Former Jazz center, NBA defensive stalwart Mark Eaton dies at 64

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Former Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton, a giant defensive force in the NBA in the 1980s, has died. He was 64.

“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," the Jazz said in a statement. "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.”

Eaton died in a bicycle accident, according to the Summit County (Utah) Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff's office said it does not believe a vehicle was involved.

Eaton spent his entire 11-year NBA career with the Jazz, starting in 1982 and finishing in 1993. He was never a scorer — his career scoring high was 9.7 in 1984-85 and his career average was six points — but at 7-foot-4, he made his mark on the defensive end with his shot-blocking and rim protection.

He won Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1989, made the All-Star team in 1989 and was a five-time All-Defensive selection.

Then-Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton in action against the Orlando Magic at the Orlando Arena in 1991.
Then-Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton in action against the Orlando Magic at the Orlando Arena in 1991.

Eaton averaged 3.5 blocks and led the league in blocked shots four times, including a career-high 5.6 in 1984-85 — which was his best NBA season at 9.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. He holds the NBA record for most blocks in a season (456) and is also sixth and seventh on that list. Easton also holds the record for most blocks per game in a season. Twice, he blocked 14 shots in a game and held the NBA record until Manute Bol and then Shaquille O’Neal surpassed him with 15 blocks.

He was remarkably reliable, too. He played in all 82 games five times and played in at least 79 of 82 games five other times.

"It’s amazing when you look back at it," Eaton said when he retired. “It was a lot of fun, and I certainly didn’t think it would turn out this way."

He began his college career at a junior college after a coach spotted Eaton — then 21 years old working as an automotive mechanic. He didn’t play much in high school and didn’t figure basketball was part of his future.

"I was making $20,000 a year and I didn't see any point in giving that up to go to college," Eaton told The New York Times in 1984.

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Eaton played his final two years of college basketball at UCLA but even then he didn’t play much — just 196 minutes, including 41 his senior season, with 53 career points.

But the Jazz drafted with the No. 72 pick in the fourth round, and Eaton found a home and role in the NBA.

Off the court, Eaton was kind and was a presence at Jazz home games either as an analyst or fan and developed a friendship with Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

"I love that when he came into the league, you could tell that he was full of potential," Eaton told The Athletic. "And I love how hard he worked to get better and how he really came into his own on both ends of the floor. He challenges guys. He helps set the tone for his teammates. Rudy is the center of so much of what they do on both ends of the floor."

Eaton found a second career as a motivational speaker and restauranteur and served as a board member for the National Basketball Retired Players Association. He also was involved with coverage of Jazz games and philanthropic endeavors.

"The basketball community has lost a Legend. Our hearts are with the family, friends and fans of Mark Eaton," the National Basketball Retired Players Association said in tweet.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mark Eaton, former Utah Jazz center and defensive stalwart, dies at 64