After Bonding Over Basketball and Biking, a Big Loss
Mark Eaton did not connect with Rudy Gobert because they were both big men from a small-market franchise known for their immense shot-blocking presence. Not exclusively, anyway.
Eaton and Gobert, paint protectors past and present for the Utah Jazz, bonded over a love of bike-riding, too.
In August 2016 in Las Vegas, at an National Basketball Retired Players Association function, Eaton was introduced to a Frenchman named David Folch who specialized in making custom bicycles for tall riders and had already secured the Hall of Famer Bill Walton as a client. Eaton was so excited that he hopped right onto Folch’s sample bike and began pedaling through the corridors of the hotel.
“He had a big smile on his face as he’s coming back and, with that deep voice, he’s telling me, ‘I feel like a kid — I haven’t felt like this since I was 10,’ ” Folch said in a telephone interview.
Within a year, Eaton had arranged for Gobert to meet the 6-foot-6 Folch to get a DirtySixer bike of his own, outfitted with 36-inch wheels for a frame that, as Folch described it, comes with “everything oversized and everything proportionate” for N.B.A.-sized cycling enthusiasts. Gobert was quickly hooked and would soon have his own custom bike to join Eaton for occasional rides. He later ordered 15 bikes from Folch as presents for his Jazz teammates.
I recently wrote about Gobert’s trying year in the spotlight after he was the first N.B.A. player known to test positive for the coronavirus. The piece included a passage about how Eaton had become a mentor to Gobert. Eaton shared the story of their first 7-footers-only bike ride and a subsequent tour of Eaton’s Park City, Utah, home, where Gobert spotted Eaton’s Defensive Player of the Year Award trophies from 1984-85 and 1988-89. Gobert vowed that day to win one, too.
“Now he has two of his own,” Eaton said in our March conversation.
Gobert is widely expected to soon be named the winner of the award for the third time, but Eaton sadly won’t be here to see it. Last Friday, on his second bike ride of the day, Eaton was found lying unconscious on a roadway after a suspected crash near his home in Summit County, Utah. Eaton was taken to a hospital, where he died that night. The state’s medical examiner’s office has yet to announce an official cause of death.
Sorrow spread quickly around the league on Saturday because Eaton, just 64, was a beloved figure in N.B.A. circles, as much for the way he campaigned for retired players as for his own unlikely rise from the community college ranks to an 11-year career with the Jazz that peaked with one All-Star selection (1988-89). It was also the latest in a string of devastating bike accidents involving N.B.A. figures, adding to the anguish felt last October, when the longtime Houston Rockets scout BJ Johnson was killed on a ride in Houston. In March, Shawn Bradley, the 12-year veteran center, announced through the Dallas Mavericks that he had been paralyzed in January after a vehicle struck him during a ride in St. George, Utah.
Gobert dedicated the Jazz’s Game 3 victory in Memphis on Saturday night to Eaton. The 7-foot-4 Eaton often told the story of his struggles at U.C.L.A., where he barely played in two seasons, until the iconic Wilt Chamberlain watched him in a few practices and told him to focus on dominating around the rim instead of trying to match the mobility of faster opponents. Eaton repeatedly passed the same message on to the 7-foot-1 Gobert, who, like Eaton, was not an instant force in the N.B.A., after Denver selected him with the 27th overall pick in the 2013 draft on Utah’s behalf.
“I feel his presence,” Gobert said after the Game 3 win, adding that he could imagine receiving his customary postgame text message from Eaton that read, “Way to protect the paint, big guy.”
My personal memories of Eaton are equally fond. As a basketball-loving resident of Orange County, Calif., it was impossible for me not to be schooled on the Eaton fairy tale — how he had been spotted by a coach from Cypress (Calif.) Community College while working as a mechanic and had been talked into joining the team, at age 20, after he had given up the sport. Eaton was earning an annual salary of $20,000 at Mark C. Bloome Tires, but he showed enough promise at Cypress to be drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the 107th overall pick in the fifth round of the 1979 draft, before deciding it would be wiser to transfer to U.C.L.A. rather than trying to go directly to the pros.
