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MARK EATON

Zdjęcia: gettyimages

Przemek Opłocki:

You grew up in California. My first thought was ‘his heart was in yellow – purple colors, and favorite player Jerry West, or Elgin Baylor’. But I found out that you chose water polo. Family sport?

Mark Eaton:

I grew up close to the beach. I played a little bit of everything, like football, softball, or basketball. I also watched sports, LA Rams, Lakers, but I didn’t have interest in any particular sport. I just like sports. I watched Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain, but I didn’t inspire to be anyone of them. All my friends wondered what we going to do, and we liked to swim, so we chose water polo.

PO:

You became a basketball player by accident. Could you tell us shortly about ‘the basketball accident’ in your life?

ME:

Yes. When I was in high school I was on basketball team, because I was tall. The athletic director said that I should play basketball. I wasn’t very good at it, but I was growing quickly. The basketball coach wasn’t designated to be a basketball coach. He was usually English or typing teacher who earned extra money for being coach. The coach didn’t know what to do with me, I didn’t know what to do with me. It wasn’t successful experience. At the end of high school I decided it is a time to get a job. My colleague was going to the technical school in Arizona for a year, to be auto mechanic, and asked me would I like to go with him. I grew up in blue collar family, my father was a diesel mechanic, so I thought it sounds fine. I moved to Arizona for a year, went to school, and when I came back, and I was working in Tyre and Auto Center in Southern California. One day I was talking to a client about break job, and guy who was an assisting coach, Tom Lubin, in nearby junior college was driving around the corner saw me standing out there. He stopped there and started to talk with me about basketball. I tried to basketball, it didn’t work. I was the mechanic, and didn’t want to talk about basketball. Over period of about two months he was coming back and back, dropped me some basketball shoes, brought other coaches to meet me, brought NBA player to meet me. I asked him why he was doing it, because I wasn’t really interesting about basketball. He asked me about come to the basketball court only for 30 minutes, because, as he said, he knew something about basketball I didn’t know. I said I would give him one afternoon, and when I came to the junior college court he showed me some basketball things that I had never seen before, like basketball moves specifically designed for big guys – catching the ball, keeping it high, pivoting, shooting etc. There were very simple moves, but I hadn’t got them in high school. This was the first time, when somebody showed me something specific for a big guy. He offered me to work out at evenings, and see how it would work. I asked my boss to work in the morning, so I could go to practice in the afternoon. It was kind of intriguing. I thought to try it for a year, and then I would decide what to do with it. I also went to a night school, at Cypress College. The head coach, Don Johnson, was John’s Wooden All-America player in 50s. He spent a lot of time on fundamentals, foot work, or ball handling, and that really helped me to be more a basketball player.

PO:

When I hear Mark Eaton immediately I think ‘Utah Jazz’, but by the first time you were selected by Phoenix Suns in 1979. However, you decided to return to college, and chose UCLA. Did you feel that you are not ready for NBA, or was there another reason?

ME:

At the end of the year there was a rule back then that if your classic graduated from college whether you haven’t been at college yourself just by your age – if you were 22 years old, you were eligible for the draft regardless if you were in school – you were in NBA draft, so this is how Larry Bird was drafted originally. My coach Tom have a friend, who was assisting coach for Phoenix Suns. He called him, and told him about me, and what they thought about take a look at me. They did it, and drafted me in 5th round, with 107th pick. Beginning salary was 30,000 dollars, not much more that I gained as a mechanic, so I decided to stay at school. I spent another season at Cypress College after that, then went to UCLA, and I spent a couple of years there.

PO:

Beginnings at UCLA weren’t so easy for you. I guess you were disappointing with the role in the team. And then Wilt Chamberlain appeared in your life, and gave you some advices. How important it was for you as a young player?

ME:

