Business Mogul, Utah Sports hero of the most unusual sort, dies at 64.
by Richard Markosian
Nearly every NBA basketball team has an overweight, overly emotional super fan. But there will never be another super fan like Larry H. Miller. Without Miller there would almost certainly be no Utah Jazz basketball franchise in Utah.
Larry H. Miller was not a man afraid of risk. The Jazz came to Utah a losing team: they lost on their long time run with “Pistol” Pete Maravich, who was a great showman and tremendous all star but not much of a team player. They had lost on what should have been an amazing franchise player Adriane Dantly, who was a prolific scorer but could not cary the franchise to a winning record.
Then after their first year of business in Utah, the Jazz were showing even more loss on their balance sheet than they were in New Orleans. After five more years of losses in Utah, Jazz Owner Sam Battistone must have been surprised to see a local car dealer with enough hutzba interested in buying the sinking franchise.
Larry H. Miller decided to purchase the losing franchise simply because he was huge sports fan and wanted the Utah Jazz team to stay in Utah.
Miller bought 50 percent of the Jazz franchise on April 11, 1985 for $9.5 million. Miller’s first season as partner likely showed promise due to Miller’s marketing savy (but there is also a dearth of information in this regard **). The Jazz’s new star Darrell Griffith (Dr. Dunkenstein) showed team leadership while Adrine Dantley proved a disappointment, playing only 55 games due to wrist injury. The bright note of the Jazz’s 41-41 record was that they would have a first round pick in the 1985 NBA draft.
The extent of Miller’s involvement in choosing Karl Malone 13th draft pick out of Louisiana Tech–just three months after becoming half owner– is unclear. But this choice would be known as one of the best draft picks in NBA history. After Malone’s first season (1985-1986) averaging 15 points and 9 rebounds, the Jazz decided to trade Adriane Dantley and build the franchise around their new power forward Malone. The Utah Jazz were poised for a promising future built around Malone, Griffith and veteran guard Ricky Green. Miller then wanted to buy the remaining half of the team. Despite lower attendence at the Salt Palace in 85 than in 84, and being eliminated the first round of the playoffs– Battistone negotiated for nearly twice as much for the remaining 50% share of the franchise. The final price Miller paid for the remaining interest of the Jazz was $17.3 million.
Most Jazz fans believed that Karl Malone would be supported by starting point guard Ricky Green, but the little white guy sitting on the bench named John Stockton had other plans. And by 1988 the dynamic duo of Stocton and Malone became well known as far away as China and Russia.
Miller attendend nearly every Jazz home game, and Jazz fans loved watching Miller watch his team. Miller– like a kid watching his favorite TV program– was a highly interactive observer. He interacted with players, the refs, the fans. Miller’s emotions regarding the performance of his team were obvious. Miller’s emotional appeals to players during half-time and teary-eyed contract negotiations with Malone–who often felt too big for little SLC–kept Jazz fans rivited.
As the Jazz franchise grew and flourished, so did Millers’ automotive dealership empire. With dealerships like Karl Malone Toyota and Stockton-to-Malone Honda; Miller knew that by attaching his name and his players names to his reputation as — the guy who kept the Jazz in Utah– more customers would patronize his automotive empire.
Larry H. Miller went on to take many more financial risks in his lifetime: he purchased a local TV station then renamed it KJZZ. Miller then offered loal viewers all the games fans couldn’t watch on cable.
Miller also opened several Megaplex theaters. When a movie called “Brokeback Mountain” was released showing two homosexual men kissing, Miller decided that he didn’t want to display men kissing in his theaters. Subsequently, gay activits protested and boycotted Miller’s businesses.
After a trip to Denver’s Casa Bonita restaurant, featuring indoor waterfalls and cliff divers that Miller thought were cool– Miller decided to open a similar restaurant at his Jordan Commons called “the Mayan Adventure” featuring animatronic talking parrots, cliff divers and synthetic 50 foot tall cliffs. Casa Bonita later filed a lawsuite of copyright infringement due to his new restaurant idea. The Mayan serves Mexican food. Like many Utahns, Miller didn’t understand that Peruvian and Yucatan cuisine differ significantly from Mexican food; but chances are very few diners at the Mayan notice the cultural gaff.
Miller then made his final dream a reality by building the largest and best race car track in North America at the Miller Motorsport Park, which now hosts many international circuit race events as well as monster truck ralleys– which we in Utahn can never get enough of.
Despite all later accomplishments, Miller will always be remembered for his saving the Jazz franchise then turning the team into the dominent force it became in the NBA. I will never forget the noise meter displayed on the Delta Center jumbo tron–seemingly orchestrated by Millers’ enthusiasum– which gave the Delta Center the reputation for being the loudest arena, and one of the most winning records due to the crazy Utah Jazz fans.