Mark Eaton: Utah's Master of the Blocked Shot

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Mark Eaton: Utah's Master of the Blocked Shot

The highest honor a franchise can bestow on one of its own is to retire a number for him, and the Jazz have properly decided to so honor Mark Eaton.

by Lex Hemphill

Mark EatonFrom his seat at the Delta Center, several rows up behind the Jazz bench, Mark Eaton still reacts to his fundamental instinct to protect the goal. He can still see old No. 53 moving into the lane to challenge an opposing player's shot, drives that, without him, often become layups these days.

Of course, the 7-foot-4 Eaton, now three years and one bad back removed from his last NBA game, cannot go back out there anymore to defend the basket for the Utah Jazz. But as of March 1, No. 53 is there, like a sentry for ever reminding visitors how difficult it used to be to make baskets in the old Salt Palace and the Delta Center.

The highest honor a franchise can bestow on one of its own is to retire a number for him and the Jazz have properly decided to so honor Mark Eaton. Eaton deserves the honor of having his number retired for many reasons, but for one in particular: More than any other player's story, his rags-to-riches basketball odyssey most closely parallels the success of the NBA's smallest-market franchise.

The story is familiar in Utah: Eaton, a car mechanic out of high school, was persuaded to give basketball a try at a local junior college in Southern California. He finally matriculated at UCLA where he played 196 minutes in his two seasons of Division I basketball. Not that anyone would remember, since he usually had on his warm-ups, but Eaton wore No. 35 with the Bruins.

Upon his selection by the Jazz in the fourth round of the 1982 draft, Eaton arrived in Salt Lake City and soon discovered that No. 35 was already taken by Darrell Griffith. So he decided to reverse the digits and take No. 53. Besides, he remembers, he didn't like it when centers took numbers in the low 30s. He said, "If you're a center, you've got to have a big number."

Now that big number that Eaton wore with distinction for the Jazz is hanging high above the Delta Center floor, next to Frank Layden's No. 1, Pete Maravich's No. 7 and the No. 35 that Eaton might have worn if Griffith hadn't arrived first. This is honored company, and anyone familiar with Jazz history knows that Eaton belongs in it.

Perhaps it would seem odd to outsiders that a player who managed to average only six points a game through an 11-season career, and who never once averaged double figures in scoring for a single season, should have his number retired by his old team. Perhaps they would put Eaton's number retirement in the same category as Portland retiring the number of Lloyd Neal, who had even fewer career points than Eaton, or Cleveland retiring the number of Nate Thurmond, who played only 114 games for the Cavs.

But it is up to each team to judge the contributions of its players, and in Utah, Mark Eaton's contributions can be simply described by the position he played: center. He was at the center, the very core, of the franchise's rise from last place (where it was the season before he arrived) and the brink of extinction to its current level of dynamic success. When he arrived, the Jazz were perennial 50-game losers; when he left, they were perennial 50-game winners.

Mark Eaton"I think it represents all the accomplishments of all the various Jazz teams over the years," Eaton modestly says of his number retirement. "And the fact that we went from a team that wasn't respected by anybody to an NBA powerhouse. I think it's more representative of team success than of Mark Eaton individually."

But, even if he won't say it, Eaton was absolutely central to that transformation, for he single-handedly brought the team a defensive presence — and, eventually, a defensive attitude. The year before he arrived, 1981-82, the Jazz were a sieve, allowing the second most points in the league (116.6 per game) and the fourth worst field goal percentage defense (51 percent).

Right away in his rookie season, when he started the last 32 games, Eaton made a difference as the field goal figure went down to 47.8 percent.  By his third year, it was down to 46.4 percent, the best in the West, even though Eaton was surrounded by pretty much the same leading cast – Darrell Griffith, Adrian Dantley and Rickey Green – that was around before he arrived.

In fact, Eaton was the constant as the Jazz made a remarkable seamless transition in the later ‘80s from a Griffith-Dantley-Green nucleus to one that consisted of Karl Malone, John Stockton and Thurl Bailey.  The team kept winning while changing its offensive core, largely because Eaton provided the stability at the defensive end to allow it to happen.  He was in the middle of both of those teams.

Eaton is the only player in Jazz history who can say he played with Ben Poquette and Danny Schayes, with Mel Turpin and Darryl Dawkins, with Pat Cummings and Ike Austin.  Yes, there were a lot of centers who passed through town during Mark Eaton’s 11-year tenure, most of them with more innate basketball talent, but Eaton outworked and outlasted all of them.

By the time Eaton finally retired after a 1993-94 season in which he couldn’t perform because of his ailing back, he had played in 875 games, the most in franchise history until Stockton moved past him last season.  Malone will do so this year.  Only eight other centers in league history have played that many games for one team.  

