, the 7-foot-4 shot-blocking king who was twice named NBA
defensive player of the year during his entire career with the Utah Jazz
, died at the age of 64.
On Saturday, his death
was announced by the team.
Eaton left his home for a bike ride Friday night in Summit County, Utah, and shortly afterwards, someone called 911 to report seeing him lying on a roadway, unconscious, and Eaton was taken to a hospital, where he later died.
According to the team, “there is no reason to believe a vehicle was involved in the incident,” citing county officials who investigated.
In a statement, the Jazz called him an "enduring figure in our franchise history" who left a "significant impact in the community" after his basketball
Utah coach Quin Snyder stated Saturday night, prior to Game 3 in Memphis
, that his team's thoughts and prayers are with Eaton's wife.
“Mark was a friend, and I think a friend who a lot of us, in his relationship with Rudy Gobert, I think is emblematic of who he was and his ability to listen,” Snyder said, adding, “And then to offer counsel and support was something that was really unique, and obviously we’ll miss him.”
We are heartbroken by the death of Utah Jazz legend Mark Eaton, and our hearts go out to his family as we all mourn the loss of a great man, mentor, athlete, and community staple. pic.twitter.com/HkINyLF9ix — utahjazz (@utahjazz) May 29, 2021
The center led the league in blocks per game four times, and his 1984-85 average of 5.6 per game remains the highest since the NBA began tracking that statistic.
Eaton's career block average of 3.51 per game is the best in NBA history, and his career began almost by chance: 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 explained for a story published on the Jazz website two years ago. “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 position where they could afford to let me make some mistakes out there and get my feet under me.
In his retirement, Eaton worked as a restaurateur and motivational speaker, and he served as a mentor to Utah center Rudy Gobert, the only other Jazz player to win defensive player of the year.
“He was so impressive,” said Mike Inglis, the Miami Heat’s radio voice, on Saturday. “I used to call him the human condominium complex. He was something else on defense, let me tell you.”
Eaton died just days after being in Chicago to celebrate his friend Joe West, who broke baseball
's regular-season umpiring record by working his 5,376th game on Tuesday night.
His 11 seasons with the Jazz are the third most in team history, trailing only longtime Utah cornerstones Karl Malone and John Stockton. His durability was notable, with him appearing in 338 consecutive games at one point, and he finished with career averages of 6.0 points and 7.9 rebounds.
His best skill, however, was defending the rim, and he once told a story about how Wilt Chamberlain gave him career advice, which he used in a motivational speech, telling others that Rule No. 1 for success is to "know your job."
“Wilt grabbed my arm, dragged me out on the floor, and positioned me right in front of the basket, saying, ‘You see this basket? Your job is to make them miss their shot, get the rebound, throw it up to the guard, let them go down the other end and score, and your job is to cruise up to half-court and see what’s going on,’” Eaton explained.
“Everything changed when Wilt shared that with me; I understood what I needed to do; I understood what I could be great at. Wilt showed me what my job was and how doing what I did would benefit my team,” Eaton said.
Eaton was also an officer in the National Basketball Players Association, which said he would be missed in a statement Saturday.
“It may be cliched, but it’s true: Mark Eaton was a giant, in every sense of the word,” the NBPA said in a statement. “A long-time member of the NBPA Executive Committee right through his retirement from the league in 1994, Mark served his colleagues with grace and strength, and continued to watch
over them through his service for the Retired Players Association.
Eaton's No. 53 jersey was one of the first to be 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 selections, two second-team selections — and an All-Star in 1989.
He was drafted 107th overall by Phoenix in the 1979 draft, then 72nd 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 has a way of moving
on, and I must move on with it,” Eaton said in a column for The Salt Lake Tribune announcing his retirement. “Thank you for letting me be a part of your life and community. I’ll be around.”
Eaton stayed in Utah for the rest of his life, as he had promised.