Former Utah Jazz All-Star Mark Eaton died Friday at the age of 64.
The Summit County (Utah) Sheriff’s Office announced Saturday it received a 911 call at 8:26 p.m. Friday “from a citizen who reported finding an unconscious man lying in the roadway on Long Rifle Road, in the Silver Creek Estates neighborhood of Summit County. It appears the man was riding a bicycle and crashed.”
The man was identified as Eaton. He was taken to the hospital, where he died. The sheriff’s office said there is no reason to believe a vehicle was involved.
“The Utah Office of the Medical Examiner will determine the cause of Mr. Eaton’s death,” the press release stated.
The 7-foot-4 Eaton played for the Jazz from 1982-93 after being a fourth-round draft pick out of UCLA. His size made him a dominant force on the defensive end, and he was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1989.
He was named an All-Star once, in 1989, and his No. 53 was retired by the Jazz.
“We lost someone that was a part of the Jazz family today in Mark Eaton,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “Mark was someone that was a friend...his ability to listen, and then to offer counsel and support was something that was really unique and obviously we’ll miss him.”
Though Eaton established himself as one of the most dominant defenders in the game and had a career that has stood the test of time — his 456 total blocks and 5.6 blocks per game in the 1984-85 season are NBA records that have not been broken — his journey to the NBA was not one that foreshadowed such success.
From tire shop to college basketball
Eaton was soured by basketball after spending more time on the bench than he did on the court in high school, and he decided to attend trade school and find work rather than pursue a life in the sport.
It was while working at a tire shop in Southern California that Eaton was discovered by Tom Lubin, a junior college assistant basketball coach. Lubin convinced Eaton to play at Cypress Junior College, and later Eaton transferred to UCLA.
“The special part about Mark, is that his journey really made the man,” Utah Jazz broadcaster Craig Bolerjack said in an interview with the Deseret News on Saturday. “What I loved about Mark was his humility. I think we’ve lost some of that in our world, and for me he was a bastion of light. I know that sounds a little heavy, but I always just sat back at all of how he handled everything.”
Bolerjack learned of Eaton’s passing by getting a call from Karl Malone on Saturday morning.
“He was very upset over hearing about Mark,” Bolerjack said of Malone. “And I am, too. That’s just an iconic person, an iconic individual and an iconic gentleman.”
After his playing career, Eaton remained in Utah and became an accomplished businessman, speaker and author.
“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,” the team said in a statement. “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.
“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.”
Dominant defender, gentle giant
While on the court Eaton was known as a shutdown defender who dominated with his shot-blocking abilities. Off the court he was known as a gentle giant who always had time for fans, was always willing to take photos, and who embraced his stature in every sense.
Former NBA player Rex Chapman, whose rookie season was the same 1989 season that saw Eaton earn his second DPOY award, said that when clips circulated on social media of him being blocked by Eaton, it gave him an opportunity to reach out to him.
“I just knew Mark from playing against him,” Chapman said. “There is a clip of him blocking a dunk of mine where he didn’t even jump, from like the ’80s. It would surface every now and then on social media and he and I would comment and say hi through our DMs. Everyone I know who played with him raved about what a kind guy he was. So sad, 64 is too damn young.”
After word spread Saturday morning of Eaton’s passing, Rudy Gobert, who Eaton had grown close to over the years, serving as a mentor to the Jazz’s second two-time DPOY, tweeted his condolences.
Others around the league and around the Utah community also paid tribute to the former Utah big man via social media.
