It is 7:55 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, and Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton is on the telephone with Andy Barber, a combination deejay and talk show host for KCPX "Power 99," an FM radio station in Salt Lake City. Eaton is not really the type for chitchat, but his contract with the station calls for him to engage in a few minutes of sports patter—most of it about what is happening with the Jazz—every weekday morning, so he obliges. "Hi, Andy!" he warbles. "Hi, Breakfast Bunch!" He talks about Utah's convincing 124-105 defeat of the Seattle SuperSonics the night before at the Salt Palace. "We came at them from all angles," Eaton says. "We wouldn't be denied." He sounds eager to please his listeners.
The Mark Eaton of the basketball court conjures up a more alarming image. He stands 7'4", weighs 285 pounds and is a former auto mechanic and reformed loather of basketball who has gone from unclogging fuel lines to gunking up opposing offenses. Eaton does it better than anyone in the NBA.
"You have to play basketball!" he was told half a dozen times a day until he pitched away his tire iron and picked up a ball a decade ago simply to silence his pesterers. Then he tinkered with the game and twisted it, as he would a stubborn bolt, to suit his own unassuming ways. Eaton doesn't fight. He doesn't score much. He hardly even jumps. But he does dominate.
"God gave him 7 feet, 4 inches," says Jazz president Frank Layden, who drafted Eaton in 1982 and coached him until last fall. "But he is the only player in the NBA who's self-made. He's had high school and college in the pros."
Utah (51-31) ended the season Sunday with the Midwest Division championship and the league's stingiest defense. The Jazz allowed only 99.7 points per game and held opponents to a shooting percentage of .434, which is the lowest in the league since the .425 achieved by the 1973-74 Milwaukee Bucks. Unlike most clubs, Utah seldom double-teams and rarely switches. Instead, the Jazz slant the action on the court to Eaton, funneling opponents down the lane and into his 90-inch wingspan, which is anchored by a pair of size 17 feet. "He blocks up the middle like a tree," says Seattle forward Xavier McDaniel.
"You think of defense, you think of the Jazz," forward Karl Malone says. "You think of why, you think of Mark."
At one point or another, almost every player in the NBA has been Eaton alive. Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins has penetrated and, glimpsing the Biggest E ahead, adjusted his shot. It cleared the backboard. Kevin Johnson of Phoenix has clanged a 14-foot jumper off Eaton's elbow. "He's the only guy in the league who really tries to guard the whole team and not just his man," says Suns center Tom Chambers. "No matter what you do against Utah, you always have to deal with Mark."
Indeed, that is how he prepares before each tip-off. "I see myself in the middle," Eaton says, "clogging things up, messing up plays."
Wilt Chamberlain taught Eaton to walk tall on the court some 10 years ago after watching him try—and fail—to join in the ebb and flow of a pickup game at UCLA. "Wilt said, 'The only way you're going to survive is to think of yourself as the last line of defense,' " Eaton recalls. "It was like a light bulb going off over my head, and it's how I've approached the game ever since. My job is to protect the basket."
He has succeeded remarkably well, a big surprise to fans who a year or so ago were fed up with his primitive game. But in the playoffs last spring, Utah took the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals; the eventual champs shot just 40.2% in the three games they lost to the Jazz. From his defensive stance in the lane, with his forearm planted forcefully between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's shoulder blades, Eaton controlled much of the series and converted the Jazz faithful.