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Daryl Morey: A Beautiful Mind

By TRAVIS PITTS

Editor’s note: A satirical look at what a day in the life of Daryl Morey is like. Or what it should be like.

Typically, these profiles of genius start out with something along the lines of the old adage, “they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.” It’s an understandable attempt by good journalists to humanize a subject whose particular ability can seem superhuman to the rest of us. The problem is I’m not really a journalist, let alone a good one, and Daryl Morey is neither your typical genius nor someone who could ever be bothered with such an inexcusably inefficient use of time as putting on his own pants, much less one leg at a time. Sources inside the Morey household tell me, under condition of anonymity, that he, in fact, has a large pneumatic tube inside his closet controlled by an advanced fashion AI. Outfits are chosen to meet a number of different personal performance metrics and cross-referenced against his schedule, in real-time, to ensure optimization. This sometimes includes ultra-thin breakaway layers, in cases where a return trip to the tube is not feasible. He actually developed the breakaway fabric himself, in conjunction with the league and its apparel partners; you may have noticed several recent proof-of-concept exhibitions using this season’s new jerseys. The dressing tube has been described by those who’ve seen it as, “something out of the Batcave,” and, “a waste of our retirement fund.”

It should come as no surprise then, thanks in part to a litany of other personal time savers, that Daryl hits the office earlier than most. What might come as a bit of a shock though, is that he spends relatively little of the day’s allotted brainpower on basketball. He’s long since developed algorithms, which have in turn developed their own algorithms, to eliminate the minutia many professional sports GMs find themselves bogged down by on a day-to-day basis. No, what the bed forces him up and into the tube every morning for, has, in recent years, been something else entirely — the forbidden apple of his analytical eye: The Human Factor. The continued refinement of quantifying the human experience and the ability to predict an individual’s future based on their past. The minuscule improvements he makes to this statistical model every day have, for quite a while now, become practically irrelevant to the basketball team. They’ve been overclocked to the point where any tangible results are fractional and still ultimately subject to an uncomfortable degree of chance. So what drives his lingering obsession? This was the chief question on my mind as I was led to his darkened laboratory in the bowels of Toyota Center on Friday morning. You get the sense, when being conveyered around the team’s offices, that the entire operation — from the people to their very thoughts and actions — is running with the precarious precision of an elaborately planned Rube Goldberg machine. Everyone puts on a brave smile and plays the part, but underneath their calculated exteriors lies the pulsing fear of an actor inside a scene with one long, dramatic take. They all seem to be suppressing their innate humanity, afraid to let their faces betray the possibility of their brain’s departure from the optimal thought flow-chart prescribed by the Mad Doctor of Data.

 

I sit down in one of the chairs on the opposite side of Morey’s workstation. He tells me he’s close to figuring out why left-handed children of ambidextrous parents are twice as likely to marry a spouse who erroneously claims to have Celiac disease, but if I’m not mistaken, his long-winded explanation was merely cover to distract me from a stack of papers he quickly shoved in a drawer upon my arrival. We exchange a series of searching glances and I ask what he’s really working on. He assures me it is Rocket-related and insists I leave it at that for the time being. We’re on a tight schedule, I’m told, and a Rockets’ staffer materializes in the room as if from nowhere, ready to whisk me off on a facilities tour I never asked for. As I’m shepherded out of the room Daryl tells me he’ll see me at lunch.

Hours later, at the new team owner’s steakhouse a few blocks away from the arena, I find Morey embroiled in a heated discussion. Freshman owner and recreational spending magnate, Tilman Fertitta stands over his seated subordinate, berating the general manager for, what I learn as I approach is his desire to bring outside food into the restaurant. An indignant Morey takes a principled stand: “This caprese salad my wife lied about personally making me is in peak metric harmony with the entirety of my day. If you want my systems operating at capacity, I suggest you make an exception or start serving this exact recipe on the menu.” Daryl went on to extol the virtues of the balsamic vinegar reduction that tied his celebrated meal together. The per-minute digestion of the mixture combined with the length of taste-bud saturation, adjusted for his pace of eating, he argued, was unmatched by any offering his new boss had in any of his restaurants. It was a recipe devised to prove the long-theorized concept of “true lunch,” and Morey had created it several years before, using the computing power of a series of daisy-chained Roomba vacuums. His impassioned explanation swayed Fertitta; more than that, it inspired him. Tilman wondered aloud what other problems his newly-purchased human Enigma machine might be able to solve. Perhaps a total reimagining of dice, or an in depth examination into the root causes of waiter apathy. Morey was visibly intrigued by both and the two men promised each other to reconvene on the matters at a later date.

After our meal, I was offered a choice between riding back with Tilman in his stretch helicopter submarine or hoofing it with Daryl. Despite my never having flown underwater in style, I couldn’t pass up the chance to hear Morey’s musings on city traffic patterns or the statistical ramifications of the rare dip in temperature outside. Mostly what occurred on our walk back, however, was a general slack-jawed gawking of Morey as he stepped through bustling intersections like someone who had written the source code to a real-life game of Frogger, making the infallible predictions of a time traveler with a photographic memory. It was truly a sight to behold.