Every one of us that spent time with Mark loved him. He was so kind an thoughtful. I first met him on a flight many years ago and he came to speak to our employees in Sanpete County shortly after that. I was stunned when I learned of his passing last night. We will miss him. https://t.co/s39fovThmX— Spencer Cox (@SpencerJCox) May 29, 2021
Mark Eaton, former NBA Defensive Player of the Year was a friend, colleague and trusted spirit. I had the privilege to coach Mark with the Utah Jazz, and his humility will always be remembered. Westminster, Cali and UCLA proud, R.I.P. in shot blocking heaven. A giant of a man!— Gordon Chiesa (@gchiesaohmy) May 29, 2021
Devastated to hear the passing of Mark Eaton, one of the nicest guys around. Thoughts are with Teri & the rest of his family 😞🙏🏻— Joe Ingles (@Joeingles7) May 29, 2021
I can't believe Mark Eaton passed away. I loved that guy. There wasn't a nicer person on this planet. Whenever I asked him a question he'd GIVE me everything he had and even things I didn't ask for.— Stephen Howard (@Stephen_Speaks) May 29, 2021
Like the big fella was just real.❤️#TakeNote https://t.co/lBWvQS62Kx 😢
So sad to hear about the passing of Mark Eaton. A gentleman’s gentleman, he was one player that helped show me the ropes in dealing with players and working with the team when I came here in 1991. RIP Mark.— Steve Klauke (@slbeesradio) May 29, 2021
‘Just broke my heart’
On “Inside the NBA” Saturday morning, Charles Barkley said he had been in contact throughout the last week with Eaton, as Eaton was in Atlanta celebrating the career of Major League Baseball umpire Joe West.
“That just broke my heart,” Barkley said, calling Eaton “the ultimate gentle giant.”
Shaquille O’Neal said he didn’t know Eaton, but that Eaton was “the first gentleman that made me feel small (physically) ... and he was tough. I used to give him that old patented elbow sandwich that I give the guys. He never complained, never said anything, so my condolences go out to his family. I hear nothing but great things about him.”
Added Kenny Smith: “A class act. Gentleman. A 7-foot-4 gentleman but a tenacious rebounder, tenacious shot blocker, and then you get off the court, he’d shake your hand, brush your shoulder off for you if you needed something.
“As much as (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone were the face of the Utah Jazz, so was Mark Eaton. Everyone associated him with the Utah Jazz.”
Smith noted that Eaton was effective after his playing career in connecting former players with each other through the retired players association.
“We all talked to him on a lot of different basis, and he will be dearly missed,” Smith said.
Gordon Chiesa, a Jazz assistant coach from 1989-05, arrived in Salt Lake City shortly after Eaton’s All-Star season and recalled in an interview with the Deseret News how Eaton and then-team owner Larry H. Miller formed a close relationship because of their mutual love of cars.
“They had an innate relationship about cars,” Chiesa said.
Chiesa said that while Eaton and Gobert often get compared to each other because of their similar size and defensive prowess, Eaton was not nearly as athletic as Gobert but became a force nonetheless thanks to his intelligence and work ethic.
Like Gobert, Chiesa said that one area of Eaton’s game that was perhaps underappreciated was his ability to set great picks, especially in an era before “screen assists” entered the basketball lexicon.
“I used to use the expression ‘When Mark Eaton set his screen, the dribbler saw daylight, but the defender saw darkness,’” Chiesa said. “He was a great screener ... in Jazz basketball, he was the first great screener we ever had.”
More than a shot blocker
Although Eaton lacked athleticism on par with many in the NBA, Chiesa said his willingness to hustle allowed him to be successful.
“He was a plodder down the court that ran every time hard,” Chiesa said. “Even though 9/10ths of the players were faster than him, he often beat those guys down the court because of his will to do the right thing.”
That work ethic also allowed Eaton to improve his offensive game over the years to the point that he could be effective around the basket.
“Each passing year, he got more steadiness as far as fluidity with his shot,” Chiesa said. “His skills did develop, absolutely, but he knew who he was.”
Chiesa said he would frequent Eaton’s Holladay restaurant, Tuscany, often over the years after Eaton’s retirement.
“He was generous. He was an entrepreneur,” Chiesa said. “He took his basketball career arc and made it into an entrepreneurship with the restaurants and his leadership.”
Former Jazzman Antoine Carr joined the team just before Eaton formally retired so he never played with him, but Carr said in an interview with the Deseret News that they got to know each other well during the four seasons Carr was with Utah (Eaton went to some of the basketball camps Carr ran) and kept in touch over the years.
“I’m just lost for words right now,” Carr said. “For me, he was just a big softie. A big, nice, super guy that anybody would love to have as a friend. You look at him as big as he is, you would think, ‘Oh, man, this guy’s going to be mean,’ but he’s probably one of the nicest guys anyone would ever meet.”