Big Man On the BLOCK

May 01, 1989
May 01, 1989

Table of Contents
May 1, 1989

Texas Rangers
Mark Eaton
Mike Elkins
Pat Day
College Football

Big Man On the BLOCK

Mark Eaton, Utah's 7'4" center, is the sultan of swat on what has become the NBA's stingiest team

It is 7:55 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, and Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton is on the telephone with Andy Barber, a combination deejay and talk show host for KCPX "Power 99," an FM radio station in Salt Lake City. Eaton is not really the type for chitchat, but his contract with the station calls for him to engage in a few minutes of sports patter—most of it about what is happening with the Jazz—every weekday morning, so he obliges. "Hi, Andy!" he warbles. "Hi, Breakfast Bunch!" He talks about Utah's convincing 124-105 defeat of the Seattle SuperSonics the night before at the Salt Palace. "We came at them from all angles," Eaton says. "We wouldn't be denied." He sounds eager to please his listeners.

This is an article from the May 1, 1989 issue Original Layout

The Mark Eaton of the basketball court conjures up a more alarming image. He stands 7'4", weighs 285 pounds and is a former auto mechanic and reformed loather of basketball who has gone from unclogging fuel lines to gunking up opposing offenses. Eaton does it better than anyone in the NBA.

"You have to play basketball!" he was told half a dozen times a day until he pitched away his tire iron and picked up a ball a decade ago simply to silence his pesterers. Then he tinkered with the game and twisted it, as he would a stubborn bolt, to suit his own unassuming ways. Eaton doesn't fight. He doesn't score much. He hardly even jumps. But he does dominate.

"God gave him 7 feet, 4 inches," says Jazz president Frank Layden, who drafted Eaton in 1982 and coached him until last fall. "But he is the only player in the NBA who's self-made. He's had high school and college in the pros."

Utah (51-31) ended the season Sunday with the Midwest Division championship and the league's stingiest defense. The Jazz allowed only 99.7 points per game and held opponents to a shooting percentage of .434, which is the lowest in the league since the .425 achieved by the 1973-74 Milwaukee Bucks. Unlike most clubs, Utah seldom double-teams and rarely switches. Instead, the Jazz slant the action on the court to Eaton, funneling opponents down the lane and into his 90-inch wingspan, which is anchored by a pair of size 17 feet. "He blocks up the middle like a tree," says Seattle forward Xavier McDaniel.

"You think of defense, you think of the Jazz," forward Karl Malone says. "You think of why, you think of Mark."

At one point or another, almost every player in the NBA has been Eaton alive. Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins has penetrated and, glimpsing the Biggest E ahead, adjusted his shot. It cleared the backboard. Kevin Johnson of Phoenix has clanged a 14-foot jumper off Eaton's elbow. "He's the only guy in the league who really tries to guard the whole team and not just his man," says Suns center Tom Chambers. "No matter what you do against Utah, you always have to deal with Mark."

Indeed, that is how he prepares before each tip-off. "I see myself in the middle," Eaton says, "clogging things up, messing up plays."

Wilt Chamberlain taught Eaton to walk tall on the court some 10 years ago after watching him try—and fail—to join in the ebb and flow of a pickup game at UCLA. "Wilt said, 'The only way you're going to survive is to think of yourself as the last line of defense,' " Eaton recalls. "It was like a light bulb going off over my head, and it's how I've approached the game ever since. My job is to protect the basket."

He has succeeded remarkably well, a big surprise to fans who a year or so ago were fed up with his primitive game. But in the playoffs last spring, Utah took the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals; the eventual champs shot just 40.2% in the three games they lost to the Jazz. From his defensive stance in the lane, with his forearm planted forcefully between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's shoulder blades, Eaton controlled much of the series and converted the Jazz faithful.

"I have a tough time understanding the way fans think," Eaton says now. "The only thing I've ever come up with is that they don't understand the side of basketball that I do."

If the fans didn't always appreciate his picks, his aggressive outlet passes, his nearly 10 rebounds a game and his consuming defensive presence, they did grasp his blocked shots. Throughout the playoffs, members of the Jazz's band hoisted B's made of plywood for each one.

It wasn't until Eaton came along that an NBA player could boast 400 rejected shots in a season. In 1984-85, he swatted away 456 and continued a Joe DiMaggio-like streak of 94 games with a rejection, the longest such ever. He has led the league in blocks in four of the last six seasons; this season his 3.84 a game trailed only the 4.31 of Golden State's Manute Bol. Blocking shots is the only natural talent Eaton has in basketball, and the Jazz feed off it like a gambler off a sure thing.

Says Utah point guard John Stockton, who led the league in steals (3.21 per game), "He makes people so nervous they don't have time to look for an open man. So if you stay in the play, even though you may have been beaten, there's a good chance the pass will be thrown to you."

"If there was a stat called 'Just for being there," Mark would be a 10 every night," says Jazz guard Darrell Griffith. Adds Philadelphia coach Jim Lynam, "Whatever his blocks are, square them. That's how many intimidations he has."

Opposing coaches admire Eaton so much they named him an All-Star reserve this year, even though his 6.1 points a game at the time—he finished the season with a 6.2 average—was the measliest of any All-Star ever. In fact, Eaton has never scored double figures for a season and has never shot more than 47% from the floor. "T remember sitting in the locker room at the game, getting dressed and saying, 'Mark, what are you doing playing with these guys?' " Eaton says. In nine minutes of play during the All-Star game, he didn't take a shot. "I clogged up the middle, got a few rebounds, started a couple of fast breaks," he says. "The same basic thing I do every night. Got paid [$5,000] for it, too. That was sweet."