I made a big leap to a top college. I went to UCLA, and thought ‘This is a big time’, but it didn’t turn up in this way. Coach Larry Brown likes smaller and faster players, and I didn’t fit to his system. I was frustrated about that. I thought about quitting the school, and going somewhere else. My college coach Tom advised me to keep working, and had a long time view, not only this season, but couple of years. In the summer, between my junior and senior year I went to a gym every day. In the morning I trained jump shots, and in the afternoon we had a pick-up games, and there were all great NBA players in Los Angeles, like Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Norm Nixon. I played those games every afternoon, and it was the fastest type of basketball I was ever involved. I was 7’4’’, 270 lb., and I couldn’t keep up with everybody. One day, during game when I had problems with really fast guy, I took a break, and thought am I ready to play at this level. Suddenly I felt large hand on my shoulder. I turned around, and saw Wilt Chamberlain. He retired from the NBA a few years earlier, and every afternoon he appeared to hear to play basketball with young guys. He was incredible athlete, and still in a very good shape, so he could play in summer league with us. Look, he said, firstly, you will never catch this guy. And secondly, it’s not your job. He took me over sideline, and showed me what my job was. He put me right in front of the basket, and said See this basket behind you? Your job is to stop players getting out there. Your job is to miss their shoots. You grab the ball, give it to the guard, and then run half-court to see what’s going on there. It was pivotal moment in my basketball career, because he took the mystery from the basketball. Before I felt like I was on the court, but not in the game. You need to focus on playing defense, he added. I always try to do everything, try to be a better dribbler, try to run faster, be better jump shooter. This conversation took me to the 12-year NBA career.

PO:

In 1982 Utah Jazz selected you in 4th round, with a 72nd overall pick. Were you surprised?

ME:

I really straggled through my career in UCLA, and just thought that maybe NBA wasn’t for me, and maybe I would play in Europe. My junior college coach, Tom, called all NBA teams. Utah Jazz was one of the worst teams, and we decided to contact with those teams, because they would like to give somebody like me a chance. Frank Layden was a head coach in Utah asked us to send him some videos, he also came to California to see me playing in summer league. He said that he liked what he saw, and told me if I came to his work-outs, work with their coaches, he would give me a year contact. I went to Salt Lake City. They were a bad team, at a very bad market, on the verge of bankruptcy, but they gave me a chance, used as a cornerstone of the defense, and we created a team who start winning.

PO:

You started your NBA career at the age of 26, but for sure, your teammates didn’t care about this, and you had rookie tasks. How do you remember your first season?

ME:

When you are rookie it doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s completely different style, and it took me a couple of months. I remember is that we were playing against Dallas Mavericks, an extension team at that point, and coach took me in at the beginning of the second quarter. I had like 5 blocks in 6 minutes. I looked at the bench at the coaching stuff, and they were nodding heads in the way ‘yes, this guy could help us’. I realized I could do this job.

Obrazek wyróżniony

PO:

You quickly replaced Danny Schayes as the Utah’s starting center, and finished the season with 275 blocked shots, which was a new franchise record. Probably coach Frank Layden rubbed his hands that he made a steal in the 1982 draft. What type of coach he was?

ME:

He was born in New York, in Brooklyn, been in army, and had a blue collar work ethic. He told us to play each other, not competing. He said it’s better lose by 2, than 3 points, because 2 are closer to win a game. He motivated us to play a little bit harder. He want us to be more focus on the other people, and raised the culture of togetherness. Asked us, when we last time called our mother, or high-school coach. He was a face of the team. He was a funny guy, telling jokes, and do silly things, like when we were playing against Lakers. Sometimes Pat Riley combed his hair during a game, and that day Frank brought with him a big com in the magic store, and during a game he comber his head several times. He learned u show to play defense. Last, but not least, he wanted us to be winners. In my second year we won the division, and reached playoffs.

PO:

At that time Utah Jazz had two leaders: Adrian Dantley, and Darrell Griffith. Should I add also Ricky Green?

ME:

Yes, definitely. Frank gave him control of the team. He was great to push the ball on the floor. I got rebound or block the shoot, gave the ball to Ricky, and he passed it to Adrian or Darrell, our offensive players. I loved to play with him.

PO:

Adrian Dantley. In Utah he was in his prime. Future Hall-of-Famer. Two times he was a scoring league leader, four times averaged 30+ points, one 29,8. 6 times he played in All-Star Game. Could you tell something about him?

ME:

He was the main offensive weapon of the Jazz. He was very regimented, how he took care of himself, and he approached to the game of basketball. The ball didn’t move a whole lot to his teammates, because he always tried to control the game. He was multipurpose scorer, and kind of challenge, because many times ball stopped when it was in his hand. The good news was he gave us 30 points every night. I really enjoyed pick & rolls with him, because he was so good sucking the defense, then I could run the basket, and he did low pass to me, as he had great passing skills either. Then Karl Malone came, and it was obvious that he would be the next generation.

PO:

I would like to ask you about another Utah Jazz star, Darrell Griffith. He didn’t play in All-Star Game, but was important part of your roster. Could you tell us something more about him?

ME:

He was a great scorer, with great jump shoot, because he had strong legs. He was also very talented 3-points shooter, and stealing the ball, and was kind of a sneaky in this way. Fun teammate, always ready to play, take care about his body.

