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Late Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller never made peace with unsettling childhood

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This is the second of an eight-part series on "Driven: An Autobiography" about the life of Larry H. Miller written by Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson in collaboration with Miller. Each begins with Robinson's personal observations and experiences from the project, followed by an excerpt from the book. “Driven” is available at Deseret Book.

As I began to interview Larry H. Miller for the book, we soon developed a routine. I usually showed up at his house late in the afternoon, and we would talk for two or three hours, then I would return to my home and write a chapter using the notes from the day's discussion. For some reason, I found myself doing much of the writing while sitting up in bed with my laptop from 11:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. or so. Without fail, as I wrote, I made a long list of follow-up questions on a notepad next to my bed, and when I met with Larry a couple of days later, I would ask him questions that covered many of the same points we had discussed in our previous meeting, except now I wanted clarification or deeper answers or more detail.

"I see a pattern here," Larry said one day. "We talk about a certain subject, then you write and come back with more questions about that same thing and it gets me to talk more in depth about it. I like it. It forces me to think and to delve deeper into things."

This proved to be especially true in the matter of Larry's childhood. The more we talked about it, the more he seemed to explore it in a way he hadn't previously. There were several incidents in his youth — including twice being hauled from his home by police — that troubled him to the end of his life, even to the extent that he returned to visit with his childhood bishop in a futile attempt to understand them. He felt paralyzed and set adrift by his disconnected feelings at home. He believed these incidents shaped him and perhaps accounted for his driven nature to succeed.

One night during the summer of my 16th year I returned home to find my world turned upside down. It was late, close to 11 p.m., and I had walked home through the summer night on Capitol Hill as I often did after being out with friends. It was a typical evening, with a cool breeze stirring the maples overhead. I counted my steps as I walked, which remains one of my odd habits. As I approached our house, I saw three sacks on the porch and wondered what they contained. I walked up the stairs and onto the porch, peeked into the sacks and was stunned by what I saw. They were filled with my clothes.

I was confused. What was going on?

I tried the front door knob. Locked. I walked around to the side of the house to try the walkout basement door. Locked.

The house was dark, but I knew my family was in there.

Slowly the realization of what had happened washed over me: I had been kicked out of the house.

But why?

I didn't know what to do, especially at this late hour. I was moving as if in a dream. I was too wounded to knock on the door and ask my parents what was going on. I did the only thing I could think to do: I picked up the three bags, hugging them to my chest, and walked down the hill to Gail's house. We had been dating for about a year now, and I spent a lot of time at her home. Her parents agreed to let me stay the night on their couch.

The next day I walked to the Haslams' house, which was three blocks from my own home. They had six boys, and I was a frequent visitor to their house. After I explained what had happened, they invited me to stay with them. At some point in the weeks that followed, Mr. Haslam — his name was Dale — sat me down to discuss the situation. He came off as a gruff man, but really he had a heart of gold. He made me feel welcome in his home, and I wound up living there for six months. I slept in a bunk bed on the back porch, which had been walled in.

During all that time, I never had any contact with my family, just three blocks away. I felt empty and displaced, but I did not have longings to return home, probably because of the tension that existed there. As Christmas approached, I finally began to experience some of those longings, so I called my mother and told her simply, "I think it's time to come home." Her response was cool. "You'll have to talk to your dad," she said. Two days before Christmas I moved back home. It was 1963.

In the years since then, Gail has interviewed my mother twice, with a tape recorder, to learn more about my family history. Both times she asked my mother why I was kicked out of the house. She could never adequately answer the question to my satisfaction. It's still an issue for me today. I think about it more than I should. I look for answers and there are none — Dad is gone and mom is unapproachable about it.

With only the retrospect and experience of an adult, I realize that my childhood was a walk across a sheet of ice, and I was never certain the world under my feet would support me. I did my best to survive, but little more. I was aware of the delicacy of my position and did my best simply to stay under the radar.

I wasn't always able to do this. Even before I was kicked out of the house, the police took me from my home on two different occasions, though no one ever could tell me what crime I was supposed to have committed. One evening a police officer knocked on our door. My mother answered and stepped aside as he entered the house. It was immediately clear that she had been expecting him. The cop, whose name was Willie, was cordial. "You're Larry Miller," he began. When I agreed, he said, "I need you to come with me." I was confused but taken in by his friendliness. I followed him as we walked to his car, which was parked on another street. We climbed into his blue Plymouth cop car, and he let it roll down the street before he popped the clutch to start it.

"That's a lazy man's way of starting the car," he said.

He drove me to the juvenile detention center, which is another name for "prison." It had bars on the doors and windows. Inside the building, Officer Willie told me, "The word your parents are using about you is 'incorrigible.' You're impossible to manage."

I ventured a question. "What have I done?"

This question hung in the air and died.

I was checked into the facility and assigned a room, and there I stayed for three days. I never went to court, and no one ever told me what I had done. My parents had simply called the cops and told them to haul me away. … Most of what I remember about my stay there was that one of the "inmates" taught me how to start a fire with a pencil, tissue paper and an electrical outlet.

Next installment: Fear shaped Miller’s successes

e-mail: drob@desnews.com