Late Jazz owner Larry Miller spurned huge payday to keep team in Utah

Published: Thursday, May 6 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sam Battistone, left, accepts an $8 million check from Larry H. Miller as Miller buys Battistone's half of the team.

Paul Barker, Deseret News archives

This is the fourth of an eight-part series on "Driven: An Autobiography" about the life of Larry H. Miller written by Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson in collaboration with Miller. Each begins with Robinson's personal observations and experiences from the project, followed by an excerpt from the book. "Driven" is available at Deseret Book.

Larry invited me to be his guest at a couple of Jazz games, sitting in his courtside seats, but I might as well have been invisible. He didn't talk or visit during games. He was all business. His wife, Gail, who sat through hundreds of games, couldn't visit with him, either. When she tried to visit with friends she had invited to the game, Larry would ask her why she wasn't paying attention to the game. She wanted to skip the games after a while, but Larry thought it would appear there was a marital problem. So she sat there and watched, and she is still doing that in Larry's absence. This is an excerpt from one of three lengthy chapters on Miller's arduous, daring and problematic quest to keep the Jazz in Utah. Curiously, Miller wasn't even a basketball fan at the time, but, as we all know, he certainly became one. One day during the last weeks of Miller's life, as a doctor was explaining options about continuing or discontinuing care that would prolong his life, Larry interrupted to ask, "How did the Jazz do last night?"

My pen was hovering over the document. All I had to do was sign the agreement, and the sale of the Jazz would be complete — the Jazz would go to Minnesota and I would more than double my personal net worth at the time. With my signature, I would receive $14 million for my half of the team, which, after paying off my debt, would leave me a slick $6 million profit after owning the Jazz for just 14 months — not a bad return on my investment. Sam Battistone, who owned the other half of the Jazz, had placed the contract on his desk.

"Sign these papers and I'll give you a check for $5 million in earnest money today," he said, and he stood there waiting for me to sign.

The room was quiet. I bent over the desk to sign, but then I froze. Thoughts were racing through my mind. What would I do with that much money? What does it mean to me? What would Salt Lake City be without the Jazz? What kind of hole would that leave in the community? And how could I face the fans who would be upset by this?

The reality and enormity of the decision hit me. I actually started to get dizzy and used the desk to steady myself. Part of it was the surprise. I had been caught off guard. Suddenly, Sam had showed up at my office without warning, and yet he wanted a decision right now.

Nobody wanted to believe this at the time, but I never bought the Jazz to make money, either on the operations side or as a value. Gail and I always viewed the Jazz as the grand gift we could give the city and state. We were the smallest market in the NBA and it was very clear to me that if the Jazz ever left there would never be another major league team here in our lifetime.

There was only one thing that could cause me to pick up the pen and sign a document that would take the Jazz from Utah: The Texas Option. The Texas Option, which had been written into the original contract with Sam, is a provision that is used frequently in business ventures. The Texas Option means that if either partner wants to buy out his partner or sell his share, for whatever reason, he can make an offer to his partner to that effect. But it also starts something he can't stop. If, say, Partner 1 declares that he wants to buy out Partner 2, now Partner 2 can turn the tables and say he wants to buy out Partner 1 for the same price he offered and Partner 1 must agree to it. That means Partner 1 must have a good idea of where the other stands before declaring his intentions to buy or sell.

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