PO:

Which the NBA players where the hardest to defend, and why?

ME:

When I came to the NBA, league was very physical , and playing against guys like Bill Laimbeer, Artis Gilmore, or Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Those guys were very strong, and quickly I learnt that I need my body stronger to compete with them, and be ready to fight for my position on the court. My job was to meet opposite centers in the paint. In my 3rd year Akeem Olajuwon showed up. He had a soccer background, and was very quickly for somebody his size, and created a lot of problems for other players at his position.

PO:

Let’s come back to block issue. Each year the amount of blocks raised, 3,4 per game in the first season, 4,3 in second, 5,6 in third. It looks like block war with Tree Rollins, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Did you have some private competition?

ME:

In our division we played with Olajuwon all the time. We had a great rivalry over the years. We still talk about it when we meet. I hated to play against you, he says. And I hated to play against you, I say. (laugh) In early of his career I got him upset when I blocked his shoots, because he tried to power over me, but once he developed his baseline fade away shoot he just became deathly. It was became more and more challenge to guard him, because he, like Patrick Ewing who did it also, a quick shot released on the turnaround take a step away from the basket, turned in the air, and fired that thing by the time I got my hand on it the ball was already gone.

PO:

I mentioned that in 3rd season you had 5,6 blocks per game. It was more than double that 2nd Hakeem Olajuwon – 2,68 per game. You had 456 blocks, which was a brand new NBA record. Previous – 393 blocks made by Elmore Smith in 1973-74. What was your secret for blocking?

ME:

I tried to bother them. Interestingly enough probably blocked more shoots my teammates players than players I guarded, because I focused on the paint. I needed to judge on which angle I should be to block their shoot.

PO:

You were NBA leaders in blocked shots four times. You are ranked 5th all-time in league history in blocked shots, with 3064, with a career average of 3.50. Only five more players are in 3000+ block club. Does this stats are special for you, or they are just result of your tremendous defense?

ME:

Every day they gave you statistics, so you could check how the other players were doing. Yeah, we all had kept track on that. There was a particular year, when, I don’t remember was it because of specific defensive rules that year, but everybody went to get me. They wanted to challenge me, and my teammates followed me the people that I could block them, but that gave them also great opportunity to steal the ball, if they missed the shoot. I was also proud of the fact that we led in the NBA in Defensive FG%.

PO:

When we are talking about Utah Jazz in 80s and 90s for sure I should ask you about Malone & Stockton duo. I am curious about the beginning of their cooperation. How did it develop during years?

ME:

Karl Malone learned a lot from Adrian Dantley, how take care about yourself, and prepare body for a single night. Now we are talking a lot about load management, and guys taking games off, we, players from 80s and 90s just shaking heads, because it is ridiculous. We wanted to play every minute, and were mad if coach sat us on the bench. John Stockton came in and learned a lot from Ricky Green, how to move the ball, how to find other players. Meanwhile they had natural instinct and talent to doing that. Every year Karl and John took a step further, came in training camp in tremendous shape, better than anyone in the team. Over the years it became the culture of the team to be better and better prepared for the next season. As a team we came closer because of that. That is how they became leaders of this team. You need to be in a right shape to play every night, without ‘my knee hurts’, or ‘my arm hurts’. John Stockton gave you a look like ‘You will be right there tonight, right?’, and you said ‘Yes John, I will be’ (laugh)

PO:

From 1983-84, till 1992-93 season, each year Utah Jazz was in playoffs. 10 in a row. But only twice reached more than a first round. In 1988 you played against Los Angeles Lakers, and it was 7 games battle. How do you remember this series?

ME:

It was a funny moment for the franchise, because a year before Lakers won a Championship, and seven game with them was a big deal. Nobody expected it from us. It gave us a lot of respect nationally. It was really disappointing to lose game seven, especially that we were so close to get to the next round. The whole Salt Lake City, and the state, shot down at this day, there were no cars on the streets, and everybody was in front of their television.

PO:

1992 you were in Conference Finals, but Portland Trail Blazers won in 6 games. When you compare those series, which was tougher?

ME:

In 1988 we started to believe in our team, that we could compete with the best teams. In 1992 we knew that we were a good team. We had a very good year, and when we got to the Conference Finals we felt pretty good about our chances to get into finals, and met with Chicago Bulls. Our teammate’s, David Benoit, father passed away, and he had to left the team, and went to Louisiana to the funeral. He was the one guy in our team, who could stop Clyde Drexler, and without David, we had problems to stop him. When I look back at my career that was the year, when we had the best chance to get to the finals, and fight for a title. We twice beat Chicago Bulls in the regular season, and we felt like we had their number. Probably it was most disappointing season for me, because we were so close. Losing in this way was pretty difficult, and I remember it was a long summer that year (laugh).

