Mark Eaton, the 7-foot-4 shot-blocking king who twice was the NBA’s defensive player of the year during a career spent entirely with the Utah Jazz, has died. He was 64.
The team announced his death Saturday but did not give a cause or details, saying only that it was “unexpected.”
The Utah Jazz released this statement:
“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. 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.”
The center led the league in blocks per game four times and his average of 5.6 per contest in 1984-85 remains the highest average since the NBA started officially tracking that statistic.
Eaton’s career blocks average of 3.51 per game is the best in NBA history, and his career happened almost by accident. He was working as an auto mechanic in 1977 when a community college basketball coach persuaded him to enroll. From there, he went to UCLA, and his stint with the Jazz followed.
“I had an unusual background,” Eaton said for a story published on the Jazz website two years ago. “It’s an unlikely story to be sure. I basically came into the NBA with two years of junior college experience and sat on the bench at UCLA for two years. And Frank Layden gave me a chance and the team was in a space where they could afford to let me make some mistakes out there and get my feet underneath me. It worked out well for both of us.”
Eaton had been, among other things, a restaurateur and motivational speaker in his retirement. In recent years, he served as a mentor to Utah center Rudy Gobert — the only other player in Jazz history to win the defensive player of the year award.
To my great mentor and friend @markeaton7ft4 , one of kind and an amazing human being, i’m grateful for your presence in my life over the years. Gonna miss our conversations. But i know you’ll be watching. pic.twitter.com/XDvEJTPCwp
— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) May 29, 2021
“He was so impressive,” longtime NBA broadcaster Mike Inglis, now the radio voice of the Miami Heat, said Saturday. “I used to call him the human condominium complex. He was something else on defense, let me tell you.”
Eaton’s death came days after he was in Chicago to be part of the celebration for his friend Joe West, who broke baseball’s umpiring record by working his 5,376th regular-season game on Tuesday night.
His 11 playing seasons with the Jazz are third most in team history, behind longtime Utah cornerstones Karl Malone and John Stockton. His durability was noteworthy, with him once appearing in 338 consecutive games. He finished with career averages of 6.0 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Eaton’s No. 53 was one of the first jerseys retired by the Jazz. He was the defensive player of the year in 1984-85 and 1988-89, was a five-time All-Defensive team selection — three first-team nods, two second-team picks — and was an All-Star in 1989.
He was taken with the 107th overall pick by Phoenix in the 1979 draft, then drafted again at No. 72 overall by Utah in 1982. And he never left; his last game was in 1993, but back problems ended his career and he retired in September 1994.
“It has been a great ride, but life does have a way of moving on and I must move on with it,” Eaton wrote in a column for The Salt Lake Tribune in which he announced his retirement. “Thank you for letting me be a part of your life and community. I’ll be around.”
True to his word, Eaton remained a Utah mainstay for the rest of his life.