SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Larry H. Miller, the car sales mogul who turned the Utah Jazz into one of the NBA's most stable teams, died Friday from complications of type 2 diabetes. He was 64. |
Miller was at home with his family when he passed away around 4 p.m.
Miller had a heart attack in June 2008, then spent nearly two months in the hospital for complications from diabetes. He was in a wheelchair after his release from the hospital and his medical problems continued, leading to the amputation of his legs six inches below the knee in January.
"He did everything he could to stay here, but it wasn't to be," said Gail Miller, Larry's widow.
The Millers' five children, their families and friends packed a room at the Jazz practice facility Friday night for an emotional news conference, which included several lighthearted moments with memories from Miller's life right up until the final days.
Gail Miller said she got to tell her husband Thursday night that the Jazz had just beaten the NBA champion Boston Celtics, 90-85.
"He went peacefully. He was prepared. We were prepared," she said.
Greg Miller, who took over the family business last summer, said doctors told his father last week that his condition was terminal because of a rare complication that prevented oxygen from reaching tissue throughout his body.
"Prior to that announcement, he had every intention of beating this and getting back to a normal lifestyle," he said.
A tireless worker, Miller started his career in an auto parts shop, then built a car dealership empire that made him one of Utah's most recognized and influential people. Miller expanded his realm in 1985 when he bought a 50 percent share of the Jazz as the team appeared on the verge of moving to Miami.
Miller bought the rest of the team a year later, declining an offer that would have sent the team to Minnesota, and the team in the smallest media market in the NBA flourished. The Jazz made consecutive appearances in the NBA finals in 1997 and 1998.
"Every citizen in our state feels a little empty today," Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said in a statement. "Larry was Utah and Utah was Larry. He inspired many and served countless. We all have been made better by his extraordinary life."
Miller had the good fortune to buy a team that had three of the longest tenures in league history: John Stockton, Karl Malone and coach Jerry Sloan. Stockton, the NBA's career leader in assists and steals, played all 19 of his seasons for the Jazz, 18 of them dishing the ball off to Malone as he scored the second-most points in NBA history.
"Personally, I have lost a valuable friend. Larry has been such a remarkable individual," Stockton said in a statement. "He is someone we will all miss."
Malone, a two-time league MVP, was with the Jazz for 18 seasons in his 19-year career. Sloan still holds the coaching job he started in 1988.
Around the time Miller bought the Jazz, the team set a goal to sell 10,000 season tickets in the Salt Palace, the team's tiny home arena after it moved from New Orleans. Six years later, the Jazz were playing in a brand new building that held 19,100 and filled up as the team got better.
And Miller was sitting in his courtside seat, wearing khakis, a golf shirt and tennis shoes, for nearly every game, giving his players and fans an unobstructed view into his emotions.
"The NBA lost a great leader, colleague and friend today," commissioner David Stern said in a statement. "We will miss him."
The Jazz planned to show a short video tribute and hold a moment of silence before Saturday's home game against New Orleans.
Miller didn't have the reputation of owners like George Steinbrenner or Mark Cuban, but was very hands-on with his team. When he wasn't happy with the Jazz's performance, he was known to stand behind the bench, silently glaring at the players and sometimes punctuating his point with a locker room tirade. Miller got so frustrated early in the 2005-06 season that he skipped eight games.
He also had a lighter side, which showed when he donned an old-fashioned Jazz uniform for a game in 2004 when the team was celebrating its 25th season in Utah. The short shorts and jersey were a snug fit on the portly owner, who completed the late '70s ensemble with purple wrist bands and walked onto the court after introductions as if he were going to take the opening tip.
Miller's ownership years also included some turmoil, most notably with the always vocal Malone. One of the top players in NBA history, Malone wasn't quite untouchable when Miller felt the power forward was saying things in the wrong place or at the wrong time.
Their public spats during Malone's time with the Jazz included hints he may want to be traded or threats to leave as a free agent. One of their last clashes came late in the 2002-03 season, when Malone was near the end of his contract and suggested publicly that the Jazz may have wanted the 39-year-old to move on.
"I've put up with them. I'm not going to put up with them now. If he wants to get into a (public shouting) contest, let's go," Miller said before a game in April 2003. "To throw disruptive hand grenades is not right. It's not fair to his teammates. It's not fair to the coaches. It's not fair to the franchise. It's not fair to me."
The clashes of fiercely strong personalities always ended with Miller and Malone simmering down, then talking out the problem. When Malone finally ended his career in Utah by signing a free-agent deal with the Lakers, Miller tearfully wished him well.
There was never any doubt Miller would retire Malone's No. 32, which the Jazz did in 2006, and Miller added to his legacy with a bronze statue of Malone that stands next to Stockton's outside the arena.
After Stockton retired and Malone left for the Lakers, many speculated the team from the obscure state with the funny liquor laws wouldn't last without its marquee players. Miller was never among the skeptics and a few years later shook his reputation for being tight with money by paying big in free agency.
The Jazz signed Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur in 2004, then a year later drafted point guard Deron Williams to set a new foundation that had Utah back in the playoffs in 2007.
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