SALT LAKE CITY — Like thousands who knew and liked him up close and millions more who knew him from afar, I continue to be saddened that Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller left this Earth life far too early nearly three years ago at the age of 64.
But at least he didn't have to endure watching the guy he treated with extraordinary compassion turn around and lead the NBA players in a historic revolt that casts NBA owners as dispassionate, uncaring and unfair.
You remember Derek Fisher. He signed a four-year contract and played for the Jazz in 2006-07. Near the end of that season, his young daughter was diagnosed with eye cancer, a situation that Fisher said required him to move from Utah for better medical attention.
He pled his case to Miller. He needed out of his contract so he could move. He said he was willing to leave basketball if it came to that.
Miller didn't have to comply. Fisher could have played one place and had his home elsewhere, a common enough practice in the NBA.
But leading with his heart like he always did, the Jazz owner agreed that some things rank ahead of money and contracts, that this was one of them, and he told Fisher, fine, you're free to go where you need to go to take care of your family.
Two and a half weeks later, Fisher moved to Los Angeles and signed with the Lakers.
Ever since, the camp has been divided whether Fisher, who took a pay cut with the move, was above-board about his intentions or if all along his plan was to get out of Utah and play for the Lakers. (Put me down for the second option.)
Regardless, there is no disputing what happened to Fisher next. First, he went on to win two NBA championships with the Lakers, in 2009 and 2010, and this summer and fall, as president of the NBA Players Association, he took the lead in labor talks with NBA owners, a group that includes Larry's successors — son Greg and wife Gail.
When player demands were unmet, Fisher led the union chorus that characterized the owners as greedy, deceptive and manipulative, a chant that grew shrill enough that the union decertified last week so the antitrust case could be filed in a court of law.
Derek Fisher isn't unique or alone. He simply serves as a convenient and highly visible example of the serious dysfunction that is the NBA, a place where for decades well-paid, well-fed employees have constantly snapped at the hands that feed them.
Here in Utah we've been watching it up close and personal since the Jazz first arrived in 1979.
It's been like living next door to the expensive house on the hill where the parents continually and lavishly spoil their children. They give them whatever they want, treat them like royalty — and in turn the children behave like ungrateful brats.
We've all watched as salaries have increased like Argentinian inflation, as amenities that range from plush practice and playing facilities to charter jets have grown exponentially, as players have become so pampered they don't even drive their own Escalades to the arena and wouldn't think of paying full-price for anything. (And as the price of tickets and concessions rise year after year.)
And yet, it's never enough.
Right now, the average NBA salary is $5.1 million, the median NBA salary is $2.4 million (half of the players make more, half make less), and the least anyone can make is $500,000 (the rookie minimum).
And the players are revolting at the owners' notion that they need to scale back because there's a Great Recession going on, almost a 10th of America is unemployed … and by the way, two-thirds of the league's franchises are losing money every year.
In a way you can't fault the players. Isn't this how the overindulged always behave?
By the same token, the owners have only themselves to blame. They purchased their season of discontent through their decades of constant pampering and acquiescence?
And isn't it interesting that Michael Jordan, once a player and now an owner, has done a 180 and, like every kid who one day evolves into a parent, come around entirely to the owners' point of view?
Derek Fisher isn't there yet. He may never get there.
But as I watch him stand in front of the microphones in his $3,000 suit and $500 tie and talk about unreasonable and unfeeling owners, I'm just glad Larry H. Miller doesn't have to see it.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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