Eaton's size stands out even among his high-profile peers; his red beard drifts above bobbing heads as he runs in what can be described as a mincing lope. The Jazz like to kid him about his height, his clumsiness and his golf game. "To see him put the glasses on and hunch over, then go looking for his ball, he looks like some old retired guy," says forward Marc Iavaroni. But when a stranger cracks jokes about Eaton, his teammates swarm to his defense. "He is big," Stockton says. "Sometimes he shocks me, and I see him every day. But there has to be a sense that he is a person. Sometimes people are just rude."

Eaton is well-proportioned, with only 9% body fat. His main purpose is to stand his ground, and that means seldom leaving it to pick up cheap fouls. His size forces the game to adjust to him. And he is an anomaly among NBA centers in that in seven seasons he has never been fined for fighting.

In high school in Westminster, Calif., where his height ranged from 6'3" to 6'11", Eaton preferred being a water polo goalie and blowing the trumpet to playing basketball. "I was pretty uncoordinated, I was still growing, I didn't have much muscle strength, and I sat at the end of the bench," he says. After graduating in 1975, he enrolled at the Arizona Automotive Institute in Glendale, Ariz., and in a year became a mechanic. Mark was soon making $20,000 a year, bending over engines and under lifts at the Mark C. Bloome Tire Store in Buena Park, Calif. It was during his two years at the tire store that Tom Lubin got on his case. Lubin would pull his Volvo into the garage and bug Eaton about basketball. Give me an hour, Lubin would say, one hour. Lubin was a chemistry professor and an assistant coach to Don Johnson at Cypress (Calif.) College, the junior college that had polished former UCLA and NBA center Swen Nater.

For two months Eaton told Lubin to get lost. "I've gotten used to—to a degree—people coming up with off-the-wall comments about my size," he says. "But I have always been irritated by people telling me what I should be doing with my life." Lubin was so persistent, however, that Eaton finally gave in and went with him to an outdoor court at the college. Lubin showed him basic moves—the hook across the lane, the drop step, the turnaround bank shot. "I had no clue these things existed," says Eaton. "I thought, Well, this is kind of interesting. It aroused my curiosity to at least try it for a while."

In 1978, at 21, the 7'2", 220-pound Eaton enrolled at Cypress. He became even more devoted to basketball in his second year and led the team to the state junior college title in 1980. He then received a scholarship to UCLA, as Nater had 10 years earlier. And Eaton sat on the bench, as he had in high school. He played an average of 3.6 minutes a game in two years. "They were either lazy at UCLA," says Layden, "or dumb." Eaton's wife, Marci, whom he had married in 1980, worked as a nurse in Santa Monica to support him, and Lubin and Cypress coach Johnson encouraged him to work hard in practice. Eaton had been drafted once—by Phoenix in the fifth round after his first year at Cypress—so he figured some team would gamble on him. In 1982 the Jazz asked for a highlight film of his collegiate days; a lot of the footage consisted of Eaton tearing off his warmups or scoring during garbage time.

Utah picked him in the fourth round of the 1982 draft—the Suns had lost the draft rights to him when they failed to sign him in '79—and gave him guaranteed money for three seasons so he wouldn't play in Europe. Eaton was more than willing to whip himself into NBA shape, and he labored through the drills. "A man his size is not a pretty player," says Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson. "You have to teach him not to be embarrassed when he makes a mistake." Says Eaton, "I always felt if I got a chance to play, I could come in, play five minutes, get a couple of rebounds, play defense, block a shot and sit down." But midway through his rookie season, the Jazz were strapped for cash. They peddled Danny Schayes to Denver, and Eaton became their starting center. Two years later, he was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

"Basketball is a simple game, and people try to make it complicated," Eaton says. "It's an intellectual challenge to keep it that way. I've never sat around thinking how great I've done. I'm always thinking about how I can improve tomorrow." In this way he has become the cornerstone of the defense-minded Jazz, whose coach, Jerry Sloan, was one of the league's most aggressive defenders while playing for the Chicago Bulls from 1966 to '76. "This is the basketball I feel proud of," Sloan says. It is also the kind of basketball tailored to the playoffs, when games become more physical. "You've got to be able to defend inside," says Sloan. "You can't be pushed around."

It's Eaton's job to make sure Utah doesn't get pushed around, and he does it so well that the Eatons are no longer considering other professions. "I was going to be a nurse and he was going to be a mechanic," says Marci, who met Mark while they were in high school, Marci at Marina High and Mark at Westminster. "In 10 years, maybe he'd be a service manager. I was worried when Mark gave up a good job for basketball. But he improved so much so quickly, and he worked so hard. After six months I was thinking, He could make it."

Indeed. The Eatons' ranch-style house is 20 minutes east of Salt Lake City and 6,600 feet above sea level in the Wasatch Mountains. Their 1½-year-old son, Nicholas, greets Eaton with a hug when he arrives home and then accompanies him out to the garage. Mark's first toolbox is there and so is Marci's '69 Nova, which still feels right to her. Eaton talks enthusiastically about the '66 Impala convertible he is having redone; it will appear in Super Chevy magazine.

He grabs a fishing rod and heads for the stream that runs through the golf course out back. The birds are chirping, the trout are biting, and the real world lies somewhere beyond the mountain ranges on the horizon. Mark Eaton makes a base salary of $650,000 a year to eat up space on a basketball court. He does it well. "It's not really a fairy-tale thing," he says. "It's been a challenge."

TWO PHOTOSBILL BAPTISTRocket launchers Buck Johnson (left) and (above) Akeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe of Houston got the typical Eaton treatment when they challenged him in the middle.TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHOnce an auto mechanic, Mark still finds time to look under the hood of Marci's 1969 Nova.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHReferee Tommy Nunez took an Eaton hand-me-down.