As the horn sounded ending the first game of the NBA preseason between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks, former Rocket fan favorite (ample stress on the word "former") Chandler Parsons, now a centerpiece for the Mavs, made his way over to the Rockets' bench area to exchange salutations with his ex-teammates and ex-coaches.
A bear hug from Dwight Howard, a handshake and squeeze from James Harden, a brief cordial chat with Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, the post game scene between Parsons and his former cohorts appeared warm and friendly. It belied the acrimony from Parsons that had bubbled up shortly after his departure to Dallas and boiled over from both sides in the weeks leading up to the 2014-15 season.
"It's crazy the first time I play with my new team it's against my old team, but it was fun to get out there and play against someone else other than ourselves," Parsons said afterward. "Once the ball goes up in the air, all of the awkwardness and the weirdness kind of went away from me playing Houston."
While Parsons's categorizing his relationship with his former city as "awkward" and "weird" was probably an understatement, he was likely oversimplifying the ease of tran-sition to the next chapter for everyone involved, at least on Houston's end. After all, at the point Parsons made the above comments, we were less than 48 hours removed from his tweeting "How bout them @-dallascowboys!!" after the Cowboys' 20-17 win over the Texans the previous Sunday, the latest in a series of chair shots Parsons has delivered to Houston's collective skull since migrating north.
For many Rocket fans, what appeared on the NBA schedule as a meaningless October 7 preseason opener between a couple of division foes was less a basketball game and more the battleground for the first chapter in what has the makings of a highly entertaining Southwest Division blood war between Dallas and Houston for at least the next few seasons.
Indeed, for the first time perhaps in the history of their simultaneous existences, the sports hate between the Rockets and the Mavericks is, at the very least, approaching a vitriol level normally reserved for football. The fireworks have been truly glorious.
Blows have been exchanged and shots have been fired between the two franchises for the better part of a year now, with the storyline unfolding almost too perfectly, as if it were meticulously scripted for WWE by Vince McMahon to televise on Monday Night Raw.
Feuds like this all have a very traceable, distinct starting point. If you're looking for your trigger event, your spark, your "Scott Hall shows up on Nitro" moment that ignited this basketball brushfire, look no further than a simple phone call from Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey to Mark Cuban in the summer of 2013.
After winning the free agency sweepstakes for center Dwight Howard over four other suitors (among them, the Mavericks), Morey called Cuban to inquire about the trade availability of Mavs cornerstone forward Dirk Nowitzki. It's not overstating things to say that, in conventional terms, asking Cuban about Dirk's trade availability is the NBA equivalent of asking your neighbor about his wife's availability for a threesome.
And reportedly, that's how Cuban took it.
Since then, the heat between the two teams has been palpable, particularly between the two faces that, to fans, represent "management" of both franchises, Cuban and Morey.
Cuban's response to the Howard signing came just two weeks later, when he chose to hire Morey's right hand man, Gersson Rosas, to be Dallas' next general manager. However, in the shortest heel turn in Houston sports history, Rosas would actually return to the Rockets three months later, citing his role with the Mavericks as "not the best fit for [him]."
Since then, the war of words between Cuban and Morey has been about as "sports personal" as you can get, with Cuban openly deriding Howard's decision to take his talents to Houston and eschew a "championship culture" like the one in Dallas. Further, Cuban has openly criticized Morey's hyper-analytical methods of team constructing, with all of its constant churn of non-superstar personnel, for what Cuban says is a total disregard for team chemistry.
In sports, openly denigrating another team's core philosophies is borderline taboo, tantamount to telling a couple how to raise their kids, and a few weeks ago Morey figuratively finally got tired of having his parenting methods questioned. He fired back at Cuban in a now famous interview with Yahoo! Sports in late September saying, among many other things, that Cuban had directed his "bully pulpit" at the Rockets and that, if the money's equal between the Rockets and Mavericks, "players are picking Houston, every time."
For Rocket fans, Morey's comments were a welcomed salvo back at Cuban, the quintessential cocky villain who, if he were any more smug, would probably be stealing Ralph Macchio's girlfriend in an '80s movie.
Still, words are just that. Words. The back and forth between Morey and Cuban, between Parsons and angry Houstonians on Twitter, entertaining as it may be, is mere noise when it comes to pursuit of an NBA title. It's no coincidence that the one team in Texas choosing to stay out of the fray is the one team in the NBA that can call themselves "defending NBA champion," the San Antonio Spurs.
Ultimately, getting bogged down in a mid-card feud with Dallas can only be a hindrance to the overall goal of winning a title. Daryl Morey knows this, and as the season approaches, his war of words with Cuban has simmered. He's focused on the big picture.
Everything Morey does, every move he makes is with the goal of an NBA title in mind, including the move to allow Parsons to walk and become a Maverick, as unpopular as the move was at the time it went down. Because Parsons was a restricted free agent, the Rockets had a chance to match the Dallas offer, but they chose not to, in part because Morey felt the team was better served signing Trevor Ariza for half the money Parsons would make and maintaining salary cap flexibility to make moves during the 2014-15 season.
"We want to be a better team come April than we were last season. We are in a very competitive [Western Conference]," Morey said. "We feel like with the addition of Trevor Ariza to go along with Pat [Beverly] and Dwight [Howard], we've got three of the top defenders in the league. Overall, we were an average team defensively. We want to be a top ten team."
"Our guys will learn from last year's painful loss," Morey contnued. "We were the youngest team in the playoffs, and that contributed to our first round exit, but on some level that bodes well for the future. We have a lot of upside."
Morey is publicly very complimentary of Parsons, despite letting him walk to Dallas, saying on multiple occasions that Parsons can become one of the top players in the league. The Rockets, though, feel they are better served with Ariza and flexibility than with Parsons and no flexibility.
It's not personal, it's just business.
However, given the very vocal and, at times, combative way in which Parsons handled his exit, up to and including comments about downtown Houston being "dirty," Rocket fans may not be so pragmatic (even if downtown Houston actually is kind of dirty).
Rocket fans have long memories. The diehards can recount every Hakeem Olajuwon stat line from the 1994 and 1995 NBA Finals, so certainly they won't be forgetting Parsons's comments, his tweets nor his exuberant pictures from a Florida nightclub with the eminently hatable Cuban posted on Instagram moments after signing his $48 million offer sheet with Dallas.
In many ways, the Rocket faithful see Parsons's handling of the offseason as one giant middle finger to the team that drafted him and the city that embraced him, as hypersensitive as that view may be.
"It ended a little ugly media-wise [in Houston], but I've talked to all those guys and have respect for all those guys," Parsons said back when training camp opened. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't weird when I go back there and play. I hope there's no hard feelings."
Dallas plays in Houston on November 22. When it comes to Red Nation, my guess is Parsons's hope goes unfulfilled.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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