In 1978, at 21, the 7'2", 220-pound Eaton enrolled at Cypress. He became even more devoted to basketball in his second year and led the team to the state junior college title in 1980. He then received a scholarship to UCLA, as Nater had 10 years earlier. And Eaton sat on the bench, as he had in high school. He played an average of 3.6 minutes a game in two years. "They were either lazy at UCLA," says Layden, "or dumb." Eaton's wife, Marci, whom he had married in 1980, worked as a nurse in Santa Monica to support him, and Lubin and Cypress coach Johnson encouraged him to work hard in practice. Eaton had been drafted once—by Phoenix in the fifth round after his first year at Cypress—so he figured some team would gamble on him. In 1982 the Jazz asked for a highlight film of his collegiate days; a lot of the footage consisted of Eaton tearing off his warmups or scoring during garbage time.
Utah picked him in the fourth round of the 1982 draft—the Suns had lost the draft rights to him when they failed to sign him in '79—and gave him guaranteed money for three seasons so he wouldn't play in Europe. Eaton was more than willing to whip himself into NBA shape, and he labored through the drills. "A man his size is not a pretty player," says Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson. "You have to teach him not to be embarrassed when he makes a mistake." Says Eaton, "I always felt if I got a chance to play, I could come in, play five minutes, get a couple of rebounds, play defense, block a shot and sit down." But midway through his rookie season, the Jazz were strapped for cash. They peddled Danny Schayes to Denver, and Eaton became their starting center. Two years later, he was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
"Basketball is a simple game, and people try to make it complicated," Eaton says. "It's an intellectual challenge to keep it that way. I've never sat around thinking how great I've done. I'm always thinking about how I can improve tomorrow." In this way he has become the cornerstone of the defense-minded Jazz, whose coach, Jerry Sloan, was one of the league's most aggressive defenders while playing for the Chicago Bulls from 1966 to '76. "This is the basketball I feel proud of," Sloan says. It is also the kind of basketball tailored to the playoffs, when games become more physical. "You've got to be able to defend inside," says Sloan. "You can't be pushed around."
It's Eaton's job to make sure Utah doesn't get pushed around, and he does it so well that the Eatons are no longer considering other professions. "I was going to be a nurse and he was going to be a mechanic," says Marci, who met Mark while they were in high school, Marci at Marina High and Mark at Westminster. "In 10 years, maybe he'd be a service manager. I was worried when Mark gave up a good job for basketball. But he improved so much so quickly, and he worked so hard. After six months I was thinking, He could make it."
Indeed. The Eatons' ranch-style house is 20 minutes east of Salt Lake City and 6,600 feet above sea level in the Wasatch Mountains. Their 1½-year-old son, Nicholas, greets Eaton with a hug when he arrives home and then accompanies him out to the garage. Mark's first toolbox is there and so is Marci's '69 Nova, which still feels right to her. Eaton talks enthusiastically about the '66 Impala convertible he is having redone; it will appear in Super Chevy magazine.
He grabs a fishing rod and heads for the stream that runs through the golf course out back. The birds are chirping, the trout are biting, and the real world lies somewhere beyond the mountain ranges on the horizon. Mark Eaton makes a base salary of $650,000 a year to eat up space on a basketball court. He does it well. "It's not really a fairy-tale thing," he says. "It's been a challenge."