Additionally, we did, as one does downtown, behold the sight of several of its shelterless citizens. I watched as all, each and every one, were given pamphlets Daryl had ready on his person and he directed them to what I presumed were one of the many facilities in the area meant to aid in their reentry to society. Once again, his core crusade was proving to be people. The Human Factor… “I’ve been thinking a lot about homelessness lately,” he shared with me. “It bothers me to see someone standing on a corner all day, wasting their lives when they could be three blocks over, making a difference for themselves.” He gestured with one of the pamphlets. “Knowledge is prediction.” I would later obtain a copy of the reading material and, to my surprise, I discovered it contained information on which nearby street corners offered the greatest financial opportunity. It featured line graphs of community sympathies, charted by the hour, accounting for variables in weather and political climate. Morey: “I want to put people in a place to succeed.”

Upon our return to The Big Dealership, Morey soon disappeared and I didn’t see him again until about a half an hour before game time. I found him back at work in his lab. On this occasion, he seemed to be more genuinely forthcoming as to the nature of his work. Many people are familiar with the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference he’s organized at MIT’s like-named business school for just over a decade now, but what most are unaware of is the lesser-heralded Crapper Plumbing Analysis Conference he first organized at DeVry University’s home campus in Downers Grove, Illinois over twenty years ago. He tells me that it’s one of his original passions, relating the story of a teenaged Daryl Morey sitting in a high school computer lab, staring in frustration at the classic “3D pipes” screensaver. Its inefficiency was maddening. There had to be a better way, he fumed. It turns out there was; he and his colleagues at the Crapper Conference have made some major breakthroughs in recent years. Anyone currently designing septic systems or still running a nostalgic copy of Window ’95 has, no doubt, felt these improvements change the quality of their lives.

Sticking your head into the swirl of thoughts orbiting Daryl Morey’s cerebrum can be a bit like spending time on the edge of a black hole’s accretion disk. I became worried that the time dilation I’d suffered trying to decipher his complex ideas through the prism of my simple brain might mean my family had aged beyond recognition in my time away from home. Fortunately my fears were overblown and the only time lost had been the remaining minutes before tip-off. Daryl told me, as I took note of the hour, that I should get to my seat and he would catch up with me. It was at that moment that I again became conscious of a possible manipulation. Had his whirlwind stories of Downers Grove been yet another carefully orchestrated distraction to keep me from the true focus of his furious research?

We watched from near courtside as the Rockets’ twin-boosted attack of Harden and Paul left the fans of San Antonio spurned. As I sat there debating the merit of that worldplay, my mind wandered to the evening’s “Black Out” promotion. Fans in attendance were provided with complimentary black t-shirts and encouraged to wear them in support. I thought it odd to center an event around a color that the opposing team has a much longer association with, so at halftime I inquired about it. Morey uncharacteristically shifted blame to a lower-level staffer. Forced to be satisfied with the explanation, and feeling somewhat hypnotized by the Alamo reenactment taking place on the court, my thoughts during the second half of the game drifted to the team’s new “Statement” jerseys. The Rockets remain undefeated in the black threads, having worn them for ten consecutive victories inside what would eventually become a fourteen game winning streak. Although, for something called a statement, they’ve sure left me sorting through a big pile of questions. I leaned over and asked Daryl what the design on the side of those particular uniforms was meant to be, because as far as I could tell it was just a lot of nonsense. That’s when the first smile I had seen from him all day programmed itself to take over Morey’s face. He sheepishly admitted the pattern meant nothing, but that was also by design. The Rockets had compiled enough data through affiliates in various other leagues to determine that a confusing pattern within your team’s established branding could distract an opponent, on average, seven possessions per game. It was at this admission that my subconscious finally caught up to his tactics. Clearly, he was a master of subterfuge and had been employing it on me all day. Whatever he had been working on was both too important to stop and too sensitive to share. Was anything I’d been shown real? Was everything I’d seen a hologram? Was it all an illusion? I stood up and demanded answers.

As play early in the fourth quarter was briefly halted while security escorted me from the building, my mind replayed the fleeting glimpses I’d caught of Morey’s secretive workstation. I tried hard to recall the nature of the numbers he had so hurriedly hidden from me. Even in my car on the way home, as I wept from embarrassment, my brain could not stop trying to enhance the mental picture I had taken of his classified documents. I closed my eyes again and then it hit me!

I awoke early this morning in the hospital, having been justifiably blindsided by a city bus as I drove through a red light with my eyes closed. The doctors informed me that I’d been found, days earlier, rolled over in a ditch, relentlessly repeating the phrase “rocket-related.” What did it mean? What had I been trying to tell myself? Suddenly I remembered: I had no health insurance and would have to continue my synaptic search from the far cheaper confines of my own home. At home, as I began to drift into a trance of unmedicated pain, the grand design of Morey’s supervillainous plan grabbed me by the collar and threw me to the bathroom floor. Rocket-related… No. Is he… Are we…?

Allow me to reluctantly float a theory. Say you’re a world leader, and your top scientific advisors have told you that our planet is ruined beyond repair. That the only hope of continuing the human race is to repopulate an alien planet with the best our species has to offer. Who would you trust to fill those mankind-saving rockets more than the world’s preeminent mind on human analytics and behavioral economics? All the pieces began falling into place: the petrified staffers, the relentless pursuit of the perfect model, the funny taste in my souvenir soda… His coldly practical brand of empathy and my refusal to follow basic traffic laws… “Black Out” night!? It all made sense now. I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell all of you this: I may be dying. Someone tweet me the number for 911. Don’t let Daryl take off without us!

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