Larry H. Miller calls himself an optimist, which is befitting a former auto mechanic who now owns dozens of car dealerships throughout several Western states - and an NBA franchise to boot.

Yet Miller, now in his 13th year as owner of the Utah Jazz, admits to being concerned with the current state of the NBA. At the same time, however, he said he feels confident that the Jazz can continue to be successful, despite being located in the smallest market in the league, for years to come.And while Miller, like all Jazz fans, is dreading the day when the Karl Malone-John Stockton era in Utah will eventually come to a close, he's convinced the Jazz will survive.

"I truly believe that the Jazz franchise has a lot going for it," Miller said. "I'm excited about the future - for the next two years, five years, 10 years."

Malone, on the other hand, like many other observers, is more cautious when it comes to predicting the future of the Jazz.

"Fans in Utah, there are some great ones, but they've been spoiled," Malone said. "In a few years, it's going to be interesting around here. They are going to be paying players a hell of a lot more than they're paying me right now."

Jazz fans have had it better than most. Utah is well on its way to winning 50-plus games for the ninth time in 10 seasons. The Jazz haven't had a losing year since 1983 and have been to the playoffs 14 consecutive times. It will be 15 straight next month. It's also true that players who don't have the ability of Malone will break the bank in the near future. Greg Ostertag, for instance, starts a six-year, $39 million contract next season.

Malone, after the Jazz were publicly spurned for the second time in two seasons by a couple of high-profile players who could have helped the team - first by Derek Harper a year ago and a few days ago by Rony Seikaly - also makes a valid point when he wonders if Utah will be able to attract top NBA talent in the future. Miller, however, doesn't feel that will be a problem.

"I guess I'm still naive enough to think we've got some pretty attractive things going for us as far as the city and as far as the franchise," Miller said. "I know I'm prejudiced, but I feel we have one of the best organizations in pro sports. I'm not worried about attracting players because we've got too much going for us."

Certainly the Jazz have had good success retaining players once they get to Utah. They re-signed five of their own free agents last summer (Jeff Hornacek, Antoine Carr, Shandon Anderson, Bryon Russell and Howard Eisley) and extended the contract of another player who already had a deal for this season (Ostertag).

The Jazz have several talented young players on their roster and five first-round draft picks in the next three years (their own three plus one each from Orlando and Miami). It's possible the Jazz, with a little good fortune, will be able to remain competitive - although probably not championship caliber - after their superstars are gone.

But what would happen in lean times for the Jazz? Would the Delta Center continue to sell out at current ticket prices, not to mention if prices needed to be increased? Would advertisers remain with the team during broad-casts, in print and in arena signage? Would young, developing players be as apt to re-sign with the team when they become free agents?

Miller, meanwhile, has more pressing concerns. He is concentrating on making sure the Jazz are able to survive right now as a title contender. He said, despite the fact that Utah had its best season ever in going to the NBA Finals a year ago, the franchise made less money than it had the previous season.

"We're doing OK financially," Miller said. "We've made money every year in the 13 years of my ownership. But our profits have diminished significantly, and the trend in the past four or five years is alarming. Our trend follows the trend of the league as a whole, which has seen a steep downward spiral the last six years. It can't continue. The owners are entitled to a fair return on their investment, and the players are entitled to make good money, but when things get as far out of kilter as they are now, some things have to be rem-e-died."

Miller, a member of the NBA's labor relations committee, is hopeful that an owner lockout won't need to be imposed before next season but knows it's a strong possibility.

The latest - and closest to home - indication of problems in the league came to light 10 days ago when Seikaly refused to report to the Jazz after being traded by Orlando despite being contractually obligated to be in Salt Lake City within 48 hours. The Jazz felt they had no alternative but to void the trade. Kenny Anderson, formerly of Portland, did much the same thing when he refused to report to Toronto after being traded.

Seikaly and Anderson then wound up being sent to places that were more personally acceptable to them, to New Jersey and Boston, respectively.

"That's a symptom of what's wrong with the league," Miller said. "There is no longer a concept with many of the players of the value they give to a team. They are only interested in how much money they can get for themselves. Then you get players who get busted with guns and marijuana and other stuff who pay no consequence. Guys that don't show up when they're traded. Guys who don't come to practice if they don't want to. We - the players and the owners - have to be smart enough to find a way to get control of the game back."

The league owners will vote next month on whether to re-open talks with the players' association dealing with the collective bargaining agreement.

"The NBA has been very good to a lot of people - players, owners and fans - for a long time, but there has been serious damage to the image of the league recently," he said. "If it is broken - and I think parts of it are - it needs to be fixed."