Larry H. Miller: Driven

May, 26, 2010
5/26/10
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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“Driven,” the posthumous autobiography of Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller (written with Doug Robinson), arrives with certain assumptions.

The most obvious is that there are a lot of people eager to spend $25.99 and however long it takes to read 336 pages to learn more about a guy whose key business decision came in 1979, when he bought a Toyota dealership in Murray, Utah.

Those no longer with us ought to get a pass from charges of egocentrism, but there’s a certain, let’s say, confidence in arranging not only this book, but also to have one’s own funeral in a 20,000 seat basketball stadium, for instance, or in creating an appendix -- stretching to a dozen pages -- listing the dates of every auto dealership purchase or name change in your business empire’s history.

That attitude infuses the book, which operates on the basic assumption that being like Larry Miller is a reader’s goal. Beloved though he was (thousands did come to his funeral!), from afar some of the best known moments of Miller’s NBA life were regrettable:

  • In 1994, he made headlines by pushing, shoving and yelling at some Nuggets fans who dared to hang around his seats when he was in a bad mood.
  • In 2006, America swooned for one of Hollywood’s first gay blockbuster love stories, “Brokeback Mountain.” Upon learning of its subject matter, Miller banned it from his chain of theaters.
  • A prominent Mormon who rued Sunday Jazz games, Miller knew his audience’s family-friendly concerns, and sold them hard on Karl Malone. One thing the book does not address is Malone's shirking of nearly all of his fatherly duties more than once.

Who’d want to read a book about how to be like that guy?

Everybody who cares about the NBA should, for the simple reason that it’s a fascinating, thorough and honest look inside an owner’s life, which does a delightful job of showing Miller’s unique gifts -- work ethic, determination, insight -- without papering over his many shortcomings, including the work schedule that kept him from his children, an explosive temper, micromanaging and impatience.

“People ask me if I set out with a plan,” he writes. “No way. The chain of events that began my entrepreneurial career was sparked by three failures: I dropped out of college, got laid off, and got demoted.”

When you start jobless, wandering into an auto parts store hoping for any work at all, and end owning the Jazz, 42 car dealerships, movie theaters, a motor speedway, a triple A baseball team and a stadium, to go with radio, television, restaurant, real estate, movie, advertising and finance firms … in between there was inevitably something special.

Obsessive work, in this case.

If Miller has one primary piece of advice for those aspiring to be him, it’s to read and learn from a 1958 Richard Thurman short story from Reader’s Digest. Reprinted as an appendix of “Driven,” “The Countess and the Impossible” tells about a boy with a recurring job mowing the lawn of a countess with high standards. Eventually, he becomes inspired to not just mow the lawn, but to attack the project all day with rollers, edgers, cross-hatched mowing patterns and shears. He makes every conceivable detail of the garden more perfect than could possibly be expected. He turns an hour job into an all-day affair.

That kind of work earns the boy a five-dollar payment. Throughout his career, Miller saw himself as that boy, trying to do a “five-dollar job” every time. After catching on at the auto parts store, Miller realized how much time employees lost to looking in a catalog before finding the various bits and pieces on the shelves.

Instead, Miller assigned himself the task of memorizing, well, everything:
We had a brass fitting rack with 15 rows of drawers in it, and each of the drawers was subdivided. They contained hundreds of different parts. One day, when things were slow, I got a stool and sat in front of this rack and memorized the parts and their locations. I could see a pattern of where this stuff was. It paid off. When people came in with grease up to their elbows and frustration on their faces and asked if I knew how they could connect certain parts, I was able to say “Yeah, you take this, connect one of those and this to that, you need an elbow here, a compression fitting here, and you’ve got it.” They thought I was brilliant, and I had a lot of fun.

That, essentially, is how his empire was built -- one memorized compression fitting part number at a time.

“Driven” is loaded with entertaining tales.

