Commentary

Utah owner Miller won't listen to Jazz on the Sabbath

Updated: May 12, 2008, 10:34 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com


SOMEWHERE IN UTAH -- Honestly, I don't know where we are. All I know is that I haven't seen another car or human for miles, that the Lexus' GPS system had a nervous breakdown once we hit the dirt trails, and that we're high enough in the Wasatch Mountains that I can reach out and touch the snow drifts.

My driver is Larry Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz. This is all his fault.

[+] EnlargeLarry Miller
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty ImagesUtah Jazz owner Larry Miller is usually not far from the court on the day of a game.

Miller is LDS -- a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You can't swing a Q-tip in this part of the world without hitting a Mormon.

Anyway, it says in my hotel-supplied Book of Mormon that Sunday is an off day. Those aren't the exact words. Jarom and Mosiah use more thous and thys, but the gist of it is pretty clear.

So that's why Miller is behind the wheel of a brand new LS 450 (the instrument instructions still hang from the steering column), driving farther and farther away from the very place he'd give anything to be at: Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City … Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals … Los Angeles Lakers versus his Jazz.

He said we were going for "a drive." This is what he usually does on those rare times that the NBA and the networks schedule a Jazz regular-season or playoff game on a Sunday. He goes to church from 9 a.m. to noon, returns home, changes clothes, has a bite to eat, gets back in the car, and drives in a Jazz-free zone until the game is finished.

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Michele Tafoya had some questions for Gene Wojciechowski about his afternoon in the car with Jazz owner Larry Miller. The consensus? It was like riding with your uncle. Podcast Insider

Miller has been skipping Sunday games for the past 15 years or so. It just feels right to him. Me? I'd be gnawing on my knuckles.

Remember the final moments of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals? MJ sneaks behind Karl Malone, rakes the ball loose with his right hand, moves down the Delta Center court, drives right at the top of the key, nudges (OK, shoves) Bryon Russell aside, shoots, scores with 5.2 seconds, and the Chicago Bulls beat the Jazz 87-86 for the championship?

"One of the great shots in NBA history," says Miller.

Except that Miller wasn't there. That Sabbath thing again.

Here's the kicker: Miller, 64, also owns an assortment of movie theaters in the area, including one of two IMAX theaters. In 2000, the movie, "Michael Jordan To The Max," played at his theater.

That's Jordan on a six-story-high screen beating the Jazz.

"Like a dagger in the heart," says Miller. "It's really hard for me to see [that game] … I don't know if I'm over it yet."

Liner Notes

I can't remember exactly what time it was. Almost-midnight late. Too late on a Friday to be sending an e-mail to the Utah Jazz media relations department asking whether team owner Larry Miller would let me hang out with him Sunday.

I don't usually spend a lot of time with NBA owners. Then again, NBA owners don't usually boycott one of their own team's playoffs games because of religious reasons. But Miller was going to do exactly that. He was going to skip the game, drive around town, and do it all under a self-imposed news blackout. He wouldn't even get a scoring update.

So I sent the e-mail late Friday night, just after the Jazz had beaten the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the Western Conference semis. No way would Miller say yes to the request. No way would the e-mail ever make it to Miller.

Early Saturday morning: no response.

Late Saturday morning: no response.

I left the house. I ran errands. I even mowed my weed-infested excuse of a yard. Then my cell phone rang early in the afternoon.

"This is Larry Miller," said the voice. "I got your e-mail. What do you have in mind?" I told him. He paused and then said, "OK, that's fine."

"Really?" I said.

Imagine that. Larry and I were going on a Sunday road trip.

--Gene Wojciechowski

Miller picks me up in front of my downtown hotel at 1:19 p.m. Tip-off is scheduled for 1:30. We're tantalizingly close to the arena. Four blocks, tops.

I get in the car and Miller hands me a Red Bull and Grey Goose.

"Made 'em myself," he says, as we clink the crystal cocktail glasses.

No, not really. I'm just trying to get him in trouble with the church elders. All he really has in the car are three bottles of water. Cheapskate.

If this were a non-Sunday game, Miller would have been at the arena 90 minutes before tip-off. He would have been on the court floor with the coaching staff and trainers for the National Anthem. If he liked the way it was sung, he would have made a beeline for the singer and said so. Then he would have made his way to his usual spot: Section 17, Row A, Seat 20 -- directly across from the opposing team's bench.

Ask Lakers coach Phil Jackson; he knows.

Instead, Miller is in the driver's seat. We go through downtown, past some residential areas and then reach the University of Utah campus.

It's now 1:35. Nervous?

"I know what time it is," says Miller, as we make our way out of the city, to 8 South and Emigration Canyon. "It eats on me, not knowing."

