People never stopped asking Mark Eaton about his height. How the weather was up there. How he found hotel beds large enough to sleep in. What was his shoe size. If he could touch the rim without jumping. And if he could please find another seat in the theater.
Eaton was always a curiosity, which stood to reason. Even by the NBA's inflated standards, the 7-foot-4, 286-pound Eaton was enormous. Players would venture into the lane, only to discover what it's like to view a total eclipse of the sun.When Dallas coach Dick Motta first saw him standing in an airport next to 6-foot-10 Scott Lloyd, he thought Lloyd looked like a child. "That's the biggest human being I've ever seen in my life," exclaimed Motta.
He was two inches taller than the existing minister of defense, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, four more than future stars Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon and three more than David Robinson. Although all became undisputed giants of the industry, none inspired more awe defensively than Eaton. Because once you went inside, you had to wonder whether you'd collided with a construction crane or crashed into the west slope of Storm Mountain.
Intimidating as Eaton's defense became, it wasn't a gift he was granted from the start. He sat on the bench for two years at UCLA after playing two years at Cypress Junior College. When he was selected by the Jazz in the fourth round of the 1982 draft, few experts thought he would stay in the league. He was too slow, too awkward and - if it were possible - too big.
But with the help of the Jazz coaches, Eaton developed the kind of air defense the White House can only dream of. He was impenetrable. In just his third season he set an NBA record for blocked shots (456), prompting stunned looks among executives around the league.
As his block total grew, so did his reputation. When Jazz owner Larry H. Miller was trying to woo Julius Erving to Utah in the mid-80s, Miller asked the good doctor his impression of each Jazz player. After evaluating them one by one, Erving finally came to Eaton. "I don't care who you are in the NBA," said Erving reverently, "if you go in the paint, you're going to have to worry about Mark."
Indeed, anyone who played against the Jazz during Eaton's 12-year career had to worry about Mark. Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon called Eaton the player he hated to face most. Dallas guard Derek Harper, now with New York, said the Mavericks would alter their entire offense to adjust for the difference.
In a league already accustomed to gridlock, Eaton was a one-man traffic light. He wasn't an obstacle, he was an impossibility. He didn't block shots, he blocked teams. It was like navigating your way around the Wasatch Front to get to Heber City: there was no way you were going over the top.
"It's like shooting over two helicopters," grumped former Dallas center Jay Vincent, "plus he's thick in the middle. Hakeem (Olajuwon) and Ralph (Sampson) are thin. You can at least see the basket. But with Eaton, you can't even see it."
Eaton's defense on Olajuwon typified his effect on the game. Olajuwon would try to back Eaton low into the post, but the Jazz center wouldn't budge. He tried faking Eaton off his feet, but since Eaton's vertical lift was similar to that of a brontosaurus, Olajuwon never got far there, either. Frustrated, Olajuwon would try to go over Eaton, but the big Jazz center would sometimes smack the ball back into Olajuwon's face, knocking his goggles down over his nose. Wounded and angry, Olajuwon more than once drew a technical.
So when Eaton announced his retirement at a crowded press conference Wednesday, it was only natural the subject of dimensions would arise. "There will be a lot more space in the middle now," said Eaton. "And maybe some people won't feel quite as sore when they get up in the morning."
While the loss of Eaton left a sizable gap on the court, his retirement left a gap in the psyche of the Jazz franchise, as well. He was the last remaining player who played for a losing Jazz team. His patient, unpretentious demeanor and his steady resolve saw the Jazz through some turbulent, as well as impressive seasons.
Through it all, Eaton was the constant on the inside. He missed only nine games in his first 10 seasons. "I have a lot of memories," Eaton said.
Considering he was a fourth-round pick, and that he was discovered working in an auto repair shop by a junior college coach, Eaton's journey was the stuff of fiction. He survived the onslaughts of Olajuwon, Robinson, Ewing, Jabbar and other lesser players with equal savoir-faire.
He survived mean-spirited catcalls and skeptical scouts and every successor to his position - from Mel Turpin to Jose Ortiz to Darrell Dawkins to Alan Bannister to Isaac Austin - until injuries finally brought him down.
And he survived the constant smirks in airports when people made jokes about his height. "Mark's a guy who can give a lot of other players hope," said Miller. "He epitomizes the guy who, without the greatest talent, can succeed through hard work."
A guy who showed that there's more to being a giant than merely being tall.