Appreciating Mark Eaton

SALT LAKE CITY - 1989: Mark Eaton #53 of the Utah Jazz stands next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar #33 of the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA game at The Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1989. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY - 1989: Mark Eaton #53 of the Utah Jazz stands next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar #33 of the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA game at The Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1989. (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images) /

Former Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton was one of the NBA’s best defenders and shot blockers in his era. Do we appreciate Eaton’s contribution and legendary output enough?

Remember Mark Eaton? Eaton played for the Utah Jazz from 1982-83 until injuries and ineffectiveness brought an end to his career in 1992-93. Over Eaton’s 11 seasons in Salt Lake City, he became one of the league’s most feared shot blockers and defenders, leading the league four times in blocks and blocks per game.

Eaton’s number 53 hangs from the rafters of the Vivint Smart Home Arena, a rare accomplishment for a player that averaged exactly six points per game through his career.

Eaton’s number retirement has in the past been used as a point of contention, a way to poke fun at the Jazz and the NBA’s overreliance, at times, of number retirement ceremonies.

"“The NBA’s Utah Jazz, for instance, have nine retired numbers. They’ve only been in Salt Lake City since 1979. One of the numbers belongs to Mark Eaton. who never averaged 10 points a season in any of his 11 years with the Jazz.” – Mike Hlas (The Gazette)"

And it’s true… not once did Eaton reach double-figure scoring averages in a season.

Eaton’s career high was 9.7 in 1984-85. Eaton’s career-high for points scored in a single game is 20. He did that twice. Thirty-three times in his career Eaton failed to score a single point when playing more than 20 minutes. It’s not breaking news to tell you that Eaton was not on the court for his scoring but it helps underscore just how incredible a defender he was and how justified the Jazz were in retiring Eaton’s number in 1995-96.

Blocks became an official NBA statistic beginning in the 1973-74 season. This, of course, eliminates the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, the first four years of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other big men of the 1950s and 1960s from being in the conversation of all-time best blockers. While we know that these men routinely had high single-game and career block totals, we can’t officially say for certain. So keep that in mind as we go through this exercise of appreciating Eaton. I’m not saying he’s a better defender than Russell — I’m not sure anyone is.

Regardless, from 1973-74 until Eaton’s rookie year, 37 players reached 200+ blocks in a single season with Elmore Smith setting the standard in 1973-74 with 393.

Abdul-Jabbar would swat 200+ blocks a few times including a career-high 338 in 1975-76. Tree Rollins, Terry Tyler, George Johnson, Elvin Hayes and Artis Gilmore were other players to have 200+ block seasons from the block’s debut as an official stat until Eaton burst onto the scene.

Eaton, who had barely played organized basketball until he was discovered repairing cars, entered the NBA as a largely anonymous fourth round pick of the Utah Jazz.

Well, as anonymous as someone 7-foot-4 could be.

Prior to Eaton’s debut in 1982-83, no NBA player was listed at or above Eaton’s reported height of 7-foot-4. We had, of course, seen a number of 7-footers in the NBA’s history: Wilt, Kareem, Gilmore and Robert Parish among the best of them.

The only close contender was Harvey Wade “Swede” Halbrook (listed at 7-foot-3) who played two innocuous seasons with the Syracuse Nationals from 1960 to 1962. Halbrook made his mark when he was declared the “World’s Tallest Basketball Player” in the January 18, 1954 issue of Life magazine. Halbrook remained the NBA’s tallest player until two record-breaking big men entered the league in 1983: Eaton and Chuck Nevitt. Both Eaton and Nevitt were listed at 7-foot-4. Eaton went on to have his number retired by the only team he ever played for. Nevitt played for six NBA franchises and ended with a career average of 0.7 blocks per game.

From the word “go”, Eaton made an impact on not only the Utah Jazz but the league. Eaton quickly replaced Danny Schayes as Utah’s starting center and finished his rookie season with 275 blocked shots — good enough for eighth all-time.

Over the next eight seasons Eaton would eclipse the 200+ block mark each year. In his rookie year, Eaton was one of only three players with 200 or more blocks (Rollins and Larry Nance), his sophomore campaign saw only Rollins join Eaton.

“He makes people so nervous they don’t have time to look for an open man,” John Stockton told Sports Illustrated in a profile at the time.

Finally, in his third season (1984-85), Eaton was joined by Portland’s Sam Bowie and Houston’s dynamic big man Hakeem Olajuwon. There was one clear difference though. While Olajuwon and Bowie both went over 200 blocks on the season (203 for Bowie and 220 for Olajuwon), Eaton, well, he had well above 200.

