Small Ball: A Musical About What it Means to Be Human, Played Out on a Basketball Court

Small Ball: A Musical About What it Means to Be Human, Played Out on a Basketball Court
Courtesy of Catastrophic Theatre

Courtesy of Catastrophic Theatre
Start with basketball-obsessed artistic director of a local avant garde theater.

Put him together with the general manager of his favorite professional basketball team, known for employing mathematical analytics to the game, who just so happens to be a huge musical theater fan.

And for the final coup de gras add in a playwright known for having a singular vision and an extraordinary approach to the world in his work.

If you wrote this in a book it would be unbelievable, but in real life it was Artistic Director Jason Nodler's love of the Houston Rockets (he attends and records games and says he's only missed three in 25 years) and his friendship with Daryl Morey (sparked by the website) that started the enterprise that will be world premiered in April at Houston's Catastrophic Theatre.

No biopic, no Space Jam, Small Ball, (commissioned by Morey) is the story of a basketball  player named Michael Jordan — but not the Michael Jordan —a third-rate-never-was who is drafted onto a team of Lilliputians as its one ringer, courtesy of playwright  Mickle Maher (There is a Happiness That Morning Is, The Strangerer). It's original title, by the way, was Why Did You Lose?  Jordan says in the play: "I bottomed out in the Dominoes Icelandic Pizza League" (an actual real thing, as Nodler put it; he looked it up).

If you remember from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Lilliputians were tiny. As they are in this version, checking in at six inches tall. The difference, Nodler says, is that they've been transformed from fantasy characters to inhabitants of a real island nation, however backward, that has decided to engage with the rest of the world. One issue they have is they have no concept or knowledge of the number 5 — particularly troubling if you're fielding a basketball team.

"Mickel he tends to set things in anti theatrical settings like a debate, a panel discussion, a series of lectures," Nodler says. "So his go-to on this, he started to think about press conferences. And he started to think particularly about post-loss press conferences. The way that he explained the idea to me originally was, he said, 'When you have a new play reading and it's unsuccessful; the play isn't working, but you have an audience, they're going to do a talkback after, the audience will make you feel better. They'll say things that did work and they'll try to salve the wound of the failure. But in sports in a post-loss press conference it's exactly the opposite. It's only a magnifier of human suffering because you have lost, you have failed and all you're being asked is why did you lose. '"

The next key element for Maher is a literary reference and in this case he asked himself "What would be the big problem in basketball that I can find in literature. And he happened upon Gulliver's Travels."

"What would be the big problem in basketball that I can find in literature. And he happened upon Gulliver's Travels."

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Two "reporters" will be seated out in the audience, lobbing questions at the seven characters onstage, Nodler says. Asked why he's not passing the ball to his teammates, why he has no assists, Jordan replies that he's afraid that would crush them.

Absurd as all this sounds, and Nodler wouldn't reveal how they're going to have little little players and one big one on stage, the artistic director says  "What the play is really about at its heart is finding yourself stuck in life
so you can’t imagine any other possibilities."

"It's about how a smaller community marries itself to a larger world and how do they do that in a way that they count, they matter. The themes are really about what it is to be human."

The two-hour play is scored throughout, Nodler says, with music by Merel van Dijk and Anthony Barilla. "We have a rich history of theater with music and musicals and we’ve gotten away from it."  To do this required Catastrophic to sign up a number of actors new to its productions.  "Some of it was that there are really extreme singing requirements. In a way too it’s really important to us to add new people. "

Audience members don’t have to know a single thing about basketball or care about sports to enjoy this musical, Nodler promises. "Basketball is an excuse to tell this story. Most of all they should expect to see an incredibly funny play. They could expect to be surprised over and over again."

Performances of Small Ball are scheduled for April 6 through May 13 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call  713-521-4533 or visit Pay what you can.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing