It was before a game at the old Salt Palace, and a publicist from an Eastern Conference team was staring at Larry H. Miller, dumbstruck.
The Jazz owner was on the court, shooting with his team during warmups. I mentioned Miller had his own cubicle in the Jazz locker room, his own uniform, too.
"Can you imagine our owner doing that?" he said, incredulously.
I couldn't imagine anyone's owner doing that, except the Jazz's.
Miller was that close. To the game, the team, the city, the state.
Which is why the Jazz, Grizzlies and Bees are still here. And why nobody has done more for sports in Utah than Miller. Not John Stockton, Merlin Olsen, Steve Young, Karl Malone, Keith Van Horn, LaVell Edwards or any of the other great athletes and coaches who have worked and played here.
They made headlines, but Miller made certain the teams were here to watch.
Besides, he made nearly as many headlines himself.
Miller, who passed away Friday of complications related to diabetes, considered Utah sports teams part of his mission. He wanted to educate and employ, but he also wanted to make sure people had a little sports diversion (obsession?) in their lives.
When cost overruns put the future of what is now Franklin Covey Field in doubt, Miller kicked in $2 million. He later bought the team. He also bought the Golden Eagles, precursors to the hockey Grizzlies, and maintained them at a loss of $1 million a year for their last five years.
When Grizzlies' owners said they couldn't afford a five-year lease, Miller allowed their team to play in the Delta Center for its first two seasons, though he could have told them to find their own ice.
When the financially strapped Jazz were looking to move, he bought the team, then rebuffed offers to sell.
Yet it wasn't the prestige of owning teams as much as being in the game that mattered to him. He once ended an interview with me by saying agreeably, "See you next round." Like we'd been in a boxing match.
He never stopped being the competitive softball pitcher he was in his youth, which sometimes created controversy. He chided Greg Ostertag about his conditioning, questioned Carlos Boozer's judgment and occasionally argued with opposing players from his courtside seats. He made national news when he scuffled with Denver fans during halftime of a playoff game.
Some of his most memorable moments were when he clashed with Malone over contracts. Yet they always made up.
That's what you do with teammates and family. You make up.
Which is why he had such a hard time trading or waiving players, and why he cried at press conferences.
Despite owning more than 80 businesses, he never lost touch with what he used to be: a guy from the auto parts department who pitched on the softball team. Sure, it was a world-class softball team, and the parts department bloomed into an empire. He was still Larry in a golf shirt.
A guy you wanted to grab a burger with.
And as any burger buddy should be, he was honest to a fault. When the Jazz signed a player to a new contract, one year, they said no terms would be announced. Too bad nobody told the boss. Or maybe they did. I pulled him aside after the press conference and asked if it was accurate to say the player would be making about $800,000 a year.
"I'm not supposed to give the terms," he said, "but if you said he'll be making $850,000, $875,000 and $900,000 for the next three years, you wouldn't be far off."
Another time, alone with him in a construction trailer, I asked him what the Jazz were thinking, re-signing Ostertag that summer. He didn't even blink. He told me he understood my doubts, he'd had them himself. But he thought if Ostertag made the difference in even three or four games the next year, it would be worth it.4 comments on this story
Pure Larry, taking the risk and loving it.
Times changed, and Miller didn't have a cubicle in the Jazz locker room in recent years. Teams can carry more players now, so maybe it was a space issue. More likely things had become a little too businesslike for that.
If it were up to me, I'd bring it back. Uniform and all.