Gentle giant, Utah Jazz All-Star, and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Mark Eaton unexpectedly died on Friday night. He was 64.
At 8:26 p.m. on Friday, the Summit County Sheriff’s office received a 911 call from a neighbor who had found an unconscious Eaton with his bicycle on Long Rifle Road, in the Silver Creek Estates neighborhood of Summit County. Eaton was transported to the hospital, where he passed away. His cause of death has yet to be determined, but there’s no evidence of a vehicle’s involvement in the incident, the sheriff said.
The 7-foot-4 big man was known as one of the NBA’s great defensive presences with perhaps the league’s greatest origin story. Eaton was spotted by a junior college assistant basketball coach driving by the Marc C. Bloome Tire Store in Orange County, California, while working as an auto mechanic. Eaton was two feet taller than his customers.
“I was making $20,000 a year and I didn’t see any point in giving that up to go to college,” Eaton recalled.
Eventually, Eaton was persuaded to give junior college basketball a shot; he could continue his mechanic job during the day and take classes and star in hoops games at night at the junior college, Cypress. UCLA came calling, and offered Eaton a scholarship to transfer, but Eaton played extremely sparingly — hence waiting to hear his name called until the fourth round of the 1982 NBA Draft, despite his height.
But Eaton made an impact straight from his rookie season, starting 32 games that year. By the 1984-85 season, his third, he set an all-time NBA record in blocks per game in a season, swatting away 5.6 blocks per contest. Eaton won the Defensive Player of the Year awards in that season and in 1988-89, and still holds the NBA record for blocks per game in a career, with 3.5 blocks per game.
Since his retirement, Eaton has been a successful restaurateur — he owns Tuscany and Francks in Holladay — and public speaker. He also served as president of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, and provided occasional commentary for Jazz games. Eaton attended most Jazz games in recent years, including the Jazz’s playoff games against the Grizzlies this week.
Longtime Jazz coach Frank Layden said Karl Malone had called him to deliver the bad news about Eaton. He recalled the center as a selfless individual always interested in helping people — a trait that factored into his basketball, too.
“He was an exceptional person, and he cared about others. It wasn’t always about him. And he played that way. He was a real team player, and he was interested in winning more than getting his own statistics,” Layden told The Tribune. “People forget that he was the captain of the Jazz. And he also was a leader in the NBA — he was head of the Retired Players Association. So he was a guy who was always thinking of others or working with others and helping players who needed help after their careers were over. He was the guy that a lot of players called, and he went to work out to help them out.”
Layden’s favorite memory of Eaton is the first time they met.
The coach recounted how film work was not very widespread in the league at the time, but he’d heard about Eaton and went to go check out a game at the California Summer League on the campus of Loyola Marymount University.
“I’d never seen him before. This was going to be our first meeting. Then I heard some people bubbling and I saw him come through the door. He had to bow down to get through it, and he was starting to walk towards me, and all I can remember saying to myself was, ‘Please God, let that be him,” Layden said. “He was the biggest man I had ever seen in my life, you know? And that started a long-time relationship.”
The coach added that while most people remember those Jazz teams for Stockton and Malone, they wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if not for the big man.
“I can’t say enough about him. He was a special guy and he was the anchor to the beginning of our success. Let’s face it — we had other good players, but if we don’t have that big guy in the middle, I don’t think we would have got off to the start the way we did,” Layden said. “I don’t think he got the credit he should have because he didn’t score points. But his presence in the locker room and his presence with our team and his leadership, you couldn’t put a value on it. He was special.”
Gov. Spencer Cox also weighed in on Saturday, remembering the impact Eaton had on all who crossed paths with him.
“Every one of us that spent time with Mark loved him. He was so kind and thoughtful,” Cox said in a statement. “I first met him on a flight many years ago and he came to speak to our employees in Sanpete County shortly after that. I was stunned when I learned of his passing last night. We will miss him.”
Theodore “Blue” Edwards, who joined the Jazz in 1989, recalled being a little scared to encounter Eaton when he first arrived, but said that the center quickly formed an improbable and long-lasting bond with him.
“I had never met Mark [before being drafted by the Jazz] — I had seen him on TV and knew that he was a huge, huge guy. So I was a little bit intimidated when I first met him. But when I arrived in Salt Lake City, Mark was the first player to call me, to come visit me. Mark began taking me with him to work out. So in essence, I became Mark Eaton’s rookie,” Edwards said. “He taught me about eating right, eating healthier, he taught me about preparing my body and my mind to get ready for the season. And all the things that I may have thought about Mark, in relation to his size, he erased all of those misconceptions with being just a gentle, loving, caring person. So Mark Eaton the person is far greater than Mark the basketball player.”
Edwards said the two remained in contact thereafter — Eaton was one of the first players to reach out after Edwards was traded in ’92 — and they had even spoken as recently as three weeks ago, making the news of his death not seem real.
“He was talking about his horse and going out riding and all that kind of stuff; we spoke and he sounded in good spirits and good health,” Edwards said. “Wow — I’m shocked. Just absolutely shocked.”
The Jazz released a statement on Eaton’s death.
“The Utah Jazz are 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,” the statement begins. “Mark played his entire 11-year NBA career with the Jazz and his number was retired as an NBA All-Star and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. 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.”
Mike Brown, aka “The Brown Bear,” served as Eaton’s backup on the Jazz for several seasons. He said that what could have been an awkward relationship, given that they were competing for minutes on the court, was diffused simply by Eaton being such a nice, outgoing person.
“We hung out on the road, getting lunch and sometimes dinner, but we did more things hanging outside of the basketball season,” Brown remembered. “He taught me a little bit about wine — he was a wine guy coming from California. So he would invite me up to his house, he had a wine cellar and a recliner, and he’d teach me about the temperature controls.”
Brown said during their playing days, he’d given Eaton the nickname, “The Wall,” because “he would stand there and put his hands up and guys would try to drive down the lane and just hit him — it was like in a cartoon, hitting a wall and just sliding down.” He added that in recent years, they’d make it a point to get together every so often, and that every time Eaton came down to Las Vegas (where Brown now lives) on speaking engagements, Eaton would call him up to hang out, and they’d “break bread.
“Mark was a great teammate, and just a really great guy,” Brown said.