SALT LAKE CITY — As the Utah Jazz prepare to embark upon their 41st season in Salt Lake City, optimism is high about the possibility of the team making a big step toward reclaiming their position as one of the league’s perennial championship contenders. Over the years, the organization has become a model of success for performance on the court and is established as a symbol of pride for the people of the Beehive State.
Since the 1983-84 season, the Jazz have endured just five losing campaigns and ran off a streak of 20 straight playoff appearances, including two trips to the NBA Finals. That on-court success was based on a culture developed by a relatively small group of people who forged the team’s identity as one of the NBA’s premier franchises known for stellar play, strong character and strong values that still resonate today.
The people most responsible for that organizational success represent the “Mount Rushmore” of the Utah Jazz. And while the original South Dakota monument includes only four of the nation’s most influential figures, this iteration will include one more based on their current impact on the team and its parent organization. Here’s who we believe are the faces that helped build the Utah Jazz into a model sports organization.
Larry H. Miller: “You know this guy!” A self-made, highly driven, larger-than-life personality known for exceptional business savvy as well as his emotional nature.
While he could be self-deprecating, he was also a man of determination who wanted to build a competitive team that would contend for the NBA title. When he bought the Jazz from Sam Battistone in 1979, the team had little history of competitive or financial success. But over the next few seasons, Miller changed the culture and trajectory of the franchise by hiring Frank Layden, then bringing on future Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan and selecting future Dream Teamers and fellow Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone in successive drafts (1984 and 1985, respectively).
Miller was a Utah-born entrepreneur and philanthropist who made much of his fortune in the car business. He married his childhood sweetheart in 1965 and together they raised five children and built a billion-dollar business enterprise. Today, the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies employs more than 10,000 people and is comprised of more than 80 businesses and properties nationwide.
Miller died in February 2009 due to complications related to Type 2 Diabetes. He was 64. His impact on the organization that he founded is still felt today.
Gail Miller: The current owner and chairman of the Utah Jazz didn’t start out to become a businesswoman and community icon, but circumstances evolved in such a way that she has cemented her legacy as one of the wisest and smartest people in the local business community. The matriarch of Utah’s first family of sports has assumed the leadership role seamlessly since her husband’s passing a decade ago and she is currently one of three women owners in the league. While she doesn’t manage the day-to-day operations of the organization, she is a constant presence in the boardroom and on important team-related matters.
A co-founder of the parent LHM Group of Companies, she also is involved in business decision-making as chairwoman as well as taking an active interest in community and philanthropic interests throughout Utah.
Last season, following an incident before a game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, she made an indelible impression as the face and voice of the Jazz on issues of community importance using her platform as a leader to espouse the organization’s strong core values, along with tolerance and respect for others. Last March, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook was heckled by a fan who used distasteful language toward the player. The video went viral and drew national attention as an example of fans using racist language in addressing players.
The offending fan was banned from the arena for life and at the next home game, Miller addressed the crowd with a heartfelt speech while the Fan Code of Conduct was displayed on the Jumbotron.
“This should never happen,” she said. “We are not a racist community.”
That and numerous other examples of her front office and community leadership are what have made her among the most influential people in the team’s history and why she deserves a place on the Jazz Mount Rushmore.
Jerry Sloan — As a player during his career, Sloan was known as one of the toughest, hardest-working guards in the NBA. “The Original Bull,” along with Chicago Bulls backcourt mate Stormin’ Norm Van Lier formed one of the most formidable defensive tandems in the league. For 11 years, Sloan played every game with intensity and professionalism that earned respect from fellow players and coaches leaguewide. That, along with his high basketball IQ, would get him into the coaching ranks after his playing days were over.
Following a four-year stint with the Bulls, Sloan was hired as an assistant under Frank Layden as the Jazz started the 1985-86 season. Layden had already laid much of the foundation for the team’s future success, having posted five consecutive winning seasons and playoff appearances when he decided leave the sideline and move to the front office to become team president and general manager midway through the 1988-89 season.
Sloan took over as head coach where he remained for 23 seasons. During his two decade-plus run, the Jazz would have only one losing campaign and miss the playoffs just four times. His teams won seven division titles and made two memorable NBA Finals appearances as Western Conference champions.
Sloan was able to translate his hard-nosed, all-out style as a player into a formula for success as a head coach. Fellow coaches regularly touted how well-prepared Sloan-led teams were, knowing they would have to play their best basketball any time they were facing the Jazz. While Sloan never won NBA Coach of the Year honors, he was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 2009, along with his prize point guard, Stockton. Sloan’s contributions to the Jazz organization have become legendary making him more than worthy of inclusion on this list.
Karl Malone — When you think of the Jazz, one of the first names that come to mind is Karl Malone. Dubbed the “Mailman” because he always delivered, the 6-foot-9 small-town guy from rural Louisiana was one of the most dominating forces ever to play power forward in the NBA. Athletic, chiseled out of granite with a country-strong work ethic, Malone was a perfect match for the style of play Sloan espoused.
Known for his exceptional conditioning, he played in at least 80 games in 17 of his 19 NBA seasons, averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds per game for his career, making 14 All-Star games, winning two Most Valuable Player awards, and made the All-NBA first team 11 times and All-Defensive first team three times. A charter member of the first two Olympic Dream Teams (1992 and 1996), he was named as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history and finished his career as the league’s second all-time leading scorer with 36,928 points. He holds the record for most free throws made and attempted. Malone is also second in most minutes played, along with field goals attempted and made.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010, the Mailman’s No. 32 hangs in the rafters in Vivint Arena in recognition of his contributions to the team, and a bronze statue sits outside the venue as well.
John Stockton — While No. 12 may have looked like an average guy off the court, his play on it demonstrated clearly that he was anything but ordinary. When “Stock” had the ball in his hands, good things tended to happen, particularly if a certain power forward was setting a mountain-sized pick before rolling to the basket as he received a pinpoint pass from his point guard. For nearly 20 years, the combination of Stockton to Malone was among the most prolific and lethal scoring threats the league had ever seen.
Stockton’s leadership, poise and ball-handling skills made him one of the best point guards in league history. He led the league in assists per game for nine straight years from 1987-88 to 1995-96, finishing his illustrious career as the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals. Not known as a prolific scorer, he had a career field goal percentage of 51.5 percent, averaging 13 points a game using a deadly mid-range jump shot to keep defenses honest.
One of his career highlights was his 3-point dagger over the outstretched arms of Charles Barkley that propelled the Jazz into the NBA Finals over the Houston Rockets in 1997. A 10-time All-Star, Stockton was inducted into the Hall of Fame with Jerry Sloan in 2009.
In Utah, his achievements were immortalized by the retirement of his No. 12 and with a bronze statue right next to Malone outside of Vivint Arena. Also named one of the 50 greatest players, he was always known for his understated demeanor on and off the court, but Stockton’s place in Jazz history is one that can never be over-emphasized.