Memphis, Tenn. • The Utah Jazz were just walking into their Saturday morning shootaround at a practice gym across the street from the team hotel when they got the heavy news — Mark Eaton, literally and figuratively one of the biggest figures in team history, had died.
Center Rudy Gobert, who considered the 7-foot-4 former two-time Defensive Player of the Year a mentor of sorts, declined to speak following the shootaround, as he was still trying to process his grief, but spoke after Saturday night’s 121-111 victory about how much Eaton had meant to him.
“It’s tough. It’s someone that I really appreciated. A great guy. I texted him a few days ago; we went to his house a few times. Just a great guy,” Gobert said. “Obviously he had a great career, but as a human being, as a person, he was someone that I really looked up to and I learned [from] just from being around him. He’s definitely gonna be missed — and not just me, but in the community, with all the great things that he’s done and all the people that he’s been inspiring his whole life.”
Asked if it was important to him to win Saturday’s game as a tribute of sorts, Gobert smiled, then grew wistful.
“I know that if he was there, I probably would have got a text after the game saying, ‘Way to protect the paint, Big Guy!’” Gobert said. “I know he’s watching, and I know he’s going to be watching for the rest of the playoffs and everything else. So I feel his presence. I definitely know I had to come [through] tonight and make sure I was getting helping the team get a win.”
Coach Quin Snyder spoke before Wednesday night’s Game 3 against the Memphis Grizzlies, first in sending his condolences to Eaton’s wife, Teri, but then mostly about the impact that Eaton had on the current members of the franchise — particularly Gobert.
“Mark was someone that was a friend, and I think a friend to a lot of us. His relationship with Rudy is emblematic of who he was,” Snyder said. “His ability to listen and then to offer counsel and support was something that was really unique, and obviously we’ll miss him.”
Snyder added that he always appreciated the rare occasions when Eaton would speak to the team.
“He would come in the locker room occasionally; he was always very sensitive to his presence and what his purpose was, and you almost had to encourage him to come in, because every time he did, he touched players, he touched coaches,” he said. “He had a way about him that would [make you] want you to open up, and he motivated in very specific ways and also in very subtle ways depending upon the situation and what was needed. The subtleties of all that, I think, speak to the compassion, with which he lived.”
Derrick Favors, who had spent 8.5 years with the Jazz before being traded to New Orleans a year ago, then coming back this season, said after shootaround that Eaton was a frequent presence in his early development.
“He was always at games early in my career, and he just used to always come up to me and give me advice about certain things,” Favors said. “You know, we just used to talk, and he’d tell stories.”
Favors, who stands 6-foot-9 and weighs about 265 pounds, recalled how Eaton was one of the few people he’d ever come across who could make him feel small.
“I mean, he was how tall — 7-3, 7-4? Yeah, 7-4. The only other player that I played against that was taller than that was Yao Ming, my rookie year,” Favors said. “He was a big guy, he was a big guy. There was a reason why he was one of the best shot-blockers in the NBA at his time.”