The Jazz selected Eaton in the fourth round of the 1982 draft at No. 72 overall after his virtually nonexistent Bruins career. In his third N.B.A. season, he blocked 5.6 shots per game to set a single-season league record that still stands. His last season as an active player with the Jazz (1992-93) narrowly preceded my first season as an N.B.A. beat writer (1993-94), but Eaton also holds a distinction found in only one record book — mine. He was the first N.B.A. player I ever interviewed.
During the summer of 1989, as a part-time correspondent for The Orange County Register while attending Cal State Fullerton, I was dispatched to cover the N.B.A.’s annual summer league at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. I had spent months pestering an assigning editor, Robin Romano, who graciously put up with my badgering. Summer league in those days was nothing at all like the monster enterprise we see now, with big crowds in Las Vegas and cameras everywhere. Established N.B.A. writers rarely covered it — especially those based in Southern California accustomed to long playoff runs reporting on the Showtime Lakers.
Romano fought for me to get the assignment, partly because I had besieged her with reminders that, thanks to my overseas ties and full-fledged N.B.A. nerdity, I was already well-acquainted with the Lakers’ little-known first-round draft pick from Europe: Vlade Divac. Yet it was Eaton I encountered first in the L.M.U. hallway as I entered the gym, and I approached him, terrified, for an interview — and without any good questions or even a story angle.
Eaton had just made his lone All-Star appearance five months earlier and, if I remember right, was not even playing that day as one of the veterans known, in that anything-goes era, to drop in unannounced to get some run. As a 20-year-old neophyte, I just figured I better interview an N.B.A. All-Star because I saw one. To my relief, Eaton couldn’t have been nicer about my lack of preparation or know-how as I held my tape recorder as high as my meager, trembling wingspan could manage.
He got me through it. I recounted the tale for him more than once in recent years and, when we last spoke nearly three months ago for the Gobert piece, Eaton made sure to remind me: “I love your story about Loyola.”
Video of that interaction, had it existed, wouldn’t be nearly as compelling as the footage of Eaton pedaling in the halls of a Vegas hotel, or the great clip that has been circulating of Eaton smothering a drive to the basket by the former N.B.A. player Rex Chapman with his right palm without jumping. Yet Eaton’s compliment, coming from the gentle giant who had one of the best back stories in N.B.A. history, is one I plan to hang onto.
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Questions may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Q: The 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets had Glen Rice and Dell Curry on the roster. Their kids, Glen Rice Jr., and Stephen and Seth Curry, all reached the N.B.A. so those Hornets had two dads of future N.B.A. players. Has an N.B.A. roster ever had more than two? — Steven Friedlander (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Stein: A comprehensive breakdown of N.B.A. rosters with the most N.B.A. dads was not readily available, but some consultation with the Elias Sports Bureau found multiple teams in the 1990s that had at least three players whose sons made it to the N.B.A., too.
Golden State in 1991-92: Tim Hardaway (Tim Hardaway Jr.), Rod Higgins (Cory Higgins) and Jaren Jackson (Jaren Jackson Jr.)
Cleveland in 1993-94: Higgins, Larry Nance (Larry Nance Jr.) and Gerald Wilkins (Damien Wilkins)
Golden State in 1994-95: Manute Bol (Bol Bol), Hardaway and Higgins
Portland in 1995-96: Harvey Grant (Jerami and Jerian Grant), Arvydas Sabonis (Domantas Sabonis) and Gary Trent (Gary Trent Jr.)
Portland in 1997-98: Rick Brunson (Jalen Brunson), Sabonis and Trent.
Another memorable example: As my pal Mike Lynch from Stathead noted, Henry Bibby (Mike Bibby), Joe Bryant (Kobe Bryant), Mike Dunleavy (Mike Dunleavy Jr.) and Harvey Catchings (whose daughter Tamika Catchings starred in the W.N.B.A. and was just inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2020 class alongside Kobe Bryant) all played for Philadelphia in 1976-77.