How many games is 875?  Well, it is more games than the Big O played for the Royals, than Dr. J played for the 76ers, than anyone has played for such long-established teams as the Knicks, the Warriors and the Bulls.  It is the equivalent of playing every game without a miss for more than 10 and a half seasons – which Eaton nearly did.

In fact, the case can be made that Eaton was the player who first established the Jazz now well-entrenched work ethic, by which players are loath to miss games for any but the most extreme reasons.  In his first 10 years, he failed to answer the bell only eight times out of 820 games, not including a DNP in his rookie year, for which, he jokes, he is still mad at Layden.

With the Jazz, a player is expected to persevere through nagging aches and pains, and it was Eaton who helped lay down that law.  The rookies that followed him in successive years – Bailey, Stockton and Malone – virtually institutionalized that work ethic, each missing only four games in their Jazz careers.

Mark Eaton“It was really something that was part of the fabric of what I’m about,” says Eaton.  “Even when I was a working guy, I would never call in sick unless I was deathly ill.  I would always try to do a day’s work for a day’s pay.  I wanted to play every minute, every game, every night.”

Eaton almost perfectly fit the profile of the kind of player Layden wanted to bring to Utah when he set about building the team – a solid work ethic and a concern for the community.  As for the latter, well, Eaton has become what Pulitzer Prize-winning, western writer, Wallace Stegner, would call a “sticker.”  He still lives at Jeremy Ranch, near Park City, where he moved in 1983, and he is such a familiar Utahn now that the state’s governor, Mike Leavitt, called on him to help make a point in this year's State of the State address.

Even in his retirement from basketball, the 39-year-old Eaton cannot give the work ethic a rest. Yes, he does have more time now to spend with his wife Marcie and their two sons, Nick and Doug. But it's not as if he's just hanging around the house; he has his fingers in quite a few pies.

He is getting into the restaurant business, for one thing. He and three partners are refurbishing the building that housed the old Heather Restaurant. Their new eatery is called Tuscany, which he says will feature fresh Italian country cooking. Eaton's role involves marketing and public relations.

Then there is the Mark Eaton Standing Tall for Youth Foundation, of which the annual Mark Eaton Life Enhancement Camp is a main feature. The foundation was able to sponsor 150 kids for the camp last year. "The idea," he says, "is to teach the campers life coping skills instead of just basketball skills." The foundation also exposes disadvantaged kids to outdoor and nature programs.

"We've had some amazing stories from kids who never understood what it means to have a dream or set a goal," says Eaton proudly. "They make dramatic turnarounds in their attitude and work ethic."

In addition to the restaurant and the foundation, Eaton is also busy as president of the Jeremy Golf and Country Club, which has involved a lot of hands-on management, but not a lot of golf. Because of his aching back, he had to lay off the game for a couple of years, but last summer he was able to get back on the links for about nine holes at a time.

If that's not enough, Eaton also has his Sports Health Today radio show, a two-and-a-half- minute spot that is heard in about 30 markets, including Salt Lake City on KSL Radio. He also sits on the boards of two other local companies. It is a full plate. Eaton admits that life was much simpler when he was playing basketball for the Jazz.

"I miss the fun times," he says, reflecting on his playing days. "I miss the adrenaline of the close games. I miss the guys, hanging around and the locker room."

But if he misses being part of that inner core of five or six main players, which he was for a decade, Eaton can at least comfort himself in his few spare moments with some sweet memories of a fine career. Yes, he won a lot of games, but he also achieved a status that very few players do. He was the acknowledged master of one facet of his sport: the blocked shot. He came out swatting as a rookie, when he finished third in the league despite limited playing time, and he didn't stop until he quit playing. He was a phenomenon, prompting Salt Palace fans to indulge in the practice of posting little B's for each of Eaton's blocks. In a couple of games, they needed as many as 14 of them.

In the six-year span from Eaton's second season (1983-84) to his seventh (1983-89), he led the league in blocks four times and finished second twice. For those six years, covering 488 games, he averaged 4.3 blocks a game, the most remarkable flurry of shot-blocking the league has seen.

Eaton, whose ability in this area stemmed as much from his refined sense of timing as from his height, had more than 300 blocks in each of those six seasons. By comparison, the shot blockers who succeeded him, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, have each had only three seasons of at least 300 blocks. And the career leader, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had only two such seasons.

Let's put it this way: If the record books counted only Eaton's blocks from that dominant six-year period, during which he won two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, his total of 2,116 would still rank him sixth on the career list. As it was, he finished as only the second player to surpass 3,000 blocks in a career. Olajuwon has now become the third and has moved past Eaton into second place, with Abdul-Jabbar well within his sights.

For a time, it seemed certain that Eaton would supplant Abdul-Jabbar as the all-time leader. After finishing in the league's top 10 in blocks in each of his first 10 seasons he concluded the 1991-92 season just 205 blocks away from breaking the record. But then injuries stopped him. Off-season knee surgery slowed him at the beginning of the 1992-93 season and the back problems flared up at the end. He never played again after that year and finished 125 blocks short of Kareem's record total.

