The Utah Jazz basketball campus resides in the home of a former auto dealership. (Photo by Berry Tramel)
The Utah Jazz has a proud history. And not just the Karl Malone/John Stockton glory years. The Jazz has been competitive and relevant most of its 37 years in Salt Lake City.
And it goes back to ownership. In 1985, Larry Miller bought 50 percent of the Jazz for $9.5 million. A year later, he bought the remaining 50 percent for $17.3 million. The Jazz today is valued at $1.2 billion.
Larry Miller grew up in Salt Lake City, went to work for American Auto Parts at age 20 and eventually became parts manager for a Utah auto dealer. Talk about your American success stories. Miller worked his way up and eventually worked a partnership deal with his uncle to purchase a Toyota dealership in suburban Murray, Utah. In 1981, Miller bought out his uncle and began acquiring other dealerships throughout the American West.
Miller bought the Jazz about the time Stockton and Malone got to town, and Utah began a long history of winning. Between 1983 and 2014, the Jazz had only two losing seasons.
Utah had three straight losing seasons from 2013-14 through 2015-16 but has emerged as a viable Western Conference contender the last two seasons.
Miller died in 2009, but his family continued to run the franchise. And last year, his widow, Gail Miller, announced that ownership of the Jazz and Vivint Smart Home Arena had been transferred into a legacy trust to keep the franchise in Utah for generations.
“As a family, we have always considered the Utah Jazz a community asset and it has been our privilege to serve as stewards of this team for more than 30 years,” said Gail Miller. “There have been many opportunities to sell and move the franchise, but from the day Larry and I purchased the Jazz our goal was to keep the team in Utah. The legacy trust will help to ensure this commitment is kept for generations to come.”
That’s called civic commitment. That’s the kind of leadership the Thunder has, and that’s one of the reasons small markets like OKC and Salt Lake (and San Antonio and Portland) can thrive in the NBA.
I went to the Jazz practice facility Sunday, and it’s been built on the site of a former Larry Miller auto dealership. Right next to another Larry Miller auto dealership, in west-central Salt Lake City.
From my limited access, the Jazz facility seemed similar to the Thunder’s – although Utah has a bigger room for press conferences. It’s a little more visible than Thunder headquarters. The boulevard on which the Jazz facility sits is like a newer Shields Boulevard or a less-busy Northwest Expressway. Six lanes.
The Pacific Coast League Salt Lake Bees, also owned by the Miller family, play in Smith’s Ballpark, not far from the Jazz practice facility. The Bees’ home, opened in 1994, is the largest in the PCL, with a capacity of 15,411. It looked nice but not anything as cool as Bricktown Ballpark.
While waiting for the Jazz to finish practice and conduct interviews, I chatted with David James and Patrick Kinahan, who co-host the DJ & PK morning show on 1280 The Zone. I have been on with them many times over the years, usually about conference realignment as we talked about Brigham Young and the Big 12.
They told me all kinds of things about Utah sports culture and history. Including how the University of Utah has caught BYU as the big dog in interest, thanks primarily to the Pac-12 admission of Utah and BYU lingering in independence purgatory. And also this nugget – when Rick Majerus was coaching Utah basketball, he lived in the Marriott hotel where we’re staying. Fourteen years Majerus coached the Utes and lived in the Marriott most of that time.
Erik Horne had joined me at the Jazz headquarters but left early to get to Thunder practice. So Patrick gave me a ride back downtown, to Thunder practice.
The Thunder was long gone, so Erik and Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune were working in the press room. I joined them and we knocked out a bunch of work.
Then Erik and I walked about a mile through downtown for dinner at Market Street Grill. My Kansas City friend, Tim Cowden, once lived in Salt Lake and had recommended Market Street. It’s a seafood place, with cool décor. A little pricey, but not terrible, and we haven’t spent much on food this trip.
Erik had fried salmon, which neither of us had ever heard of. I had a seafood combo. Mine was really good. Erik figures he’ll stick to grilled salmon from now on, but it was an adventure.
Then we caught an Uber back to the hotel and by then it was about 6:30 p.m. I finished up some work, then crashed. Two straight nights of being up past 2 a.m. had caught up with me. The Thunder PR crew was hosting a party back in downtown. But I didn’t have the energy. I assume Erik went.
I didn’t get to see as much of Salt Lake as I wanted, but that’s sometimes the way it goes on the NBA playoff road.