Before the Utah Jazz took a chance on Mark Eaton, his story could’ve turned down a different path. The 7-foot-4 center once had an underdeveloped game while at UCLA, and prior to being at Westwood spent time as an auto mechanic.
It’s clear to say his route was the least bit conventional, but that was until a basketball legend decided to help his progression.
During a pickup game on campus, Wilt Chamberlain noticed Eaton struggling to find his rhythm up and down the floor and give him the best advice of his life. “Stay under the basket” was the main message passed along by Chamberlain to Eaton. In fact, he personally took him there on the court and explained his purpose with strict details.
A conversation that led to Eaton’s impact on the game and one that sparked an understanding of how he could be utilized to his full capability. Without having played basketball in high school, Eaton’s fundamentals were lacking and Chamberlain easily explained the need for him as a “big man” to protect the rim, gather rebounds, and work the ball out to his guards for quicker scoring opportunities.
“(Wilt) taught me to really know my job in terms of what I could do on the floor to help my team win,” said Eaton on KOAL’s Drive Time Sports with Jordan Buscarini in a 2014 interview.
“It was something I could do day in and day out. The way he presented it to me was just such a unique view for me that it really centered me from a standpoint that I was like “Okay, I understand what I need to do.” I’ve been running around up and down this court all these years and doing a little of this and a little of that.
“He gave me that key or tool that defined my career. Because that’s what I became known for as a defensive player and a shot blocker.”
Eaton took that advice and built a career as one of the best defenders in the “golden age” of the NBA. He would share the court with the duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone and helped to bring the Jazz franchise from one of the worst to a consistent playoff contender in the Western Conference under coach Frank Layden and later Jerry Sloan.
The dominant center went on to be a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year during the course of his 11-year career. He also led the Association in blocked shots in back-to-back years twice in the span of five years from 1984 to 1988 — a feat only accomplished by Eaton.
He retired in 1994 with 3,064 blocks which was second on the NBA’s all-time list behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played nearly twice as many games during his respective career. However, statistics for blocked shots were not kept by the NBA until 1974, four years after the start of Abdul-Jabbar’s career. Eaton averaged a record 3.50 blocks per game and is the only player in NBA history with more than 3,000 blocks in less than 1,000 career games.
The NBA All-Star saw his jersey retired into the rafters of Vivint Arena shortly after leaving the Jazz in the mid-90s. He remained involved with the league by taking a position as the president/board member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) from 1997 to 2007.
In 2010, Eaton was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame along with his former teammate Tom Chambers. He was just the fourth member of the Jazz organization and second player to be enshrined at the time.
Eaton died following a bicycle accident near his home in Park City, Utah on Saturday. He was 64.
The Jazz organization released a statement saying, “We’re profoundly saddened at the unexpected passing of Mark Eaton, who was an enduring figure in our franchise history and had a significant impact in the community after his basketball career.”
They went on to say, “His presence continued around the organization as a friend and ambassador while giving back as a businessman and volunteer to his adopted hometown in Utah. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Teri, and their extended family. Mark will be greatly missed by all of us with the Jazz.”