And well above 300.

And even a bit above 400.

Eaton swatted an NBA-record 456 balls in 1984-85. During the season he also continued a streak of 94 straight games with a rejection. “Whatever his blocks are, square them. That’s how many intimidations he has,” former Philadelphia 76ers coach Jim Lynam said in the same Sports Illustrated profile.

Little did Eaton or anybody know but he wasn’t just setting a standard for the time. He was setting an all-time standard. Eaton’s 456 is still the highest of all-time, well over Manute Bol’s 397 from 1985-86.

In the chart below, you’ll see not only how far ahead Eaton is of all other 300+ block seasons but just how often Eaton swatted 300 or more balls in a season. He did it six times.

A quarter of all 300 block seasons in NBA history were courtesy of Eaton. None, though, were as impressive or historic as 1984-85. Six times in 1984-85, Eaton blocked 10 or more shots in a game including 14 against Portland in January. Eaton also had 12 points and 20 rebounds in the game. Yet, his GameScore of 18.1 is relatively pedestrian. Why? Eaton was 1-of-12 from the field.

Perhaps no game better encapsulates the full “Mark Eaton Experience” than that one.

Eaton registered five or more blocks in 48 games that season and had at least one block in all 82 games. Eaton led the league in Defensive Box Plus-Minus with a 6.5 mark, still the seventh-highest DBPM total ever.

I’ve talked about Eaton’s block totals so far but haven’t said much about his overall defense. But it was more than just blocks for Eaton. It was intimidation, it was making shooters second guess and making routine layups tough shots. Eaton had three years with a DBPM total over six. Only Ben Wallace (five) has more. Eaton led the league six times in DBPM. Circling back to blocks. Oh there were a lot of blocks. In terms of blocks per game, Eaton is in a class above finishing his career with an all-time best 3.5 mark.

Only Bol (3.34) and Olajuwon (3.09) can match Eaton’s 3+ blocks per game average.

Eaton’s 5.6 blocks per game in 1984-85 is far and away the highest total ever with only Bol the following season (5.0) being in contention.

Of the top 15 blocks per game seasons all-time, Eaton has four. Olajuwon appears three times on the list, Bol twice and the Master of the Finger Wag Dikembe Mutombo just twice.

Eaton is an all-time great.

Blocks totals have cratered in recent seasons due to a litany of reasons include new defensive rules and the explosion of three-point shots. In the last 10 years only 11 players have had seasons with 200+ blocks, with the most recent being fellow Jazz Rudy Gobert in 2016-17 (214). Serge Ibaka has three such seasons in the last 10 years and Hassan Whiteside, who swatted 269 in 2015-16 has the highest total over the last 10 seasons.

To put Eaton’s prowess into a modern perspective consider that he had seven seasons with higher block totals than Whiteside’s 269.

If we put Eaton’s block totals into modern leaderboards, Eaton would appear in the Top 20 nine times.

Do we, as basketball fans, appreciate Eaton the way we should?

I don’t know. I recall my first exposure to Eaton coming from the VHS tape “Jam Session.” I recall the exact moment I took home the VHS from my local Family Video popped it in and saw this highlight:

I was astounded. I rewound the tape seven or eight times trying to grasp what I had just seen. This hulking monster of a man just blocked someone without moving. He was barely looking! How did he do this?

As I grew into my NBA fandom, Eaton was always someone I thought of but rarely if ever took a deep dive on. I knew he was a prolific shot blocked but he wasn’t Dikembe, he wasn’t Bol, he wasn’t an all-time intimidator.

But I was wrong. He was.

When the Jazz sent Eatons’ No. 53 to the ceiling of the then-Delta Center, they were doing the right thing. They were honoring one of the NBA’s greatest defenders and arguably the NBA’s greatest shot blocker and intimidators of all-time.

Sure, Eaton was blessed with 7-foot-4 height but look at it this way: since Eaton’s debut in 1983, nine players listed 7-foot-4 or above have entered the NBA. None came close to Eaton’s output as far as a shot blocker or defender. Shawn Bradley finished his career with a full block per game fewer than Eaton. Yao Ming was a skilled offensive weapon but at 7-foot-6 could only average 1.9 blocks per game. The 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan finished at only 1.5.

I now fully appreciate Mark Eaton and I hope you’ll join me.

If you’re interested in learning more about NBA history, check out our NBA history podcast, Over and Back, and the rest of our great podcasts hosted on The Step Back.