Of course, Miller also had a front-row seat on all kinds of NBA business, which he reports on without editing out all the good stuff. There’s the time late Pistons owner Bill Davidson listens to a Mark Cuban speech to owners, then responds by telling the room that as far as he’s concerned, Cuban is just “a snot nosed little punk who got lucky.” And for those who, in the wake of Mikhail Prokhorov’s taking over the Nets, think the NBA doesn’t really vet deep-pocketed owners, let Miller tell you about Saudi billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi -- later a player in the Iran-Contra affair -- who was eager in 1984 to buy the half of the Jazz that Miller took over in 1985.

In recent months on TrueHoop, there has been a lot of talk about the business of owning an NBA team, (including with Miller’s son, Greg, who said owning the Jazz was not nearly as lucrative as their other investments). Miller is frank on this topic, too. For instance, he talks about how in 1986, he was paying about $10,000 a day towards the money he borrowed to buy the Jazz. “From my perspective,” he writes, “my car dealerships were for-profit ventures, but the purchase of the Jazz was a community gift. As I explained to the media that day, it will remain just that as long as we don’t lose so much money that it endangers the rest of our businesses and our employees.” At the time of the 1988 collective bargaining agreement, Miller says that the Jazz have not lost money, but “collecting pop cans would have been more lucrative.”

At another point Miller offers some perspective on the “big business” of pro sports, by pointing out that if the Jazz was a Toyota dealership, it would have had the fourth biggest revenue (and presumably, based on the paragraph above, least profitable) of the Miller family dealerships.

The best parts of the book address how Miller’s drive both propelled his business life while testing his relationships. “Sustained close relationships,” writes his widow Gail, (who informs much of the book mostly in italicized notes added to the manuscript by Robinson after Miller’s death,) “were always difficult for Larry.”

He tells of inviting Gail to speak to a business class he taught and having her be brutally honest about the perils of raising children with a man who works as much as he did. Greg Miller talks about how at work, his father had the habit of putting himself in the middle of too many projects, often keeping skilled employees from handling things efficiently themselves.

The people who would be close to Miller sometimes had to contort themselves to get through. Once John Stockton literally tricked Miller into his car in the stadium parking lot -- he said he needed to speak to him for a few minutes -- only to kidnap his owner, forcing Miller to join him on a drive to the Pocatello, Idaho office of Stockton’s preferred chiropractor. Stockton was sure his doctor could better address some of Miller’s health issues. There’s a similarly amazing story of Malone, in Miller’s declining days, converting himself more or less into a cancer nurse as a way to spend several days in the hospital with the owner who had become a father figure.

Through it all, the portrait that emerges is of a man who had his moments of ugliness. He flew off the handle more than a few times. But that relentlessness of spirit saw happy endings most of the time, even in those cases.

The Denver Nuggets fans he had argued with are quoted in the book as delighted at how Miller apologized repeatedly for his actions that night, and made them his guests at a later game.

Even the “Brokeback Mountain” controversy, after more effort, achieved some resolution. Miller called a meeting with protesters which he opened by saying “I want to hear what you’re feeling. What have I done to hurt you?” I don’t know that the riddle of homophobia was solved that day, but by their words and actions, it’s clear both sides were pleased with each other’s efforts towards reconciliation. Miller seemed genuinely surprised at the hurt gay Americans feel and it affected him.

“Yes, I would do it differently,” he writes. “I would either not procure the movie and not discuss it, or, if we had booked it, go ahead and run it because we were showing worse movies than that …I wouldn’t intentionally hurt someone unnecessarily. Even my own secretary was upset. I regret that I caused people pain or made like more difficult for them.”

Driven is a book about the NBA, about leadership and mostly about drive. That kind of drive doesn’t eliminate all flaws and pitfalls, but it gets you through enough of them that, by the book’s closing pages, when the family is being summoned home from the All-Star game in Phoenix, it was hard for me not to get a little choked up. Given that I had no particular emotion for Miller when I first picked up the book, I’d say that book’s at least a five-dollar job, and maybe even a $25.99 one.

Henry Abbott | email

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