He spent his entire 11-year NBA career coming to the aid of the only team he ever knew, the Jazz, and so it was understandable why Mark Eaton, well into retirement at this point, would eagerly bail them out again.
This was in 2014, and no, Utah didn’t ask a then-56-year-old to jump center. Instead, they wanted Eaton to help jump-start the next great Jazz defensive big man.
The player in question, Rudy Gobert, didn’t know his potential at the time. The team was unsure as well. Gobert was awkward, unschooled, troubled by poor footwork and raw instincts that needed sharpening. He was in his second NBA season and was sent down twice to the then-D-League as a rookie; hard to imagine that now, several years and two Kia Defensive Player of the Year awards later.
But, like Eaton, he had a wingspan that would make Boeing jealous. So there was a chance.
“Sure,” said Eaton.
So the former All-Star began working with Gobert on the defensive tricks of the big man trade. And what you see today with Gobert was in part made possible by the teacher who won’t be around to see if his pupil gets a third defensive award.
Eaton died suddenly Friday night, less than 24 hours before the Jazz tipped off Game 4 of their playoff series in Memphis. He was found in the middle of the street, near his home, his bicycle nearby. His loss weighed on the entire organization and community because Eaton was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and one-time All-Star who established the NBA record for most blocks in a season. He was the rim-protecting anchor of the first eight years of the Karl Malone-John Stockton era. And in retirement he was a man about town, watching Jazz games from the stands next to ordinary Joes, yet still towering over his neighbors like the local Wasatch Range.
His loss was also a shocker to Gobert, who played Saturday burdened by it.
“It’s tough,” Gobert admitted. “He’s someone I really appreciated. He was a great guy. I texted him a few days ago. He had a great career, but he’s an even better person. I learned a lot from him from just being around him. Definitely gonna be missed.”
Eaton was a most unusual NBA success story because he didn’t play his best basketball until he reached the league. After high school he was an auto mechanic until a college coach spotted him and spared him a life of lubing cars. He saw only 42 minutes his senior year at UCLA. He was chosen in the fifth round only because the Utah coach at the time, Frank Layden, needed binoculars to look Eaton in the eye, like everyone else. Being 7-foot-4 was a gift.
But size alone can’t make you an all-time defensive player; if so, hundreds of clumsy Goliaths would overpopulate the league. Eaton learned how and when to block shots, how to avoid fouls, how not to fall for pump fakes, how to change the other team’s game plan, how to intimidate anyone who ventured into the lane.
He taught that to Gobert and gradually, the Jazz had a carbon copy. Gobert didn’t become the regular starter until his third season; the next season, he led the league in blocked shots. This season, he averaged 2.7 blocks — not comparable to Eaton’s single-season best of 5.6(!) — but good enough to once again become a Defensive Player of the Year finalist and favorite.
On Saturday, the Grizzlies challenged Gobert repeatedly and came away with a few battle victories while losing the Game 3 war, 121-111. After Memphis grabbed the lead by two points with four minutes left, the Grizzlies were virtually shut out the rest of the way. Gobert finished off their last threat by swatting away Jaren Jackson Jr.
Gobert’s line of 15 points (on seven of eight shooting), 14 rebounds and four blocks, in the end, was good enough.
Utah is now up 2-1, the lone loss coming with Donovan Mitchell sitting out. While the Grizzlies are persistent, experience is not on their side. Plus, Jazz point guard Mike Conley is back in his old haunts for at least another game and seems motivated to remind that to Ja Morant, based on Conley’s superb Game 3 performance (27 points, eight assists).
The goal for the Jazz is to get this back to Utah with a chance to close it out. But before that happens, there’s guaranteed to be a moment of silence for Mark Eaton, and a moment of reflection for the current defensive player he left behind.
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