of sports-themed musicals have tanked. But the more that Maher considered the project, the more he wanted to take on the challenge.
“I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done,” Maher said.
This July, at a weeklong workshop at Catastrophic, the “Small Ball” team — Nodler, Maher and Morey, along with the songwriters van Dijk and Barilla — developed the material with the help of a group of actors.
“Daryl’s the person who could come into the room and suck up all the oxygen and boss everyone around,” Maher said. “But he’s just not that way at all. He has a great deal of respect for everyone who’s involved in the process and gives notes and ideas in the most welcome way.”
Morey said his role at the workshop was minor.
“I didn’t do anything but sit and clap,” he said.
Still, Morey said he came away feeling energized. He also gained an appreciation for the talent of the actors and for his theater colleagues’ managerial skills.
“Let’s keep it vague,” Morey said, “but I’m like, ‘Geez, they deal with more stuff than I do.’"