In a quiet, private conversation between the two of us, Larry Miller took a deep breath, exhaling hard, reaching his hand up to his head and rubbing the top of it, sorting through a thousand possible responses he could give to the question I had just asked him.
That question was: What makes you different from other people?
He finally responded with one word and followed it up with seven more.
“Vision. … I see things others do not see.”
He built an empire with that eye- and mind-sight that included the purchase 35 years ago of the Utah Jazz, back when he had neither the sensible, nor tangible resources to do so. Which is to say, he scraped the funds together by borrowing most of it. It paid off for his family on Wednesday with the sale of a majority interest of the club for what is reported to be $1.66 billion.
Everyone wants to know more about the guy who is paying that amount — native Utahn Ryan Smith, founder of Qualtrics, a man who happens to be a basketball junkie — and the first person I talked to who is familiar enough with the 42-year-old entrepreneur to know, completely unprompted used a certain word to describe his unusual prowess.
“It’s his vision,” said Tim LaComb, the former BYU basketball assistant who coached at the school for 12 years, getting to know Smith in the process. “He sees things others don’t.”
I swear on everything that is holy, that’s what the man said.
It kind of freaked me out.
LaComb, who got to know Smith long before the new owner — pending NBA approval — came into his money, said other things, too.
"Ryan’s highly confident. He set a goal at a young age to do certain things, among them — and I remember him saying it — ‘I want to be an NBA owner.’ This was years ago. He sees things he wants to do and finds a way to do them. His vision, his ability to put things together and get momentum behind them is unbelievable.
“And he loves basketball. He plays pickup ball every day. He built a court in his house. He’s athletic, but he’s not all that good. [Laughs.] Even though Ryan said he wanted to own a team and would love to buy the Jazz, he told me he didn’t think the Millers would ever sell.”
On that point, nobody on the inside is saying exactly why after all these years Gail Miller decided to offer the team to Smith. He’d long had a relationship with the Jazz, evidenced by way of the patch on the team’s uniforms, backed by Qualtrics in the cause to cure cancer.
But this is Gail’s baby, part of her connection to her visionary late husband and a Larry legacy, considered by both of them a gift to the community. The only thing outside of her family and faith more important to her is the parent company of which the Jazz were a part, the LHM Group of Companies.
If the Jazz, in an operations sense, were putting a strain on the greater endeavor, then even the public jewel of the group could be passed along. That’s conjecture from this corner because at a virtual news conference on Wednesday morning announcing the deal, no specifics were given.
The questions of ‘Why sell? Why now?’ have yet to be answered.
Guesses could revolve around a pandemic that has been hard, even cruel to a lot of companies, requiring certain adjustments that ordinarily would not be in play. There’s also the factor of social unrest, and ownership’s possible desire not to be caught up in such a storm. Maybe the next generation of family members couldn’t lead the team.
Are those the actual reasons? Beats me.
One Jazz insider said: “This will be good for Gail.”
Gail Miller, a smart, savvy, honorable person, would not make a move like this without serious, thoughtful consideration. There’s no way she would sell the team to an owner who would move it outside of Utah. That would make little sense for her or her company, considering many of the LHM car dealerships are here in Utah, depending on ongoing business of customers who also happen to be huge Jazz fans.
I’ve known Gail for a long time and know how she feels about her home state and the unifying force her team is in it. Like any good business person, she’s driven in part by profits, but, with her, that’s not the end of it. She herself has enough money. Unless the LHM Group were absolutely crumbling, she wouldn’t risk having the Jazz leave the state.
Utah is Smith’s home, too.
As he said at the news conference, he grew up playing Junior Jazz basketball. He, like Gail, cares deeply about his home. And he has the resources to make his home’s team successful in the NBA.
“We’re going to build on that legacy,” Smith said. “It’s an incredible opportunity. … The Jazz are a gift to this whole community. That’s how we view this.”
Said Ryan Smith’s wife, Ashley: “We’re committed to Utah.”
Added LaComb: “I’m excited for them, and I’m excited for the Jazz. I don’t want to discount what the Millers have done, but I believe anything Ryan touches will prosper. I’m telling you, the Jazz will win a championship. Everyone here wants to see them do that. They’re going to get it done. He’ll get it done.”
It’s not as though Smith hasn’t familiarized himself with the NBA. He’s extremely close to a certain friend of his, a fellow by the name of Danny Ainge.
“They’re like brothers,” one source who preferred to stay anonymous said.
LaComb called Smith “brilliant.”
But he said there’s another quality the new owner shares with the former one — generosity.
"In March, one of the first weeks of COVID, I got a text from Ryan. It said, ‘Don’t get dinner.’ He then showed up in a Ford pickup with his kids at my house. Dude was standing on my doorstep with two bags of food — chicken, mashed potatoes, comfort food. And then he was headed off to someone else’s house with more food.
"That’s the essence of who Ryan Smith is. That’s what he’s about. I mean, who am I? There was nothing in it for him. I said, ‘I can’t believe you would do this.’ And he said, ‘I’m just trying to take care of a buddy, that’s all.’
“That’s him. I’m telling you. The Jazz are in good hands.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.