If you think that Larry Miller doesn't have anyone bugging him for Utah Jazz tickets this week just because he's crossed the Pacific Ocean, well, then, you don't know your Toyotas.
Miller, the Jazz's owner as well as the owner of six Toyota dealerships in four western states, might not even have made this historic Jazz road trip - a trip that will see them team with the Phoenix Suns this weekend to stage the first regular season on-foreign-soil sporting competition in U.S. professional sports history."With the new arena being built (in Salt Lake) and everything else going on," says Miller, "I was thinking that now isn't a good time to get away. But then I started thinking about all the people I'd insult if I didn't go."
Like about half of Tokyo.
In Japan, Miller is not without connections. First, there's Sumitomo Trust, a banking conglomerate that is carrying the $66 million note financing the Jazz's new 20,000-seat arena in downtown Salt Lake. Second, there's the Ohbayashi Corp., a general contracting firm that is building the arena in a joint venture with Utah-based Sahara Construction.
Third, there's Kawasaki Steel, the Tokyo company that is engineering the specifications for the roof that will cover the massive new arena.
And then there's the Toyota Motor Co., a business that gave Miller his start more than 20 years ago.
"I will be doing a lot of official bowing," says Miller, "and careful listening when they tell me their names."
Officials from all four above-named companies will be guests of Miller, and the state of Utah, at a dinner reception Thursday night at the Intercontinental Hotel in Tokyo, where the Jazz and the NBA are headquartered. Then, too, they'll be guests at the games Friday and Saturday. When it comes to comp VIP tickets, there is no difference between East and West.
While Miller says there is no connection between the Jazz's appearance here and his business relationships in Japan (the NBA made preliminary arrangements for these games well before the Jazz owner got involved with building the new arena) he does see a kind of symmetry in bringing the Jazz to the land of their birth. So to speak.
"I don't think there's any question that my affiliation with Toyota created the resource base that has allowed all this to happen," he says, meaning his ability to be able to sell cars and finance the buying of the Jazz.
Now a diversified car magnate of the '90s, he sells all kinds of different makes of cars - Japanese, Korean, American. But Toyota was the first.
His initial contact with Toyota was purely by chance. In 1968 Miller got a job as parts manager for a car dealership in Murray named Peck & Shaw. Peck & Shaw sold GMCs and a relatively new Japanese import called Toyota.
The parts and service department for Toyota and GMC were in the same location - next door to the GMC showroom but about a mile from the Toyota showroom.
"Toyota came in and saw the situation and said they didn't want their cars to be sold one place and serviced somewhere else," recalls Miller. "So a new service and parts department had to be created.
"I had my choice to stay with GMC or start up the Toyota department. I'd only been working for six weeks. I chose Toyota because I understood how they numbered their parts better than I did GMC's. That was the only reason."
After moving on to work as a parts manager at two Toyota dealerships in Denver, Miller returned to Utah eight years later and bought the Toyota dealership in Murray - the same one that had given him his start.
"You always hear the phrase, 'what goes around comes around,"' he says.
So here he is.
"You know," he says, "I've always considered myself a patriot, and I'm tuned in to all the talk about trade deficits (with Japan) and all that. I've analyzed that, and I feel comfortable that what I've done (with Toyota). I've been able to create jobs in Utah, to take advantage of the free market system. In a sense, that's what the Jazz are about."
Miller's first visit to Japan was in 1976, just after he'd bought his first dealership. He went to the city of Nagoya, two hours from Tokyo, where Toyota is headquartered in a suburb named Toyota.
"I remember thinking, 'I wonder if they're always this polite, or is this an act"' he says. "Ten days later, when I was going home, I realized if there's one thing I wished I could take home with me, it would be their courtesy. They are not faking it. I've developed a real affinity for that."
And for a few other things as well. That much is obvious. Larry Miller has been no stranger to Japanese imports. Now, he's exporting his basketball team to the Tokyo.
And anybody who knows him is wondering if he's got any extra tickets. Just like home. It's a small world after all.