Tribune Editorial: Gail Miller is a champion

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) Gail Miller, owner and chairwoman of the Utah Jazz, addresses the crowd before an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Miller warned fans to not engage in inappropriate language with players. There was a recent incident involving a fan and a player from the Oklahoma Thunder where the fan has since been banned from Vivint Smart Home Arena.

The Utah Jazz and associated properties are being sold for a reported $1.66 billion. That sounds like a lot of money, even for an NBA team being sold to a Silicon Slopes whiz kid.

But compared to the value team owner Gail Miller has added to the Salt Lake City community, 'tis but a pittance.

Larry H. Miller started in the parts department, bought a Toyota dealership in Murray, and built the business into a fleet of what is now 65 dealerships in seven states, as well as the Jazz, the Salt Lake Bees, movie theaters, broadcasting, advertising, finance and real estate interests. He bought a part interest in the then-struggling basketball team in 1985, not long after it moved to Utah from New Orleans, and bought the team outright a year later.

It was a risk, and a giant vote of confidence that Salt Lake City was worthy of being a big league town. Larry was the team’s biggest booster, not just in terms of money but also as a courtside, even a locker room, presence who couldn’t get enough.

Gail, at first, not so much. But after Larry’s death in 2009, Gail took over the business, including the Jazz, and built it all into an even more successful operation.

And it was an operation that did not just make money, but gave back.

The downtown arena — the House That Larry Built — was and remains a major economic anchor for the neighborhood. And, unusual for modern major sports venues, was mostly financed privately, with surrounding infrastructure covered by taxpayers. The success of the team brought a major league boost to the whole community, helping to attract other downtown developments and services and to lay the groundwork for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

And Gail Miller’s continued leadership in a number of community and charitable causes has built Salt Lake City into a better place to live, not just do business.

The family’s support of Salt Lake Community College, where Gail was once chair of the board of trustees, made major contributions to the school’s professional and technical programs. She still serves as chair of the Intermountain Healthcare board of trustees and has been a vocal and generous booster of education and services for the homeless.

When one of the county’s three new homeless resource centers was named for her, Miller said the point of the effort was not a building, or a program, but “dignity.”

And dignity was something Miller displayed when, even before the NBA became a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, she took a very public stand against a horrible display of racist taunting of a player — a player on the other team, no less — which occurred at a Jazz home game.

The fact that this little old white lady from Utah took such pains to show the Black players of the team and the league that she had their backs is an example of how an enlightened business such as the NBA doesn’t have to choose between social justice and economic success. The two go arm in arm.

Lest this all start sounding like an obituary, note that Miller is still the leader of both a large business and many philanthropic efforts. And she remains a role model for female leaders in a state that still has far too few of those.

But the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic apparently changed the equation for the Miller family, and it announced the other day that it is selling the team, the arena and some associated properties to Ryan Smith, co-founder of the Qualtrics software company.

Smith is a big basketball fan who already had a link to the Jazz. When NBA teams started selling sponsor logos on their jerseys, Qualtrics bought the space, but used it not to promote its own business, but the “5 for the Fight” campaign to raise money for cancer research. Smith is also a good fit with the team’s and the league’s support for social justice causes.

It is good news indeed that the team will come into the eager hands, and deep pockets, of someone with strong ties to the community who is likely to keep the team here and keep it competitive.

But the new owners of the Utah Jazz will have a long way to go to match the contributions made by its matriarch and her family.