"I have a tough time understanding the way fans think," Eaton says now. "The only thing I've ever come up with is that they don't understand the side of basketball that I do."
If the fans didn't always appreciate his picks, his aggressive outlet passes, his nearly 10 rebounds a game and his consuming defensive presence, they did grasp his blocked shots. Throughout the playoffs, members of the Jazz's band hoisted B's made of plywood for each one.
It wasn't until Eaton came along that an NBA player could boast 400 rejected shots in a season. In 1984-85, he swatted away 456 and continued a Joe DiMaggio-like streak of 94 games with a rejection, the longest such ever. He has led the league in blocks in four of the last six seasons; this season his 3.84 a game trailed only the 4.31 of Golden State's Manute Bol. Blocking shots is the only natural talent Eaton has in basketball, and the Jazz feed off it like a gambler off a sure thing.
Says Utah point guard John Stockton, who led the league in steals (3.21 per game), "He makes people so nervous they don't have time to look for an open man. So if you stay in the play, even though you may have been beaten, there's a good chance the pass will be thrown to you."
"If there was a stat called 'Just for being there," Mark would be a 10 every night," says Jazz guard Darrell Griffith. Adds Philadelphia coach Jim Lynam, "Whatever his blocks are, square them. That's how many intimidations he has."
Opposing coaches admire Eaton so much they named him an All-Star reserve this year, even though his 6.1 points a game at the time—he finished the season with a 6.2 average—was the measliest of any All-Star ever. In fact, Eaton has never scored double figures for a season and has never shot more than 47% from the floor. "T remember sitting in the locker room at the game, getting dressed and saying, 'Mark, what are you doing playing with these guys?' " Eaton says. In nine minutes of play during the All-Star game, he didn't take a shot. "I clogged up the middle, got a few rebounds, started a couple of fast breaks," he says. "The same basic thing I do every night. Got paid [$5,000] for it, too. That was sweet."
Eaton's size stands out even among his high-profile peers; his red beard drifts above bobbing heads as he runs in what can be described as a mincing lope. The Jazz like to kid him about his height, his clumsiness and his golf game. "To see him put the glasses on and hunch over, then go looking for his ball, he looks like some old retired guy," says forward Marc Iavaroni. But when a stranger cracks jokes about Eaton, his teammates swarm to his defense. "He is big," Stockton says. "Sometimes he shocks me, and I see him every day. But there has to be a sense that he is a person. Sometimes people are just rude."
Eaton is well-proportioned, with only 9% body fat. His main purpose is to stand his ground, and that means seldom leaving it to pick up cheap fouls. His size forces the game to adjust to him. And he is an anomaly among NBA centers in that in seven seasons he has never been fined for fighting.
In high school in Westminster, Calif., where his height ranged from 6'3" to 6'11", Eaton preferred being a water polo goalie and blowing the trumpet to playing basketball. "I was pretty uncoordinated, I was still growing, I didn't have much muscle strength, and I sat at the end of the bench," he says. After graduating in 1975, he enrolled at the Arizona Automotive Institute in Glendale, Ariz., and in a year became a mechanic. Mark was soon making $20,000 a year, bending over engines and under lifts at the Mark C. Bloome Tire Store in Buena Park, Calif. It was during his two years at the tire store that Tom Lubin got on his case. Lubin would pull his Volvo into the garage and bug Eaton about basketball. Give me an hour, Lubin would say, one hour. Lubin was a chemistry professor and an assistant coach to Don Johnson at Cypress (Calif.) College, the junior college that had polished former UCLA and NBA center Swen Nater.
For two months Eaton told Lubin to get lost. "I've gotten used to—to a degree—people coming up with off-the-wall comments about my size," he says. "But I have always been irritated by people telling me what I should be doing with my life." Lubin was so persistent, however, that Eaton finally gave in and went with him to an outdoor court at the college. Lubin showed him basic moves—the hook across the lane, the drop step, the turnaround bank shot. "I had no clue these things existed," says Eaton. "I thought, Well, this is kind of interesting. It aroused my curiosity to at least try it for a while."