Utah Jazz: Biking buddy recalls last ride with Mark Eaton

The news that Mark Eaton — a giant of a man who never looked down

The news that Mark Eaton — a giant of a man who never looked down on anyone — died Friday night, apparently of a heart attack, was as jarring as it was unexpected. To his many friends and admirers, from inside and outside the basketball world, to his Park City community, to the restaurants he ran, to the business leaders he motivated, Big Mark was the very picture of life and vitality. It was like hearing a redwood had fallen.

No one can attest to that any more than Mark’s biking and skiing buddy, his neighbor Butch Warren. Early Friday afternoon, the two friends got on their bikes in their Silver Creek neighborhood and rode the eight or so miles on the bike paths to Kimball Junction. Their object was the On the Hook Fish and Chips food truck that visits the Smith’s parking lot every three or four weeks. Friday was the day.

They sat under the shade of a tree and ate their fish and chips. Mark told Butch stories about his trip to Chicago three nights earlier to see a friend of his, Major League umpire Joe West, set a record by working his 5,375th career game.

“He always had great stories, about his escapades in basketball and everything else,” said Butch.

The two friends rode home and put their bikes away. “There was no indication anything was wrong. You know, regular Mark,” said Butch.

“Couple hours later, he hopped on his bike, told Teri (Mark’s wife) he was going for a short little ride in his neighborhood. Got about a block away. They thought he had a heart attack. We heard the sirens and ambulances, had no idea who it was.”

It was less than six hours since they’d ordered the fish and chips.

“I’m in shock. He was the nicest guy in the world, he really was,” said Butch.

That was Eaton’s rep wherever he went. A very big, very nice man. At 7-foot-4 and 290 pounds, a man devoid of swagger. He was universally liked and admired throughout his career in the NBA, which is really saying something when you consider he blocked virtually every player who dared come in the paint from 1982 to 1994.

He didn’t even make enemies in 1984-85 when he blocked 5.6 shots per game — an all-time record that is truly Dimaggio-esque. (Consider that Rudy Gobert’s best season ever is the one just concluded, at 2.7 blocks per game. Mark’s 3.5 per game average for his entire career is also a record that may never be broken.)

And yet, it never went to his head, never elevated him above the crowd.

“Always approachable, always humble,” remembered sportswriter Brad Rock, who covered Eaton’s entire career. “I saw him just three weeks ago at the airport and he was the same as ever.”

I first met Mark 38 years ago when we moved in next to each other at what was then the new Jeremy Ranch development on the eastern slope of Parleys Summit. Being a member of the media, I figured once he found that out he’d stay guarded, watch what he said, keep his distance as is usually the case. Instead, we went to the movies. He asked me to watch his dog when he went out of town. He ordered a mountain bike — a new invention in the mid-1980s — suitable for a 7-foot-4 frame and, safely out of sight of the Jazz coaches, we rode some of the area’s first mountain bike trails.

Friends beget friends. He made so many of them in Utah he decided to stay after his playing days were over, another rarity. He embraced mountain-living in Park City for all it was worth. Skied in the winter, rode horses and bikes in the summer. He skied with a regular group at Deer Valley “just about every day he wasn’t traveling out of town,” remembered Allen Titensor, another of Mark’s skiing and biking friends. They’d meet early. “Get that good hour in first thing, first on the chair,” said Butch Warren. “Once the corduroy was gone we’d go sit and have coffee and shoot the (breeze).”

Because he was impossible to miss, “People always wanted to talk to him,” said Titensor. “And he’d always take the time. He’d listen and respond. Never turned people away.”

Just as he’d done in basketball, where he transformed himself from a bench warmer in college to an NBA All-Star who had his number retired and hoisted to the rafters, Mark turned himself into an outstanding motivational speaker, developing a presentation that earned him invitations from top companies around the country.

In 2018 he wrote a book, with help from bestselling author Richard Paul Evans, called “The Four Commitments.” These were Mark’s four commitments: 1. Know your job, 2. Do what you’re asked to do, 3. Make people look good, 4. Protect others.

They worked for him, they could work for others.

I ran into Mark at Costco selling his book. Almost literally. Even though it had been years since we’d gone riding, he pulled out a Sharpie and signed my book, in big handwriting, “To Lee, My biking buddy! Mark Eaton.”

A few months later, in August 2019, I saw Mark at his house in Silver Creek. Brad Rock was retiring and Dirk Facer was putting together a book for Brad with comments from sports figures he’d covered. Since we lived nearby, Dirk asked if I could see if Mark would sign the book.

“Sure, come on over,” Mark said when I called. When I handed him the book, he thought for a minute, then wrote: “Brad: Congrats on a stellar career. Can’t wait to see what you do next. You’re the best. Thanks for all the great years. Mark Eaton.”

After that we sat down in the big man’s oversized house and agreed how fast time had flown since we’d first met at the mailboxes at Jeremy Ranch. He told me about the new custom road bike he’d just ordered to help him stay fit, and so he could get to coffee every day with his friends. He was as big-hearted, friendly and likable as the day we met. You know, regular Mark.