Some people are destined for greatness and have a path carved out for them at an early age. Others struggle to find their calling, toiling away at life and hoping they find their destiny.
Somehow, Mark Eaton found a way to be both, which is fitting, because Eaton had a way of helping everyone who crossed his path feel comfortable and welcome.
Whether it be due to his 7-foot-4, 290-pound frame, or his genial and confident demeanor, Eaton cast a large shadow. “Big Mark,” as he was affectionately nicknamed by late Utah Jazz play-by-play announcer Hot Rod Hundley, was a driven and goal-oriented man.
As a 6-foot-11 teenager, Eaton focused more on water polo. Weighing 175 pounds, combined with a dearth of coordination, didn’t do him any favors on the basketball court.
After graduating from Westminster High School in Orange County, California, Eaton became certified as a mechanic at the Arizona Automotive Institute. Something about his ever-expanding size had customers doing double-takes as they saw him, now well over 7-feet tall, working around the cramped engine compartment of a vehicle.
Two years after Eaton graduated in 1975, Cypress Junior College assistant coach Tom Lubin noticed Eaton and wanted him to play basketball for the school. Eaton had other ideas and wasn’t sure how junior college basketball would help him reach the goals he had laid out in his own 10-year plan.
Lubin returned to the shop as many as 15 times before he got a commitment from Eaton to enter college and give basketball a try.
— JUCOadvocate (@JUCOadvocate) May 29, 2021
Although Eaton learned the game quickly, he had a long way to go before he could play effectively and consistently do what was asked of him. It wasn’t a matter of will; it was about learning the game and adding weight to his lanky, underdeveloped body.
After one season at Cypress College, Eaton drew the attention of the Phoenix Suns, who couldn’t pass up the possibility of adding a player of his size. In the 1979 NBA Draft, the Suns selected Eaton as their future center in the fifth round.
But Eaton wasn’t ready for the NBA. Instead, he remained at Cypress for another season before transferring to basketball powerhouse UCLA to play under legendary Hall of Fame coach John Wooden.
Eaton spent two years with the Bruins, primarily coming off of the bench. After learning from one of the best basketball teachers to ever roam the sideline, Eaton was drafted again; this time, the Utah Jazz selected Eaton with the 72nd pick in the fourth round of the 1982 NBA Draft.
Eaton started his professional career slowly, adding weight and allowing his body to acclimate to the physicality that an NBA center endures. Though he was limited to 32 starts in 81 games during his first season, Eaton showed the promise that had led then-head coach Frank Layden to draft him.
Eaton averaged 3.4 blocks per game as a rookie for the Jazz, a total that would have led the league in all but one of the past ten NBA seasons.
In year two, Eaton’s career took off. He averaged 4.3 blocks per game in his second season, leading the league — a feat he would accomplish in four of the next five seasons.
For context, Eaton’s career-high 5.6 blocks per game in the 1984-85 season is 2.5 times the career average of current Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
To my great mentor and friend @markeaton7ft4 , one of kind and an amazing human being, i’m grateful for your presence in my life over the years. Gonna miss our conversations. But i know you’ll be watching. pic.twitter.com/XDvEJTPCwp
— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) May 29, 2021
Eaton played a key role in turning the fortune of a moribund franchise on its head, becoming a stalwart in the middle of the lane for the Jazz as they began a string of 20 straight seasons in which they made the playoffs.
Eaton played 11 seasons with the Jazz, playing at least 79 games in all but one of those years. Playing alongside Karl Malone and John Stockton, Eaton helped usher the Jazz into their most prosperous period in franchise history.
A back injury in 1993 forced Eaton to retire before the start of the 1994 season. For his career, Eaton averaged six points per game, 7.9 rebounds per game and an astounding 3.5 blocks per game, which is still a league record.
A fixture in the Utah community, Eaton remained in the Beehive State after his playing days, choosing Park City as his home base. An avid outdoorsman, Eaton could often be found skiing the slopes of the various resorts around Park City during the winter, or loading his massive frame onto a bicycle during the summer months.
On May 28, the 64-year-old Eaton left home for a bike ride around 8:30 p.m. Just minutes later, he was found in the roadway, unresponsive. No official cause of death has been announced, but Eaton died the way he lived, doing the things he loved and pursuing goals.
We are heartbroken by the passing of Utah Jazz legend Mark Eaton.
Our thoughts are with his family as we all mourn the loss of a great man, mentor, athlete and staple of the community. pic.twitter.com/HkINyLF9ix
— utahjazz (@utahjazz) May 29, 2021