Eaton harbors no regret that injuries kept him from the record. He reasons that Olajuwon would have come along to break it anyway. Plus, he respectfully notes that the NBA did not begin keeping a statistic for blocked shots until the 1973-74 season, Kareem's fifth in the league. Abdul-Jabbar's career total would have been much higher if his blocks for his first four years had been counted — not to mention all those uncounted blocks of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

So, perhaps a career record for a statistic that has been kept for less than half of the league's existence carries an asterisk. That's why the blocked-shot number of which Eaton is most proud is not his career total but his single season record of 456 blocks, an average of 5.56 per game, which he set in 1984-85, his third season.

"I look at that now, that record year, and I don't know how I managed to block five and a half shots a game," says Eaton now. "It's unbelievable to me when I look back at it."

Eaton's single-season record has stood unchallenged for 11 years. Given the greater emphasis currently placed on perimeter shooting because of the shorter three-point line, it may stand for many years more, if for no better reason than that centers won't have as many chances to block shots in the paint. Besides, Eaton really put the record out in the stratosphere that year.

His 456 blocks were more than twice the runner-up total of 220 posted by then-rookie Olajuwon. Nobody in the league has ever blocked as many as 400 shots in a single season, much less even approach 456. The league leader the last two years, Denver's Dikembe Mutombo, has not come within 100 of Eaton's record total. In fact, two-thirds of the teams in the NBA, including the Jazz, couldn't match that number last season.

While Eaton's calling card was the blocked shot, his game also had a glaring statistical weakness —scoring —that was amplified by his height. As much as Jazz fans gradually came to appreciate Eaton's defensive prowess, they were also frustrated by his inability to score on what would appear to them to be the easiest of opportunities for a man that tall.

It wasn't that Eaton was not helpful on offense. He set solid screens for the Jazz' jump shooters, and he developed successful pet plays, like pick-and-rolls with Dantley in his earlier years and baseline give-and-gos with Bailey later on. But essentially, he acknowledges, "My primary responsibility on offense was to keep my man away from A.D. and away from Karl."

Eaton, whose only effective shot was a sweeping left-handed hook, showed some teasing signs of developing into a scorer. In the 1985-86 playoffs, a four-game loss to Dallas in the first round, he got a rare opportunity. With Dantley sidelined with an injury and Malone still feeling his way as a rookie, Eaton averaged 14.5 points in the series against James Donaldson. But it proved to be a fleeting moment; he shot only 40 percent the next season and permanently became the team's last scoring option.

Over time, he realized the scoring inefficiency became “a confidence problem on both the team’s part and mine.”  Eventually, he stopped thinking about it, always keeping in mind something that Chamberlain once told him after playing with him at the UCLA gym, “As a center, my primary responsibility was to defend the goal.”

And that, of course, Eaton did.  If the opposing team scored inside, or even scored on a fast break, he took it personally.  He had the mentality of a goalie, which he was in water polo in high school.  As far as he was concerned, he was the last line of defense and it was his job to defend the goal.  Few in the league ever defended it better.

If there was one thing Eaton would like to have done in his playing career, it would not have been to score more points or break Kareem’s record; it would have been to win a championship.  In his 10 years in the playoffs, the Jazz made it past the first round five times and past the second round once, in 1992.  They never got to the NBA Finals.  But Eaton tends to look at it philosophically now, not regretfully.  “We played a lot of good basketball and provided a lot of entertainment for a lot of people on cold winter nights,” he said.  “I look at the visibility we provided for the state, the kind of character our team had, and that to me is more important than winning a championship.”

“For example, how proud would Utah have been being associated with the Bad Boys (the two-time champion Detroit Pistons)?  We had teams that, regardless of the won/loss record, the state could feel proud of and feel ownership of.”

The sense of pride that Jazz fans feel toward their team was generated in large part by Mark Eaton.  He was, after all, just like them.  When sportswriters refer to some athletes as blue-collar workers, it’s usually just a cliché; but as an ex-car mechanic, Eaton really was one.  And he demonstrated it night after night, pushing his hulking 7-foot 4, 290 –pound frame up and down the floor without complaint.

He played through his limitations, ignored the ridicule of his offensive shortcomings, and concentrated on honing the aspect of the game that he was best at, shot-blocking, until he became one of the very best who ever played the game.

He came to play virtually every night for 11 years, perfected his most outstanding talent, established the team’s character as defensively impenetrable, centered the team from the dark ages into the bright lights, and responded unfailingly to the community.

This is one transplanted Californian that Utah has welcomed with open arms.  He is a permanent pillar in the state’s sporting history now.  That’s what the No. 53 hanging from the Delta Center rafter means – an acknowledgement that the memories Mark Eaton helped create and the improbable accomplishments he compiled now reside well e yond his own considerable reach.