NBA

Thanks to Wilt Chamberlain, Mark Eaton Went From UCLA Dud to a Record-Breaking Shot Blocker

One of the all-time greats in Utah Jazz and NBA history is big man Mark Eaton. As one of the largest big men in NBA history, the 7-foot-4 behemoth was a blocking master. Some basketball fans wrote off that skill as simply a quirk of genetics. After all, can’t anybody big enough block a shot?

Not in the NBA. Not even in the NCAA, as Eaton’s younger years, proved. He didn’t grow up with any interest in basketball. At UCLA, Eaton was known for slowly lumbering around, ineffective as a shooter and blocker. A chance encounter with one of the best NBA players ever turned his game toward something greater. First, let’s take a look at where he was before that incredible moment in time.

Mark Eaton’s disinterest in basketball

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Eaton had his plans all laid out at a fairly young age. He would later win inning NBA Defender of the Year twice. He’d win the NBA Blocking Title four times. He was named to the All-Star team in 1989. His number, 53, is retired by the Jazz in his honor. But he planned for none of that. He happily studied and worked to become an auto mechanic. And that’s what he did for three years.

Then a junior college chemistry teacher who moonlighted as a basketball coach got a look at him. As always, it was Eaton’s size that drew this kind of attention. The teacher’s persistence got Eaton on the squad, reports Inc.com, and he did decently against that level of completion. It was the next level up where the hulking center’s ambivalence towards the game became a problem.

Eaton’s dismal reputation as a UCLA basketball player

Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz plays defense in 1988
Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz plays defense in 1988 | Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

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If you’re tall, and people care about basketball where you live, you’ll get recruited to give the game a shot. That’s how Eaton, with little interest in sports, started playing basketball. As a Jazz recruiter later said, according to the Washington Post, “You can’t teach height.” But, as Chamberlain later proved, there are many things you can teach a big man to do.

Eaton didn’t find that guidance. Instead of the shot-blocking mastery now synonymous with the name “Mark Eaton,” he was known for lumbering aimlessly up and down the court. His size allowed him to reroute players, disrupting their flow, but it wasn’t enough to get him much playing time. It took a chance encounter with one of the best the NBA has ever seen to turn things around.

How a retired Wilt Chamberlain changed Eaton’s outlook on basketball — and life

According to Sports Reference, Eaton didn’t have much to give in his senior year at UCLA. He averaged 1.3 points and 2.0 rebounds across just 11 appearances. Nor did he get much time, with only 42 minutes to his name. Basketball wasn’t his first love, wasn’t part of his plan, and it looked like he arrived at the end of this particular road.

That changed when a certain local arrived to watch a UCLA pickup game to pass the time. It was Chamberlain, now retired, yet still apparently capable of changing the fate of the NBA nonetheless. He spotted Eaton chasing around smaller, faster players to no avail. So he took him aside for some sage advice, reports Hoops Habit.

“You see this basket? Your job is to stop players from getting there,” Chamberlain told the young big man. Your job is to make them miss their shot, get the rebound, throw it up to the guard, let them go down the other end and score it.” It set off a fire in Eaton, who realized he was getting advice beyond just basketball.

These days, Eaton sets aside some of his time to give motivational speeches. This includes a poignant reading of Chamberlain’s advice, reports KLS Sports. It wasn’t just a directive for basketball players; it’s about finding your true role in any job or hobby. Finding the angles where you can put everyone in the best position to succeed. And succeed is exactly what Eaton did. To this day, his name, alongside luminaries like Karl Malone and John Stockton, comes up when discussing the best Jazz lineup of all time.