After a game in December when Jazz center Mark Eaton blocked 11 shots, Philadelphia Coach Jimmy Lynam raved about him, saying Eaton could keep the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award for as long as he stayed in the league. Later, Eaton surveyed his locker-room audience, smiled and told reporters half-jokingly that he'd rather just be named to the NBA all-defensive team, because that's voted by the league's coaches - not the media.
Eaton was standing by his story Thursday, even after the 85-member nationwide media panel's 1989 vote was announced. Eaton was chosen the NBA Defensive Player of the Year with 26 votes to 25 for Houston's Akeem Olajuwon. The all-defensive team will be named later; Olajuwon has won over Eaton as the first-team center for the last two years."That's still very important to me, being recognized by the coaches," Eaton said, "because those are your peers in the industry."
Eaton's latest award is mostly a result of the Jazz's 1988-89 team-defense statistics - they allowed .434 field-goal shooting, the lowest in the NBA in 15 seasons; and 99.7 points, the fewest in six years. When he won this award in 1985, he blocked 5.56 shots a game - this season, he blocked 3.81 shots. "Getting the rest of the team more involved defensively made my job easier," Eaton noted.
Then again, the Jazz struggled defensively against teams that managed to take Eaton out of the game. "You see how valuable he is to our team when somebody pulls him out and isolates him," Coach Jerry Sloan said Thursday, remembering Golden State's first-round playoff sweep of the Jazz.
Eaton was coming off an even more discouraging playoff finish in 1985, when he first won the award. He'd injured his knee in Game 5 against Houston and had to watch the Denver series following surgery. He was also gearing up for contract talks that summer, which eventually resulted in a five-year deal.
This summer, same story. The 32-year-old Eaton has told the Jazz he wants to complete his career in Utah; general manager David Checketts would like to sign him this summer, not allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent after next season.
Eaton has at least four or five years left in him, considering his condition and his late start in basketball. The issue for the summer talks: For how many of those years will he be a starter? On Eaton's side is his prospect as a free agent in 1990. Philadelphia's Mike Gminski signed a lucrative contract during the season, before becoming a free agent this summer.
"If it were to drag on until next summer, the free-agent market would become more and more attractive," Eaton noted.
Eaton's attorney, Keith Glass, likes his situation. Asked about reaching an agreement this summer, Glass said, "To me, it doesn't matter at all - in this particular scenario, it matters more to Utah. We're in a can't-lose position."
Eaton and Glass can use the award in their bargaining, right? "It definitely doesn't hurt," said Eaton. Reminded of the difficult '85 talks, Glass mused, "It didn't help then."
They'll see what happens this time.
Defensive Players of the Year
Season Player Team
1983 Sidney Moncrief Bucks
1984 Sidney Moncrief Bucks
1985 Mark Eaton Jazz
1986 Alvin Robertson Spurs
1987 Michael Cooper Lakers
1988 Michael Jordan Bulls
1989 Mark Eaton Jazz