SALT LAKE CITY — It’s never wise to venture into the paint against the Jazz, because it rarely turns out well. The big guy ends up swatting your shot all the way to France.
These things happen when you’re facing a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Are we talking about Rudy Gobert?
Yes and no.
Gobert isn’t the original Jazz intimidator. That would be Mark Eaton. You can see him, too, Tuesday night when the Jazz host the Lakers.
In a different era, before shooters of all sizes started stretching the floor, offenses worked from the inside. That’s where Jazz opponents would encounter someone even more intimidating than Gobert. Eaton once redirected 456 shots in a year — still an NBA record. That’s more than twice Gobert’s best swat season (214).
Part of that is changes in the game. Regardless, before the Stifle Tower, there was 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton — no nickname necessary, though they should have called him “Eclipse.” Now a motivational speaker and restaurateur, Eaton is launching another career, as author of a book called “The Four Commitments of a Winning Team.” Its release is set for Tuesday at the Jazz game. Eaton will be on the main concourse to autograph books and pose for photos.
His book covers things many authors do, such as improving morale, productivity, motivation and teamwork within an organization. But none can illustrate their point with firsthand stories about Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry Sloan and John Stockton.
Eaton by now is a Utah icon. He moved to Park City early in his tenure with the Jazz and never left. After a career that included an All-Star appearance and two DPOY awards, he set about succeeding in business, and did so as efficiently as he protected the rim. For proof, try his four-cheese tortellini at Tuscany or the heirloom tomato pie at Franck’s.
It’s all in the attention to detail.
Anyone unaware of Eaton’s story is woefully short on Jazz history. He rode the bench in high school, went to trade school and took a job in a tire store in Southern California. A junior college assistant coach named Tom Lubin, driving past, saw someone changing oil who looked large enough to pull down the bay doors, flat-footed.
Pine time in high school had soured Eaton on basketball, so he initially rejected Lubin’s offer to play at Cypress Junior College. It took 15 visits to change his mind. In a summer pickup game, after he had transferred from Cypress to UCLA, Eaton was approached by Wilt, who had been watching him struggle to keep up with Rocket Rod Foster. Wilt patiently told Eaton that he would never catch faster, more athletic players.
“More importantly,” Chamberlain said, “it’s not your job.”
Eaton’s job, obvious as it may seem, was to impede traffic and send shots back to their maker.
“It was the ‘aha’ that shifted my perspective and the flash of clarity that launched my career,” Eaton writes.
Eaton’s book details four key areas: knowing one’s job, doing what is asked, making others look good, and protecting others. He did all of those as a player. Contrary to popular assumptions, he wasn’t just a large guy who got drafted for his height.
Eaton averaged fewer than seven minutes a game in two years at UCLA. That wasn’t for lack of effort. By 1982, when he was selected in the fourth round by the Jazz, he was working out six hours a day in the offseason, five days a week. That didn’t include 200 hook shots, 100 bank shots, 100 free throws and 100 rim touches daily.
“Frankly, it wasn’t much fun,” Eaton writes.
Then-Jazz coach Frank Layden ushered in the next phase. He had already told Eaton of his potential and value. But Layden wanted him to expand his game to include ball-handling proficiency.
Soon Eaton was dribbling between his legs in figure eights with either hand, then with two basketballs — one in stationary position, the other wrapping around the opposite leg. He practiced crossovers, behind-the-back dribbles, full-court dribbles, spin moves.
Pete Maravich he wasn’t. But Eaton liked the concept. The dribbling work improved his dexterity and confidence. Meanwhile, his defensive game bloomed.
One pregame ritual included repeating the words, “This is my house” to himself as he walked the paint — even on road games. He blocked 14 shots in a 1986 game at Portland, third-most in history.
As easily as swatting a small man’s layup, Eaton’s book addresses other commitments that produce corporate and personal success. He did make teammates look good. John Stockton didn’t record more steals than any player in history without being buttressed by Eaton.
“To win, help others,” Eaton writes.
Covering others’ backs is another major theme.
“On the court,” he says, “my teammates knew they could take risks because they knew I had their back I would be there to help defend and ultimately block their shot. I protected them.”
The philosophy Layden and Lubin championed, and Eaton embodied, is still with the Jazz today. If the team makes the playoffs, all three should take an honorary bow. Or at the very least, take a charge.