#53 Mark Eaton
Position: Center ▪ Height: 7-4 ▪ Weight: 275 lbs.
Born: January 24, 1957 (Age 55) in Westminster, California
High School: Westminster in Westminster, California
College: University of California, Los Angeles
Draft: Utah Jazz, 4th round (3rd pick, 72nd overall), 1982 NBA Draft
NBA Debut: October 29, 1982
Mark Eaton grew up in Southern California. Despite his height, as a youth he was more interested in playing water polo than basketball. After graduating from Westminster High School, Eaton attended the Arizona Automotive Institute in Phoenix and graduated as a service technician. He worked as an auto mechanic for about three years, and was eventually discovered by Tom Lubin while repairing cars in Anaheim in April 1977. Lubin, a chemistry professor, was an assistant basketball coach at Cypress Junior College, and his encouragement led Eaton to enroll at Cypress and try out for the basketball team. Eaton developed into a solid junior college player. He averaged 14.3 points per game in two seasons at Cypress, and led the school to the California State Title as a sophomore.
After his freshman year at Cypress, he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in the 1979 NBA Draft with the 107th pick in the 5th round. He was eligible to be drafted because he was already four year out of high school in 1979. However, he opted to return to college basketball.
Eaton transferred to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1980, but did not see much action in his two seasons with the Bruins. In his senior season, he played just 42 total minutes, averaging 1.3 points and 2.0 rebounds in 11 games. Eaton was initially disappointed with his inability to play effectively as a Division 1 collegiate player. Wilt Chamberlain, who frequently attended UCLA practices after his retirement from the NBA, saw Eaton's frustration and, on one occasion, personally took him under a basket to explain that Eaton needed to focus on protecting the basket, getting rebounds, and passing the ball to quicker guards, rather than trying to compete with smaller, quicker players in scoring. Eaton has cited Chamberlain's advice as the turning point in his basketball career.
Because of his lack of playing time at UCLA, few NBA teams had interest in Eaton after he finished his college career. However, the Utah Jazz saw him as a potentially-dominant defender and selected him with the 72nd pick in the fourth round of the 1982 NBA Draft. Utah coach Frank Layden would later explain his choice by quoting Red Auerbach's old axiom, "you can't teach height". In his rookie season, Eaton made an immediate impact. He replaced Danny Schayes as Utah's starting center early in the year, and finished the season with 275 blocked shots (a franchise record) in 81 games. His 3.40 blocks per game ranked third in the NBA, behind Atlanta's Wayne "Tree" Rollins and San Diego's Bill Walton.
Eaton continued to improve in his second season with the Jazz. In 82 games, he grabbed a team-leading 595 rebounds and blocked 351 shots (breaking his own franchise record). His 4.28 blocks per game led the NBA, well ahead of Rollins (who finished second with 3.60 blocks per game). Eaton's strong defense helped the Jazz make their first-ever playoff appearance. Incidentally, one shot he failed to block during the 1983-84 season was the skyhook which gave Kareem Abdul-Jabbar his 31,421st point and the NBA's all-time scoring record.
Eaton's third season (1984–85) was spectacular. He blocked 456 shots, shattering the NBA record for most blocked shots in a single season (Elmore Smith blocked 393 shots for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1973-74 season). Eaton averaged 5.6 blocks per game, leading the league by a wide margin (Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon finished second with 2.68 blocks per game). In addition, Eaton averaged 11.3 rebounds per game, ranking fifth in the league in that category. For his efforts, he was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team and was honored as the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year.
Although he was not a significant offensive contributor, the Jazz relied heavily on Eaton for his shot-blocking, rebounding, and occasional "tippy toe" dunks. With the emergence of superstars Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Jazz became one of the best teams in the NBA. Eaton's stifling defense was a major factor in Utah's success. He continued to rank among NBA leaders in blocked shots, leading the league in 1986-87 and 1987-88. In 1988-89, he averaged 10.3 rebounds per game (seventh in the NBA) and 3.84 blocks per game (second behind Golden State's Manute Bol). He was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year for the second time in his career, and was also named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team (for the third time in his career). In addition, he was chosen to play in the 1989 NBA All-Star Game, joining teammates Malone and Stockton on the Western Conference team.
In his last few years with the Jazz, Eaton was slowed by knee and back injuries. He remained an imposing defensive presence, but his rebounding and shot-blocking abilities slowly declined. In his last season (1992–93), he played in only 64 games, averaging just 17.3 minutes per game.
His entire NBA career was spent with the Utah Jazz. In 875 games, he scored 5,216 points, grabbed 6,939 rebounds, and blocked 3,064 shots. At the time of his retirement, he ranked second all-time in league history in total blocked shots, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career total of 3,189. Abdul-Jabbar played 1,560 games to Eaton's 875. (However, statistics for blocked shots were not kept until the 1973-74 season, missing the first 4 seasons of Abdul-Jabbar's career.) Eaton is currently the NBA's all-time leader in blocks per game, with a career average of 3.50.
To honor his contributions to the team, the Utah Jazz retired Eaton's number 53 during the 1995–96 regular season.