'An extraordinary life:' Jazz owner Larry H. Miller 1944-2009

Published: Saturday, Feb. 21 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Jazz star Karl Malone looks at the NBA's MVP trophy that was presented to him by Larry H. Miller on Sunday afternoon at a press conference inside the Delta Center, May 18, 1997.

Chuck Wing, Deseret News

Larry H. Miller — car dealer, Utah Jazz owner, philanthropist, entrepreneur, Utah icon — died Friday at his Salt Lake mansion at the age of 64 after a long battle with various health problems. Miller's health declined steeply after he suffered a heart attack in June 2008. That was followed by kidney failure, gastrointestinal bleeding and other problems associated with gout and type 2 diabetes. It took surgery, eight pints of blood, two liters of fluid and 59 days in the hospital to save his life. He was hospitalized three more times during the next seven months. He was considered clinically dead on five different occasions during that time, once as recently as December, but was resuscitated.

Each time Miller worked valiantly to regain his strength and mobility, undergoing rigorous physical therapy, but there was always a setback.

His feet riddled with infection and diabetic ulcers, Miller had both legs amputated 6 inches below the knee on Jan. 23.

Miller knew he was in a desperate battle for his life. The night before he was to undergo the amputation, he was asked about the prognosis. "They don't know," he said.

Miller's downhill slide continued.

On Feb. 12, doctors gave Miller more bad news: He had contracted calciphylaxis, a rare disease that strikes a small percentage of those suffering renal failure or undergoing dialysis. The disease calcifies blood vessels, blocking the flow of oxygen. There is no cure.

With continued dialysis, calciphylaxis patients can survive several months. But after weighing his options for a couple of days, Miller told his wife, Gail, and his family that he would not undergo dialysis. "He didn't want to live like that," Gail Miller said. "His only concern was me. He didn't want to leave me alone."

Miller is survived by Gail, his high school sweetheart whom he married 48 years ago, and their five children — Greg, Roger, Steve, Karen and Bryan, as well as 21 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

During one wistful moment while recovering from his heart attack, Miller said, "You know, I don't want this to sound boastful, but I really have had an extraordinary life."

Business sense

Miller's story is a chapter out of Horatio Alger. A poor high school student and a college dropout, he started his professional career as a stock boy in an auto parts store and, through the sheer force of his personality, work ethic and natural intelligence, became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Utah history, and one of its most prominent residents.

Miller was born and raised in Salt Lake City. He graduated from West High School with a 1.77 grade point average, but was also named a National Merit Scholar. He dropped out of the University of Utah after just six weeks. He worked a series of odd jobs for a time before he found a home in car-related businesses. In 1970, he moved to Colorado, where he became a parts manager and eventually general manager for car dealerships in the Denver area. During a vacation visit to Salt Lake City in 1979, he passed a dull afternoon by visiting an old acquaintance in the car business. By the end of the day, he owned his first dealership, purchasing a Toyota store from his acquaintance after writing up terms of the deal on a blank check.

Things happened fast after that. Miller not only became the 10th largest car dealer in the nation, with 42 dealerships in six states, but he also began acquiring other businesses in the coming years. The Larry H. Miller Group eventually included 74 business enterprises — movie theaters, auto dealerships, a world-class race track, a movie production company, an advertising agency, ranches, restaurants, TV and radio stations, a real estate development company, an NBA franchise, a professional baseball team, an NBA arena, a motorsports park, sports apparel stores and various philanthropic organizations. At one time they produced $3.2 billion in sales annually. He turned his CEO duties over to his oldest son, Greg, after suffering the heart attack in 2008.

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