Mark Eaton, the 7-foot-4 shot-blocking king who twice was the NBA's defensive player of the year during a career spent entirely with the Utah Jazz, has died. He was 64.
The team announced his death Saturday.
Eaton left his home for a bike ride Friday night in Summit County, Utah, and shortly thereafter someone called 911 to report after seeing him lying on a roadway and unconscious. Eaton was taken to a hospital where he later died.
The team, citing county officials who investigated, said “there is no reason to believe a vehicle was involved in the incident."
The Jazz described him in a statement as an “enduring figure in our franchise history” who had a "significant impact in the community after his basketball career.”
Utah coach Quin Snyder said Saturday night before Game 3 in Memphis that the team's thoughts and prayers go out to Eaton's wife.
“Mark was someone that was a friend, and I think a friend who a lot of us, in his relationship with Rudy Gobert I think is emblematic of who he was and his ability to listen,” Snyder said. “And then to offer counsel and support was something that was really unique, and obviously we’ll miss him.”
The center led the league in blocks per game four times and his average of 5.6 per contest in 1984-85 remains the highest average since the NBA started officially tracking that statistic.
Eaton's career blocks average of 3.51 per game is the best in NBA history, and his career happened almost by accident. He was working as an auto mechanic in 1977 when a community college basketball coach persuaded him to enroll. From there, he went to UCLA, and his stint with the Jazz followed.
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“I had an unusual background,” Eaton said for a story published on the Jazz web site two years ago. “It’s an unlikely story to be sure. I basically came into the NBA with two years of junior college experience and sat on the bench at UCLA for two years. And Frank Layden gave me a chance and the team was in a space where they could afford to let me make some mistakes out there and get my feet underneath me. It worked out well for both of us.”
Eaton had been, among other things, a restaurateur and motivational speaker in his retirement. In recent years, he served as a mentor to Utah center Rudy Gobert — the only other player in Jazz history to win the defensive player of the year award.
“He was so impressive,” longtime NBA broadcaster Mike Inglis, now the radio voice of the Miami Heat, said Saturday. “I used to call him the human condominium complex. He was something else on defense, let me tell you.”
Eaton’s death came days after he was in Chicago to be part of the celebration for his friend Joe West, who broke baseball’s umpiring record by working his 5,376th regular-season game Tuesday night.
His 11 playing seasons with the Jazz are third most in team history, behind longtime Utah cornerstones Karl Malone and John Stockton. His durability was noteworthy, with him once appearing in 338 consecutive games. He finished with career averages of 6.0 points and 7.9 rebounds.
But his best skill was defending the rim, and once told a story about how Wilt Chamberlain offered him advice about his career. He incorporate the tale into a motivational speech, telling others that Rule No. 1 for success is to “know your job."
“Wilt grabbed me by the arm, took me out on the floor, positioned me right in front of the basket. He said, ‘You see this basket? Your job is to stop players from getting there. Your job is to make them miss their shot, get the rebound, throw it up to the guard, let them go down the other end and score and your job is to cruise up to half-court and see what's going on,'" Eaton said.
“When Wilt shared that with me, everything changed. I understood what I needed to do," Eaton said. “I understood what I could be great at. Wilt showed me what my job was and how doing what I did would benefit my team."
Eaton also served as an officer in the National Basketball Players Association, and the union released a statement Saturday saying he would be missed.
“It may be cliched, but it’s true: Mark Eaton was a giant, in every sense of the word," the NBPA statement said. “A long-time member of the NBPA Executive Committee right through his retirement from the league in 1994, Mark served his colleagues with grace and strength, and continued to watch over them through his service for the Retired Players Association. His imposing physical presence made a delightful match with his warm and thoughtful manner."
Eaton’s No. 53 was one of the first jerseys retired by the Jazz. He was the defensive player of the year in 1984-85 and 1988-89, was a five-time All-Defensive team selection — three first-team nods, two second-team picks — and was an All-Star in 1989.
He was taken with the 107th overall pick by Phoenix in the 1979 draft, then drafted again at No. 72 overall by Utah in 1982. And he never left; his last game was in 1993, but back problems ended his career and he retired in September 1994.
“It has been a great ride, but life does have a way of moving on and I must move on with it,” Eaton wrote in a column for The Salt Lake Tribune in which he announced his retirement. “Thank you for letting me be a part of your life and community. I’ll be around.”
True to his word, Eaton remained a Utah mainstay for the rest of his life.