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Utah Jazz legend Mark Eaton, 64, dies following apparent bicycle crash

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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Jazz center and two-time NBA defensive player of the year Mark Eaton has died. He was 64.

Eaton was found unconscious on Long Rifle Road near his home in Summit County Friday evening following an apparent bike crash. Medical personnel arrived at the scene and Eaton was transported to a nearby hospital where he died.

The Summit County Sheriff’s Office said there were no witnesses to the crash and no reason to believe a vehicle was involved in the incident. The Utah Office of the Medical Examiner will determine the cause of Eaton’s death.

“The Summit County Sheriff’s Office offers our sincere condolences to the Eaton family, the Utah Jazz family, and friends of Mark,” the sheriff’s office said. “The family has requested privacy while they mourn his untimely death.”

Eaton played 11 seasons with the Utah Jazz from 1982-1993, becoming one of the best defenders in the game. He was named an All-Star in 1989 and was voted the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1989.

Eaton played a big role in Utah’s rise in the NBA. He was part of the organization’s first playoff team in 1984 and helped the Jazz to their first conference finals in 1992.

“As much as Stockton and Malone were the face of the Utah Jazz, so was Mark Eaton — everyone associated him with the Utah Jazz,” said former Houston Rocket guard and TNT analyst Kenny Smith.

Eaton averaged 5.6 blocks per game during the 1985 season — an NBA record that still hasn’t been broken. He blocked 3,064 shots in his NBA career, including a still-record 456 in 1984-85.

All of that from a former auto mechanic.

Upon graduating high school, the Inglewood, California, native fled to the Arizona Automotive Institute in Phoenix. He returned to Southern California, certificate in hand, ready to start his auto mechanic career. It was at a tire store near Anaheim that Tom Lubin, then an assistant basketball coach and chemistry professor at Cypress College, spotted Eaton in 1977. He took one look at Eaton’s frame and thought the same thing as everyone else: this young man must play basketball.

Eaton initially rebuffed Lubin’s attempts to get him to try out for the Cypress’s team — but after going through more than a dozen sales pitches, Lubin found one that worked.

“Tom convinced me that my height, which I had considered to be my biggest liability, could be my greatest strength,” Eaton told Sports Illustrated in 2011. “But I had to let go of every idea of who or what I could be.”

After his freshman year at Cypress, he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the 107th pick in the 5th round of the 1979 NBA Draft. However, he opted to return to college basketball. After two seasons at Cypress he transferred to UCLA. He didn’t get much time with the Bruins — just 41 minutes total in his senior season — but even on the bench it’s hard not to stick out at his size.

What’s that old adage? You can’t coach height. Former Jazz coach Frank Layden believed in that, taking Eaton with a fourth-round pick in the 1982 draft, beginning a career that would eventually lead to Eaton’s No. 53 being retired by the organization.

“The Utah Jazz are profoundly saddened at the unexpected passing of Mark Eaton, who was an enduring figure in our franchise history and had a significant impact in the community after his basketball career,” the team said in a statement. “Mark played his entire 11-year NBA career with the Jazz and his number was retired as an NBA All-Star and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.”

Eaton came to Utah to play professional basketball. He stayed because he became part of the community.

After retiring, he would go on to make a claim as the world’s tallest cowboy and the world’s tallest skier, becoming one of Utah’s strongest — and no doubt tallest — ambassadors. He became an author, a restaurateur and a successful motivational speaker. He also served as a mentor for the Jazz’s current defensive force: Rudy Gobert.

Eaton popped into the locker room a few times during Gobert’s rookie season; Gobert soon would visit Eaton’s restaurant. An impactful friendship quickly developed.

“To my great mentor and friend (Mark Eaton), one of kind and an amazing human being,” Gobert wrote on Twitter. “I’m grateful for your presence in my life over the years. Gonna miss our conversations. But I know you’ll be watching.”

Eaton always seemed to be watching his former team. His towering 7-foot-4 frame was a mainstay at Jazz games — including Wednesday’s Game 2 against the Memphis Grizzlies, just two days before his untimely passing.

“His presence continued around the organization as a friend and ambassador while giving back as a businessman and volunteer to his adopted hometown in Utah,” the team’s statement continued. “We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Teri and their extended family. Mark will be greatly missed by all of us with the Jazz.”

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