The can remember it as if it were yesterday. Or, rather, he can't remember it as if it were yesterday. When Mark Eaton says his debut as an NBA basketball player was memorable, he doesn't mean literally.
It was in October of 1982 and he got in for some reserve action against the San Antonio Spurs and their veteran all-star center, Artis Gilmore.Afterward, in the locker room, a reporter wanted to know Eaton's thoughts on a specific play.
He searched his memory. To no avail.
"The game was a blur," says Mark. "Still is."
He rather expects it will be like that again a week from today, when the Utah Jazz's 7-foot-4 defense secretary appears in his first-ever NBA All-Star game.
"To line up with all those great players," he says, "I expect I'll be in kind of a daze."
Despite the fact he can look down on all of them, he will nonetheless have no problem showing the proper deference.
"It's not that I don't have confidence in my own abilities," Eaton says. "After a while, if you realize you can have an effect on the game, you become confident; and that's all I ever wanted to do - be somebody who makes a difference. But the other All-Stars, I never felt I fit in in their category. I'm not a Magic Johnson or a Michael Jordan. I wasn't an All-American. I didn't go to the Final Four. I didn't grow up with my life revolving around sports."
He did grow up. But even in that category, he took his time. There was nothing obsessive about Mark Eaton turning into a 7-foot-4 world-class shot-blocker. In school, he was always the tallest kid in his class, which was understandable since his dad, Budd Eaton, was 6-9, and his mom, Dolores, was 6-feet. But, still, he grew steadily and not in spurts. When he got out of high school he was 6-foot-9.
He did not go through childhood as the next Wilt Chamberlain - in his own mind or anyone else's. He had a hoop in the driveway of his house in Westminster, Calif., not far from the Forum where West and Baylor, and Chamberlain, were winning the NBA title in 1972, when he was 15. But he didn't pay any special attention to the fabulous Lakers, and he tended to spend more time on the beach than on the asphalt. He was his dad's right-hand man when they went to marinas up and down the southern California coast fixing diesel boat engines. That was his favorite pastime.
His favorite sport was water polo, which he played for three years in high school. Eaton was the goalie, and he was particularly dominating in pools shallow enough so he could touch the bottom.
"I could crouch down and then spring up on guys," he says, still grinning about it.
He barely played any minutes of varsity high school basketball. But he led the coast in trips to Catalina Island, where he fished and camped and, along the way, got enough merit badges to become an Eagle scout.
As Eaton says now, "I did a lot of things not related to my height. I had a good time growing up."
The fact that he kept growing up well past high school got Eaton and basketball back together almost naturally. After three years of work following high school, as an auto mechanic, he had grown seven more inches - to his current 7-4. The story of the basketball coach at nearby Cypress Junior College walking into the auto shop one day and seeing Eaton stretched out working underneath a sports car - with his head sticking out one end and his feet sticking out the other end - has become a part of NBA lore.
It isn't an entirely true story, by the way. In actuality, Eaton was just standing up in the parking lot when the coach drove past and did a double-take. But if Hollywood ever does the story, he'll be under the car.
To jump from then to now is making a tall story short. There were Eaton's own "Rocky" type workout summers - changing plugs and oil all day, working on rebounding moves and bench presses all night - and there were trying and formative times, both in college and in the NBA.
Nobody said becoming an All-Star was going to be easy.
But here it is, a reality, and Mark Eaton, the California beach kid and Eagle scout, is proof positive you can get there even if you didn't spend your youth dreaming about it, or have people tell you it's your destiny, or have 600 colleges recruiting you out of high school.
Still, he'll have to pinch himself Sunday, just to make sure and keep his mind somewhat clear. After which he'll crouch down and spring up on guys. It's not water polo, but the effect is the same.