Mark Eaton, the 7-foot-4 shot blocker king who was twice the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in a career devoted entirely to the Utah Jazz, has passed away. He was 64 years old.
The team announced his death on Saturday.
Eaton left his home for a bike ride Friday night in Summit County, Utah, and soon after, someone called 911 to report it after seeing him lying on a pavement and unconscious . Eaton was taken to 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 the history of our franchise” who had “a significant impact in the community following his basketball career.”
Utah coach Quin Snyder said Saturday night ahead of Game 3 in Memphis that the team’s thoughts and prayers are with Eaton’s wife.
“Mark was someone who was a friend, and I think a friend that a lot of us, in his relationship with Rudy Gobert, I think, is emblematic of who he was and his ability to listen,” said Snyder said. “And then offering advice and support was really unique, and he will obviously be missed.”
The center has led the league in blocks per game on four occasions and its 5.6 per game average in 1984-85 remains the highest average since the NBA began officially tracking that statistic.
Eaton’s career block 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 Jazz followed.
“I had an unusual background,” Eaton said for a story posted on Jazz’s website two years ago. “It’s an unlikely story to be sure. Basically, I entered the NBA with two years of 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 mistakes and put my feet under me. It worked well for both of us. “
Eaton had been, among other things, a restaurateur and motivational speaker after his retirement. In recent years, he has served as a mentor to Utah center Rudy Gobert, the only other player in jazz history to win Defensive Player of the Year.
“He was so impressive,” longtime NBA broadcaster Mike Inglis, now the radio voice of the Miami Heat, said on Saturday. “I called it the human condominium complex. He was something else in 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 umpire record playing his 5,376th regular-season game on Tuesday night.
His 11 seasons of play with the Jazz are number three in team history, behind longtime Utah cornerstones Karl Malone and John Stockton. His durability was remarkable, having appeared once in 338 straight games. He finished with career averages of 6.0 points and 7.9 rebounds.
But his best skill was to defend the rim, and once told a story of how Wilt Chamberlain offered him career advice. He incorporates the story into a motivational speech, telling others that the # 1 rule for success is to “know your job.”
“Wilt grabbed me by the arm, knocked me to the ground, placed me right in front of the basket. He said, ‘See that basket? Your job is to prevent players from getting there. Your job is to get them to miss their shot, get the rebound, throw it to the guard, let them go down the other side and score and your job is to navigate to halfway and see what happens ” , ”Eaton mentioned.
“When Wilt shared this with me, everything changed. I figured out what to do, ”Eaton said. “I understood what I could be good at. Wilt showed me what my job was and how doing what I was doing would benefit my team.
Eaton was also an officer of the National Basketball Players Association, and the union released a statement on Saturday saying he would be missed.
“It might be a cliché, but it’s true: Mark Eaton was a giant in every sense of the word,” the NBPA statement read. “A long-time NBPA executive member until his retirement from the league in 1994, Mark served his colleagues with grace and strength, and continued to watch over them through his service to the Retired Players Association. His imposing physical presence harmonized delightfully with his warm and caring manners. “
Eaton’s number 53 was one of the first jerseys retired by Jazz. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 1984-85 and 1988-89, was called to the All-Defensive squad five times – three first-team caps, two second-team picks – and was All-Star in 1989.
He was taken with the 107th overall pick by Phoenix in the 1979 Draft, then drafted again 72nd overall by Utah in 1982. And he never left; his last match was in 1993, but back problems ended his career and he retired in September 1994.
“It’s been a great race, but life has a way to go on and I have to continue with it,” Eaton wrote in a column for The Salt Lake Tribune in which he announced his retirement. “Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your life and your community. I will be there.
True to his word, Eaton remained a mainstay of Utah for the rest of his life.
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