When Mark Eaton flew from California to Utah in the summer of 1982 to sign a $45,000 contract to play basketball for the Utah Jazz, he had no plans to become the world's tallest cowboy, or the world's tallest mountain bike rider, or the world's tallest skier, or even the world's tallest burro owner.
As it's turned out, that was his bonus.
You can play professional basketball in Utah only so long, even if you're 7 foot 4 — maybe especially if you're 7 foot 4 — but you can live in Utah forever.
Unlike others who come to play and choose not to stay, Mark chose to stay.
From where he stood, what wasn't to like? Fresh air, wide open spaces, plenty of leg room.
He moved, naturally, to the high country, settling in the Park City area. The first home he bought was in Jeremy Ranch.
"I came from LA., where it took half an hour to go two and a half miles," he remembers. "The fact I could live 30 miles from town and live on a golf course and watch deer and elk run around and still be to town in 30 minutes, that was it. I just fell in love with Park City immediately."
I was also living at Jeremy Ranch at the time, and I still recall the first time I saw Mark. He was getting out of his car, and he just kept getting out.
He was accompanied by a constant smile. Here he was, a transformed auto mechanic who played a grand total of 41 minutes his senior year at UCLA and still he was drafted by the Jazz in the fourth round, largely on the infinite wisdom preached by then-coach Frank Layden: "You can't coach height."
They gave him a five-year contract worth $570,000 that started at $45,000 the first year and topped out the final year at $175,000. Only the first year was guaranteed, however. The 7-4 giant was no sure thing.
But he took to the NBA like he took to the mountains. By his third year, he renegotiated his deal. By his seventh year, he was an All-Star. By the time his 11-year career ended a bit prematurely because of back problems in 1993, the Jazz had gone to the playoffs 10 times, he had twice been named NBA Defensive Player of the Year and his 3,064 blocks were second best in the record book, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo have since passed Eaton and Abdul-Jabbar). Eaton's average of 3.5 blocks per game continues to be the best in NBA history.
I bring all this up because Tuesday night Mark is going into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame (along with football coach Dave Kragthorpe, fellow NBAer Tom Chambers, Olympian Tiffany Lott Hogan and rodeo star Lance Robinson).
He, like me, can't believe he's old enough. It seems like it was just last night he unfolded out of that car.
"I told them I wasn't sure I was old enough to go in the Hall of Fame," says Mark. "But then I looked at Gordon Hayward's parents on TV the other day and I thought, hmmmm, I think I'm older than them."
Incredibly, it's been 17 years since he retired. That's given him more time to raise his boys, ski — he averages 35 times a season — golf, fish, bike, ride his horses and occasionally help a rancher friend round up his cows. He also is part-owner of two popular restaurants, Tuscany and Francks, and is a full-time corporate speaker (his theme: "The four commitments of a winning team." His website: www.7ft4.com.)
He still lives in the Park City area. He has a couple of acres in Silver Creek, giving him room for his four horses, four dogs and a burro.
"To think of all the places in the NBA you could have wound up, to wind up in a place as beautiful as Utah is pretty remarkable," he says. "I'd much rather dodge moose and elk than drive-by shootings."
Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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