As Linsanity played out across North America for another team — the New York Knicks team that Leslie Alexander loves to beat most no less — the Houston Rockets owner had his general manager on the phone.
This was in mid February — at the height of Lin's nearly unprecedented run from nowhere to global phenomenon. Valentine's Day night no less. But Alexander and Daryl Morey — the man who cut Jeremy Lin — were hardly sharing the love.
"I had Daryl on the phone and we were both watching the game (Knicks vs. Raptors)," Alexander explains. "I said, 'He's playing so well. He just scored the tying basket! He's playing great.'
" 'Oh my God, he just scored the winning basket!' I hung up on (Daryl) because I was so angry. That was it. I had to hang up on him."
Ever have your boss hang up on you because he's so pissed he cannot even talk anymore? It can be a little motivating.
"If LeBron (James) wasn't as nice a guy as Jeremy is," Leslie Alexander says, "I'd still rather have LeBron."
At that point, it may have been unspoken. It's hard to say anything to a dial tone after all — which is all Morey had in his ear. But it was clear. The Rockets would be going after Jeremy Lin as soon he became a restricted free agent.
"We were going after Lin no matter what," Morey says later on Jeremy Lin Day in Houston, the day the reject reborn as a $25.1 million player is introduced in front of a media throng not seen around the Rockets since . . . well, ever. Try a nearly 200-strong horde that forced the Rockets to hold this press conference on their practice court, with Piers Morgan and Late Show with David Letterman reps in the building.
Morey is talking about the Rockets' planning heading into free agency when he drops that "no matter what," dismissing the idea that the Rockets wouldn't have pursued the crossover marketing star if they hadn't traded Kyle Lowry and watched Goran Dragic go. But it's clear this obsession with righting a "wrong" as both Alexander and Morey put it, goes back much further than that.
And in many ways, it starts with Alexander, who says he should have overruled Morey when the general manager called him on Christmas Eve to tell the owner he'd be cutting the kid from Harvard.
Alexander is one of the great characters left in sports, one of those true originals that Houston seems to attract (even if he remains a New Jersey and New York guy). He starts the whole nationally-televised press conference as only he can — walking in with Lin and Morey, whipping off his sunglasses as he takes his seat on the stage and almost immediately opening it up to questions.
At the same point in a Houston Astros press conference, Jeff Luhnow would have been barely clearing his throat.
But why screw around? Les doesn't have time for nonsense. Give the people what they came to see.
"I was telling Jeremy before we came out that we had (NBA Hall of Famer) Scottie Pippen in here and it was the biggest reception we ever had," Alexander says. "And it was a 10th of this."
It's clear Alexander is glad to see his Rockets finally dominating the headlines again. It's been almost too easy to forget that this somewhat temperamental maverick is the owner who turned Houston into a championship city.
"I like the spotlight," Alexander says, looking into all the TV cameras, all the new faces that had members of Houston's often-too-provincial traditional sports media grumbling about outsiders on their turf. "It's important. We're probably going to be on national TV more because of Jeremy and good players want to be on TV."
Alexander cares about good players wanting to be on TV because he desperately wants more stars in a Rockets uniform. The owner believes that Lin can help attract other marquee free agents like a Deron Williams has in Brooklyn or even, dare say, like a Dwyane Wade did in Miami.
That may be as absurd as Kim Kardashian expecting her next marriage to work out. As Lin himself says, he hasn't proven anything yet. But Alexander just dares you to doubt his motivations.
"If you don't win, what difference does it make?" he shoots back, dismissively. "Seriously."
Nice Guys Finish . . .
Whether in his press conference uniform (slim-cut black suit, black skinny tie and crisp white shirt) or his new Rockets game uniform (No. 7 rather than the No. 17 he wore in New York), Lin comes across as a largely well-centered, grounded 23-year-old. Insanity and all.
It's been almost too easy to forget that this somewhat temperamental maverick is the owner who turned Houston into a championship city.
Even before he takes the stage on the practice court, his presence is announced by all the flashbulbs going off in a glassed-off, second-floor room overlooking the court. Before the answers, the talk of God's role in his life and the mention of looking at the "advanced stats" to see how he can improve (something that has to warm sabermetrics guru Morey's numbers heart), Lin must pose.
"I don't see myself as a conquering king," he says later, volleying back a phrase that's dropped into two separate questions.
Lin will have no trouble with the Houston media. He'll make plenty of friends with the fans. Even the doubting ones. The circus will not be an issue.
Which is all fine and good as fine as Alexander is concerned — and also completely not the point.
"If LeBron (James) wasn't as nice a guy as Jeremy is," the owner snorts, "I'd still rather have LeBron."
Alexander burns for those game winners as much as this buzz. That Valentine's night hang up on Morey was about that too.
"It was a tough time, I'm not going to lie," Morey says of having to explain to his billionaire boss why he cut the best story in the NBA. Again and again and again.
"He was killing me," Morey says. "He was killing me." Minutes later, Morey puts it another way: "There was a lot of grief."
The general manager tells you he knows where the grief is coming from though, that he and Alexander have a relationship that allows such frankness, that Alexander's drive to understand and analyze every mistake helps make the Rockets better.
Which doesn't mean that Daryl Morey is smiling about it now. The hang up still does not seem that funny to him. But it sure helped bring back Lin.