Mark Eaton, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year who spent his entire NBA career with the Utah Jazz, has died. He was 64 years old.
Eaton was riding his bike in Summit County, Utah, on Friday night. Just before 8:30 p.m., passersby saw Eaton lying in the road after apparently crashing, according to the Summit County Sheriff's Office. Officials said "there is no reason to believe a vehicle was involved in the incident. Eaton was taken to a hospital where he later died.
“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. 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," the Utah Jazz said in a statement. "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.”
Eaton was drafted by the Jazz in the fourth round of the 1982 NBA Draft. The 7-foot-4 center out of UCLA would go on to play 11 seasons in Utah, establishing himself as one of the league’s most feared interior defenders.
Eaton blocked 3,064 shots during his career — fourth-most in NBA history. He led the league in blocks in 1984, ’85, ’87, and ’88. He still holds the record for most blocked shots in a season (456 in 1984-85).
“It kind of astounds me,” Eaton said in a 2019 UtahJazz.com interview. “I always thought there would be someone that came along and knock me off the block. It’s remarkable. I don’t think about it a whole lot but sometimes I look at all the great centers that have come along and nobody has come close to breaking that record. It’s kind of crazy.”
Eaton was named an NBA All-Star in 1989. In both 1985 and ’89 he was named Defensive Player of the Year. Three times he was named to the All-Defensive First Team and twice he was named to the All-Defensive Second Team.
Eaton's No. 53 was retired by the Jazz during the 1995-96 season.
“We lost someone that was a part of the Jazz family today,” head coach Quin Snyder said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Teri. Mark was someone that was a friend, and a friend to a lot of us."
Eaton’s storied basketball career, however, might not have happened if not for a chance encounter. The 7-foot-4 Eaton was working as an auto mechanic in Arizona when a community college basketball coach noticed him in 1977. After convincing Eaton to enroll at Cypress College, he transferred to UCLA to play under legendary coach John Wooden.
“I had an unusual background,” Eaton said. “It’s an unlikely story to be sure. I basically came into the NBA with two years of junior 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 some mistakes out there and get my feet underneath me. It worked out well for both of us.”
Despite all of his personal accolades, Eaton often said he was most proud of from his playing days was being on a winning team for all but one of his seasons in the league.
“We created a culture that is still part of the team’s identity today,” Eaton said.
After Eaton retired from the game in 1993, he only further established himself as a member of the Salt Lake community. Eaton was a restaurateur, the owner of Tuscany’s and Franck’s in Holladay.
“When I retired, I thought, where am I going to live and raise my kids? Utah had been such a fabulous place to me. It’s home,” he said.
Eaton became an author and a motivational speaker.
He was also a friend and mentor to the Jazz’s current All-Star center, Rudy Gobert.
“I will text Rudy on occasion and tell him your job is to guard the entire team. The paint is your house. Don’t let anybody in there,” Eaton said. “I love watching him. He’s so exciting.”
Snyder said Eaton's relationship with Gobert was emblematic of who the late All-Star was as a person.
"His ability to listen and then to offer counsel and support was something that was really unique," Snyder said. "Obviously, we’ll miss him.”