PO:

In 1989 you played in All-Star Game in Houston. It was Utah game, with three Jazz players, and Karl Malone who won MVP. Even in this game you focused on the defense: 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, in 9 minutes.

ME:

And no shoot (laugh).

PO:

Yes, indeed (laugh) What do you remember from that weekend?

ME:

At that year Magic Johnson announced that he is HIV. He was selected to the All-Star Game, but decided not to play, and he gave his spot to Kareem. This created 3 centers in our roster: me, Kareem, and Kevin Duckworth from Portland. There wasn’t many minutes to play around center position. I didn’t play too much, but I didn’t care about it. I was happy that I was there. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Chris Mullin. What am I doing here, I taught. It was fun. The most gratitude was that I was selected by coaches, not by fans votes, and it was for me a prove of respect.

PO:

Due to knee and back injuries you had to end your journey with NBA. Many records in block category, 5 times in you were in NBA All-Defensive Team (3 x first, 2 x second). All-Star Game. NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1985, and 1989. Are you satisfied with your career?

ME:

I am. I wish I could play a couple of years longer, but my body had another ideas. When I look where I started, and where I finished I am really satisfied with what I accomplished, that I was in the league for 12 years, and broke some records. When I entered the NBA I thought I could be a good backup center, play for a few different teams, might to buy a house.

PO:

I would say that blocks are an integral part of Mark Eaton’s life as well as Salt Lake City, and Utah Jazz. You spent here whole basketball career, fruitful 11 seasons. The club retired your jersey, and 53 is hanging under the dome of the hall. What is so special in Salt Lake City that you decided to stay here?

ME:

It’s a very friendly, family environment. I love mountains, I love being outdoors. There are three ski resorts here. It’s sunny most of the time, close to the California, so I could go there pretty quickly if I need to.

PO:

You established Mark Eaton Standing Tall for Youth organization. Could you tell us something more about how your organization helps young people?

ME:

First idea was to get kids to basketball camps that can’t afford to go. At the same time we worked on life skills, and making decisions. A friend of mine who played in the NFL was a coach there. It’s involved into outdoor camps as well, where we took kids into mountains, and camping’s, to teach them outdoor skills. We did it for 14 years, giving kids opportunities the hadn’t got otherwise. Many times they never been outside their neighborhood, they live in a little five or six square blocks area. Taking them to the mountains give an opportunity to teach them new ways of thinking.

PO:

You are also a motivational speaker. Why did you decide to help other people to overcome their obstacles and be a better person?

ME:

I had a coaches who did that for me, my coaches Tom, Frank, Wilt Chamberlain. I treat it as my responsibility to share those lessons with other people, that they learn something, and helps them to be better, and change their life’s. I think we all need coaches, and assist with wisdom from time to time, and I just doing my little part of that.

PO:

Do you have workouts with Jazz players, e.g. with Rudy Gobert?

ME:

I talk to him, pretty frequently, send him text messages after the game, tell that it was a nice job. He is again Defensive Player of the Year, so we both won it twice. He is outstanding talent, so good going to the basket, so good defensively. He is fun to watch.

PO:

Current Jazz roster looks promising. A mix of talent and experience. Do you think there is a chance to reach something more than 2nd round of playoffs?

ME:

I do. Last year they heavily relied on Donovan Mitchell, and he is not traditionally point guard. By bringing Mike Conley gave us somebody who could run the offense, and take that responsibility from Donovan. We added another scoring guy, Bojan Bogdanovic from Indiana Pacers. He have a new faces, who could share the load. I think that one area, which just takes time, is focusing on the defense. We have a lot of weapons who could finish a game, from the distance, or drive into basket.

PO:

Who is your favorite player from current Utah Jazz roster, and why?

ME:

That is a tough one. Of course, I watch Rudy the most, because he is a center, but Donovan Mitchell, and staff he makes on the floor, his athleticism, his ability to see the floor, spaces you think we won’t be able to get through, so, at the end of the day, I think he is my favorite.

PO:

What is your All-Time Utah Jazz Team? I guess the only free spots, are on SG, and SF, or even only at SG.

ME:

John Stockton, Karl Malone, Mark Eaton, Jeff Hornacek, and Thurl Bailey.

PO:

Thank you for the interview.