“Seeing that Larry was weary and fighting sleep, I took my leave, casting one last look back at the man – a legendary figure in Utah history – before I reached the door. I knew what I had to do; I had to honor his wish. He died the next day, February 20th, 2009. He was 64.” –Excerpt from Driven, An Autobiography, by Larry H. Miller with Doug Robinson.
Those words are found at the end of the preface of Driven, the autobiography Larry H. Miller was working on with his friend Doug Robinson before Miller’s untimely death. Robinson speaks of honoring Miller’s wish, which was to have the book the two men were working on finished and published so that everyone could know Miller’s story. The end result of their work was an autobiography that truly reveals what a man Miller was, including his inspirational life story.
“His story is a chapter out of a Horatio Alger book. After dropping out of college, he worked as a stock boy in an auto parts store and, through the sheer force of his personality, native intelligence, and work ethic, became the most successful entrepreneur in the history of Utah. Whether sitting in his hilltop mansion that overlooks the entire Salt Lake Valley or in his tenth-floor aerie atop the Jordan Commons office complex, he has literally risen above his working-class roots (Robinson 2).”
As is evidenced by that paragraph taken from the introduction of Driven, there is an incredible story behind Miller, more than a humble writer such as myself could hope to include in a single article that hopes to detail his lasting and powerful legacy. However, I’m going to do my best to convey my image of the man that Miller was. I didn’t know him personally, but after reading his autobiography I hold immense respect for him. From what I saw and heard of him in interviews over the years, as well as the detailed account of his life I’ve read multiple times, I feel as if I have a good picture of what kind of a man Miller was.
Miller started life like most of us, a young kid growing up in Utah with a close group of friends and a childhood spent running around neighborhoods playing softball like the kids in The Sandlot. However, he had a home life that, in his words made him feel as if he didn’t have, “Any encouragement or instruction from my parents about how to function as an adult in the real world (Miller 32).”
There was an incident shortly before Miller turned 16, when he arrived home after a night spent with his friends to find all his clothes in three sacks on his porch, and all the doors to his house locked. Taking his bags of clothes with him, Miller ended up at the Haslam’s house, where a few of his friends lived. They lived only three blocks from his family. Miller lived with them for six months before finally moving back into his home two days before Christmas in 1963 (Miller 28)
However, Miller had even more shocking moments in his youth. Miller was still 15 when his mother announced that their family had decided to leave the LDS church, the faith Miller had grown up in.
“I was stunned, blown away. I have told you that my youth was a precarious walk across a sheet of ice that I was never certain would hold me, and now I had fallen through the ice and was gasping for air and grasping for solid ground. The foundation of my family life – our religious faith – had collapsed. My world as I knew it would never be the same (Miller 41).”
Miller, who became a devoutly religious man later in his life, had many shocks such as these throughout his entire life. But all of these instances of hardship and shock didn’t drag him down – Miller was the kind of amazing person to rise above the troubles around him and make something of himself.
An example of that driven personality was shown in his astoundingly sharp mind. Despite grades that were far below average in high school (he graduated West High School with a 1.77 GPA), Miller was also a National Merit Scholar (Miller 56). This odd note on his mental capabilities only made what he accomplished later in his life seem even more profound. Miller described himself as always loving numbers and being exceptionally good with them. “I don’t know what it is about numbers, but I have always loved them. Some might say I’m obsessed with them. My mind is always crunching numbers in some fashion (Miller 62).” This aptitude at mathematics served Miller well during contract negotiations with NBA players, as well as acquiring loans for his many business ventures.
His business ventures were many and in his young days, they were very precarious. One could write an entire book based solely on his business life before his purchase of the Jazz. Some of Miller’s greatest accomplishments as a young entrepreneur include taking the Chuck Stevinson Toyota dealership, located in Lakewood, Colorado, to become the first Toyota dealership’s parts department to reach $1 million in annual sales. That same dealership, under Miller’s business savvy, also made $2 million in annual parts sales before any other Toyota dealership in the United States made $1 million (Miller 86).
All of this entrepreneurial skill culminated in Miller’s gutsy purchase of the Jazz that began in 1985. He bought half the team for $8 million dollars, $1.75 million more than 11 investors had paid for the team when it originated in New Orleans. Miller had to pledge money from several different banks in Salt Lake, as well as take loans out for an amount of money more than double his net worth at the time, all in order to keep the Jazz in Utah (Miller 127).
Seeing as Miller wasn’t worth nearly as much as the rest of the NBA owners, the other part owner of the Jazz at the time, Sam Battistone had to do some serious convincing in order to get the NBA Board of Governors to accept Miller as part owner. Interestingly enough, after hearing Miller’s case and seeing his financial standings, the late Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, gave Miller his stamp of approval. “Jerry saved me that day. I won approval from the owners (Miller 128).”
Miller then went on to buy the other half of the Jazz and build them an arena, all in order to keep the team in Utah. Miller spent about $95 million on the Jazz (Miller146). Over the years, as the value of NBA franchises skyrocketed, Miller had multiple offers for the Jazz, but he always declined. He viewed the Jazz as his gift to the great state of Utah, and what a gift the team has become. “‘Selling the Jazz,’ he once said, ‘Would be like selling Canyonlands.(Robinson 6).’”
Miller loved the Jazz. He also loved softball, Shelby Cobra muscle cars, and helping others. He tried to give back to community as much as he could, even building the Salt Lake Community College with $50 million of his own money (Robinson 1).
Utah would be an incredibly different place without Miller’s lasting influence. He left his mark on a state that would be drastically different without the presence of the Jazz and Millers’ businesses. A survey conducted by Dan Jones and Associates found that 99 percent of people in the Salt Lake Valley have done business with services provided by Miller – and that’s not taking into account his television and radio stations (Robinson 2).
An interesting note included in the post-script to chapter 11 of Driven reads as follows:
In 1980, on their 15th wedding anniversary, Larry and Gail were sealed to each other and their children in the Salt Lake Temple, which, in the Mormon faith, means they are united forever and not merely for time on earth. Before the ceremony, the temple sealer said, “I feel impressed to tell you that your name will be known in this valley by thousands, perhaps tens of thousands (Robinson 104-105).
Regardless of your religious views, that short story is yet another example of the extraordinary life Miller lived. I don’t mean to favor the Mormon faith by including that excerpt from Driven, but rather to draw attention to how much of an impact Miller had on every person he met in his life. He was an owner unlike any other in the NBA, one that suited up and warmed up with his players before the game. According to the foreword John Stockton wrote for Driven, Miller would, “Charge like a rhino, snorting and puffing, into our locker room after unpalatable losses. He would roar his contempt for our effort and stomp back out the door. We had never encountered the this type of intensity by an owner, and it took some getting used to. I surely did not know the blessing that had just graced my life (Stockton xiii).”
Miller truly did bless the lives of others he met, and he did so with humility, not seeking praise for his actions. He was a great man, and is sorely missed. One would hope he’d be happy with the current state of the Jazz, four years after his premature passing. May he rest in peace.
Miller, Larry H. Robinson, Doug. ” Driven: An Autobiography.” 2010 Deseret Book. Print.