Larry H. Miller, Jazz owner and auto magnate, dies at 64
He parlayed a handful of successful automobile dealerships into a business and sporting empire, and he built the Utah Jazz into one of the NBA's most successful franchises.
Friends and colleagues Friday remembered Larry H. Miller as a skilled entrepreneur and a community visionary whose business acumen and philanthropy changed Utah.
"Every citizen in our state feels a little empty today. Larry was Utah and Utah was Larry," Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said. "He inspired many and served countless. We all have been made better by his extraordinary life."
Utah has been "blessed by his generosity and love for this community," Jazz point guard Deron Williams added. "And I am blessed to call him my friend."
Miller died Friday at age 64 of complications related to diabetes.
His health had been failing since he suffered a heart attack last summer. Doctors amputated both his legs below the knee last month to stem the effects of the disease, but he continued to suffer before deciding to end dialysis treatments.
Many believe Miller's greatest contribution was in paving the way for professional sports in Utah.
Miller risked his hard-earned financial well-being and saved the Jazz from leaving Utah when he became sole owner of the National Basketball Association franchise in 1986.
With Miller in charge, the Jazz thrived even though the team operates in one of professional sports' smallest markets.
Although the Jazz never have won an NBA championship, Miller's team reached the Finals in 1997 and 1998. The Jazz also hosted the 1993 NBA All-Star Game in what is now the EnergySolutions Arena, which Miller built and opened in 1991 at a cost of $66 million.
The list of Miller-owned businesses also includes the Salt Lake Bees of the Pacific Coast League, Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Fanzz retail stores, KJZZ television, Prestige Financial, Jordan Commons business and entertainment center and the Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theaters.
By the end of 2007, Miller owned 42 automobile dealerships, which combined for sales of $2.3 billion. PowerSales magazine ranked him as the nation's No. 10 auto dealer.
An early start in business
Lawrence Horne Miller was born on April 26, 1944, to Mary Lorille Horne and Howard Hanley West, an oil refinery worker. His parents divorced in 1946, and Mary Horne married Frank Soren Miller two years later. Frank Miller legally adopted his stepson in 1949.
His family says he demonstrated his business skill while still in grade school, using money from his paper route to accumulate more marbles, baseball cards, stamps and pigeons than any of his friends.
He graduated from West High School in 1962.
His senior year, Jordan High defeated West for the state basketball championship. After Miller bought and demolished Jordan High to make room for Jordan Commons in 1997, he recalled losing that game while speaking to students at West.
"It has been a burr under my saddle," he said. "So I bought the old Jordan High School and tore that sucker down. It took 35 years, but we got even."
An automobile tycoon is born
Sometime between November 1963 and early 1964, Miller took the step that launched his business career by accepting a job at American Auto Parts.
After marrying Karen Gail Saxon on March 25, 1965, he spent another three years learning the basics of the automobile business at American. In 1968, he accepted a job as parts manager at Peck and Shaw Toyota in Murray.
Away from work, Miller turned to another passion: fastpitch softball.
Throughout the late 1960s, Miller earned a reputation as one of Utah's top pitchers. In 1970, he took his growing family to Denver, where he became the parts manager at Stevinson Toyota and played in higher-caliber fastpitch leagues against some of the country's best players. Miller eventually would be inducted into the International Softball Hall of Fame.
At Stevinson, Miller worked 90 hours a week, turning its parts department into the most successful in the country. He eventually became operations manager at five Denver-area dealerships.
"Larry did a phenomenal job," Stevinson owner Gene Osborn once said. "He was intense and committed to his job."
In 1979, Miller bought Universal Toyota in Murray. He spent his personal savings, borrowed $200,000 and agreed to monthly payments of $17,000 for 10 years to complete the purchase.
"If I'd stopped to think about it, it would have scared me and I probably would not have done it," Miller told The Tribune.
Not to worry. Within five years, Miller owned six dealerships. By 1990, he owned 16 in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, with gross sales of $310 million.
Empire expands to include Jazz
By that time, Miller had also become entrenched as an owner of the Jazz. The franchise moved to Utah from New Orleans in 1979.
At first, Miller was a casual fan, buying season tickets more from a sense of civic duty than because he actually enjoyed the games.
By 1985, however, owner Sam Battistone had authorized then-general manager Dave Checketts to sell 30 limited partnerships in the team for $100,000 each as a way of trying to save Utah's only major-league franchise.
Miller was contacted as a possible buyer, but he told one of Checketts' associates, "I'm interested in helping the Jazz stay in Utah, but I don't think a limited partnership is the answer."
Ten minutes later, Checketts knocked on Miller's door.
Miller was interested because "I became acutely aware that if the Jazz ever got out of town and went to another market -- and there were a lot of rumors -- that in my lifetime and probably my children's lifetime, they would never come back."
On April 11, 1985, Miller bought 50 percent of the Jazz. Fourteen months later, he bought the other half and become sole owner. The total purchase price? Perhaps as much as $27 million.
"It was an opportunity, I realized, to give a community and a state that I care a great deal about something that maybe nobody else could give them," Miller said.
An NBA franchise altered forever
Under Miller's ownership, and with future Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone starring on the court ,the Jazz became a model for other franchises: efficient and profitable in an era of skyrocketing costs and player salaries.
After the Jazz eliminated San Antonio from the 1998 playoffs, new Spurs owner Peter Holt shook Miller's hand and told him, "You are what we're trying to become."
Once, Miller was asked what trait he wanted to be most closely connected with his basketball team.
"Good values," he said. "I would want it to stand for hard work still paying off and discipline still paying off and consistency still paying off. I feel like, as a sports organization, we epitomize those things. Those things still count for something."
They counted for Stockton. "Larry was a great friend, and those are hard to find," he said.
Rash actions attract attention
Of course, Miller's life in the spotlight included some controversial moments.
He NBA once fined him $10,000 for calling Portland point guard Greg Anthony "a cheap-shot artist."
During Game 5 of the 1994 Western Conference semifinal series between Utah and Denver, Miller was unhappy about being heckled by Nugget fan Richard Babich. Photographers caught the enraged Miller grabbing Babich by the throat.
The most publicized controversy to ever envelop Miller had nothing to do with basketball, however.
Instead, Miller infuriated critics when he pulled the film "Brokeback Mountain" from his movie theaters after learning its storyline included a gay love affair.
At first Miller said, "I don't want to be a censor. But to me, there are certain things that cross the line."
Within a few weeks, however, he met with local gays and lesbians before a speech at the University of Utah, and he told them the incident had given him a greater understanding of the prejudices they face.
"If we take time to listen to each other and try to understand each other," he said, "we find we have a lot more in common than we previously thought."
Miller is survived by his wife, Gail, and their five children.