His wife, Gail, usually makes this ride. In fact, Miller got permission from her to take a Mother's Day drive without her.

The radio is tuned to jazz. Well, not The Jazz, but a satellite radio show that features jazz and the blues. Frank Sinatra is doing the honors.

Miller could probably listen to the game without incurring the wrath of God. Same goes for watching it on TV. After all, there are actual Mormons at the game.

"I'm not trying to be holier than thou," he says. "I've got plenty of faults. But the radio … TV, we're talking shades of gray. It would be hard for me to compromise it."

Miller has a set of primo tickets for every game. He called five Mormon friends to see if they wanted his Game 4 seats.

"You going?" each one asked.

Miller said no.

"Then I'm not going."

Guilt. A powerful thing.

Miller bought the Jazz for about $24 million. He had to borrow all $8 million of the first 50 percent share he bought in 1985. His monthly nut, with interest: $180,000. Now he says the franchise is valued close to $400 million.

So I ask him the question that has confounded scholars for decades: Why Utah Jazz? Why not be more geographically correct, like -- and I'm just spitballing here -- the Saltflatters, the Locusts or the Can't Buy Liquor On Sundays?

Miller thought about changing the name when he bought the team. There even was going to be a contest. But he never went ahead with the plan.

"I'll change our name right after the Lakers change theirs," he says.

We're near the Little Dell Reservoir. I know this because Miller, who was born and raised in Salt Lake City, is all excited about seeing the water levels of the reservoir. Nerd territory. And then he says he sometimes drives up here in his '63 Falcon convertible so he can listen to the meadowlarks.

[+] EnlargeUtah Jazz
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesDeron Wiliams and Ronnie Price celebrate the Jazz taking another game at home against the Lakers on Sunday.

I'm going to give Miller the benefit of the doubt and blame the meadowlarks thing on high altitude.

By the way, it's 1:52 local time. The first quarter has got to be winding down, right? We merge onto I-80. Miller will answer anything. It keeps his mind off the game.

In no particular order, he thinks: that the Jazz can win this NBA Finals … that Derek Fisher didn't deceive the Jazz when he asked out of his contract during the offseason -- and then signed with the Lakers (Miller and Fisher chatted briefly before Game 3 of this series) … that he absolutely admires Phoenix's Steve Nash, "but no question he's on the downside of his career" … that he never would have brought Shaq to the Suns in the middle of a season … and that even with a draft day mulligan, Miller would still take Deron Williams over Chris Paul with the No. 3 overall pick.

By the way, Wanship is seven miles away. Then there's Echo Canyon, I think. Elevation: 7,500 feet or so.

We exit I-80. No clue what town. No clue if there's even a town. I see a reservoir. I see horses and cattle grazing. I see pastures. Miller gets all peaceful. It's 2:27 -- close to halftime.

We make our way up to 9,500 feet. We turn off Highway 183 onto a dirt road that runs past some snowbanks. Then we reach a Road Closed sign. By now it's almost 3 o'clock.

It's 3:22 when Miller says Sloan wants to coach for at least another season, maybe more. But when he does call it quits, longtime Jazz assistant Phil Johnson will get first crack at the job. That's written in stone.

If Johnson takes a pass, Miller is likely to make a run at John Stockton. They've discussed the job in the past, but Stockton's interest in the position -- or, more correctly, in coaching in the NBA -- has cooled. For now.

Miller has another church-related function at 6 p.m. Gail is Tivo-ing the Jazz game, but Miller says he probably won't watch any of it until Monday. Those shades of gray.

At 4:03, after 121.7 miles of driving, Miller decides it's time to check on the final score. These games never last more than 2 hours, right?

"Let's see what's going on," he says, as he toggles a switch on the steering wheel to activate the radio broadcast of the postgame show. "It should be over."

But it isn't. There's 1:06 left in regulation as Miller pulls up to my hotel. A parking valet moves toward the car. Miller waves him off.

It turns out that Fisher -- Fisher! -- has 10 points in the fourth quarter to help lead a Lakers comeback. And then, with Utah ahead by two, the Lakers' Lamar Odom tips in a Kobe Bryant miss with 4.5 seconds remaining. Utah ball.

Miller says nothing.

"You're calm," I say.

"Probably only on the outside," he says.

Utah misses the final shot. Overtime.

"Gotta go," says Miller. "Gotta get home."

We shake hands and off he goes. I don't know if he listened to overtime, or if he switched back to Sinatra. I don't know if he heard about Fisher fouling out, Williams hitting two huge free throws with 23.6 seconds left in OT, or Kobe airballing a desperation trey.

But here's the thing:

I don't want to know.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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Columnist / College Football reporter