Mark Eaton, the 7-foot-4 shot-blocking king who twice was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year during his career with the Utah Jazz, has died, the team said Saturday. He was 64.
The Jazz said that police said Eaton was found lying in the road around 8:30 p.m. Friday after apparently crashing his bike in Summit County, Utah. According to the team, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office said that Eaton was taken to a hospital, where he later died, and that there was no reason to believe a vehicle was involved in the accident.
“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 team said in a statement.
“… 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.”
We are heartbroken by the passing of Utah Jazz legend Mark Eaton.
Our thoughts are with his family as we all mourn the loss of a great man, mentor, athlete and staple of the community. pic.twitter.com/HkINyLF9ix
— utahjazz (@utahjazz) May 29, 2021
The NBA mourns the passing of Mark Eaton, a Utah Jazz legend and former president of the Retired Players Association. Mark was an All-Star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and beloved member of our league. We send our heartfelt condolences to his family and many friends. pic.twitter.com/7AjsqwMwpt
— NBA (@NBA) May 29, 2021
The center, who spent his entire career with the Jazz, led the league in blocks per game four times, and his average of 5.6 per contest in 1984-85 remains the highest average since the NBA started officially tracking that statistic.
“He was so impressive,” longtime NBA broadcaster Mike Inglis, now the radio voice of the Miami Heat, said Saturday. “I used to call him the human condominium complex. He was something else on defense, let me tell you.”
Eaton’s career blocks average of 3.51 per game is the best in NBA history, and his career happened almost by accident. 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.
His 11 playing seasons with the Jazz are third most in team history, behind longtime Utah cornerstones Karl Malone and John Stockton. His durability was noteworthy, with him once appearing in 338 consecutive games. He finished with career averages of 6.0 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Eaton’s No. 53 was one of the first jerseys retired by the Jazz. He was the DPOY in 1984-85 and 1988-89, was a five-time All-Defensive team selection — with three first-team nods, two second-team picks — and was an All-Star in 1989.
He had been, among other things, a restaurateur and a motivational speaker in his retirement. In recent years, he served as a mentor to Utah center Rudy Gobert — the only other player in Jazz history to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.
“To my great mentor and friend @markeaton7ft4, one of kind and an amazing human being, i’m grateful for your presence in my life over the years,” Gobert posted Saturday on Twitter. “Gonna miss our conversations. But i know you’ll be watching.”
To my great mentor and friend @markeaton7ft4 , one of kind and an amazing human being, i’m grateful for your presence in my life over the years. Gonna miss our conversations. But i know you’ll be watching. pic.twitter.com/XDvEJTPCwp
— Rudy Gobert (@rudygobert27) May 29, 2021
Utah coach Quin Snyder said Saturday night before Game 3 in Memphis that the team’s thoughts and prayers go out to Eaton’s wife.
“Mark was someone that 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. “And then to offer counsel and support was something that was really unique, and obviously we’ll miss him.”
Eaton also served as an officer in the National Basketball Players Association, and the union released a statement Saturday saying he would be missed.
“It may be cliched, but it’s true: Mark Eaton was a giant, in every sense of the word,” the NBPA statement said. “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. His imposing physical presence made a delightful match with his warm and thoughtful manner.”
Eaton’s death came days after he was in Chicago to be part of the celebration for his friend Joe West, who broke baseball’s umpiring record Tuesday night by working his 5,376th regular-season game.
Eaton was taken by Phoenix with the 107th pick in the 1979 draft, then drafted again at No. 72 by Utah in 1982. And he never left. His last game was in 1993; back problems ended his career, and he retired in September 1994.
“It has been a great ride, but life does have a way of moving on and I must move on with it,” Eaton wrote in a column for The Salt Lake Tribune in which he announced his retirement. “Thank you for letting me be a part of your life and community. I’ll be around.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.