Q: Have my Hornets finally turned a corner? Can LaMelo Ball’s exciting style help us attract free agents? Will Michael Jordan be willing to break the bank again on a proven player after the signing of Gordon Hayward? — Glenn Gibson (Mount Holly, N.C.)
Stein: Ball’s presence could help some, but it’s a stretch to describe Charlotte as any sort of emerging free-agent destination or to suggest that the Hornets’ standing in the league has changed after one season that ended with a blowout defeat in the play-in tournament.
Mitch Kupchak, Charlotte’s president of basketball operations, said in an interview with me last week — and when he did a season-ending news conference with local reporters — that the Hornets were pleasantly surprised to win the Hayward sweepstakes in November. Kupchak was initially skeptical that Hayward would decline a player option with Boston for the 2020-21 season worth nearly $35 million to come to small-market Charlotte.
Given that the Hornets committed to a four-year deal to Hayward worth $120 million, this isn’t the time to question Jordan’s willingness to spend. That deal was widely regarded as an overpayment given Hayward’s age (31) and injury history. Yet I hold firm on what was covered in last week’s newsletter about Jordan’s limited presence around the team.
Understandable as it was for Jordan to be distant throughout a season played through the pandemic, I remain convinced that he needs to be more visible and involved to boost the Hornets, because his star power is such a difference maker.
Q: Another collapse? From a franchise perspective, sure, but Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis weren’t even teenagers when the 2006 finals happened, so I doubt they give it much thought. — @BrettChisum from Twitter
Stein: Fair point. Tuesday’s piece wasn’t intended to suggest that Doncic and Porzingis have been weighed down in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers by memories of what happened to the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks in the 2006 N.B.A. finals against Miami.
But I still think “another” applies, as I used in a tweet to promote the story, because (as you also noted) this is a franchise — and a fan base — that will never forget what happened in 2006. Dallas’s inability to win a single playoff series since the 2011 finals triumph over Miami that avenged the 2006 loss factors into that.
Like it or not, if the Mavericks lose this series to the Clippers after taking a 2-0 lead on the road, it will dredge up talk of the worst collapses in league and, yes, franchise history.
It’s hard to believe now, given the depths of his struggles against the Hawks, but Julius Randle averaged 37.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists in three regular-season games against Atlanta. Although Randle had his best game of the series in the Knicks’ Game 4 defeat (23 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists), his 7-for-19 shooting performance inspired derisive chants of “Play-off Randle” and “over-rated” from Atlanta’s fans. Randle, who last week won the N.B.A.’s Most Improved Player Award, has missed 53 of 73 shots from the field in the series. The Hawks had the league’s 18th-ranked defense during the regular season.
Milwaukee’s overtime victory against Miami in Game 1 of their first-round series did not exactly suggest that the Bucks were poised to sweep the Heat. The Bucks pulled out a victory in the series opener despite shooting a dreadful 5 for 31 on 3-pointers (16.1 percent). The Heat shot 20 for 50 from long range in the 109-107 defeat and were never again close in the series, absorbing three further defeats by an average of 26.7 points per game in a stunning reversal from the teams’ second-round matchup in last season’s bubble playoffs at Walt Disney World.
Jayson Tatum’s 50 points last Friday in Boston’s Game 3 win over the Nets marked the fourth time in 49 days that Tatum had scored at least 50 points. He also scored 53 points in an overtime victory against Minnesota on April 9; 60 points in an overtime victory against San Antonio on April 30; and 50 points on May 18 in a victory over Washington in an Eastern Conference play-in game. Only five other players in Celtics history have scored 50 points or more in a playoff game, and none of them were named Larry Bird or Bill Russell, according to Stathead: John Havlicek (54 in 1973), Isaiah Thomas (53 in 2017), Ray Allen (51 in 2009), Sam Jones (51 in 1967) and Bob Cousy (50 in 1953).
Portland’s Carmelo Anthony, who ranks 10th on the N.B.A.’s career scoring list with 27,370 regular-season points, turned 37 on Saturday. The only player older than Anthony to see game action in these playoffs was Miami’s Andre Iguodala, according to Stathead, who turned 37 in January.
Despite losing Denver’s Jamal Murray and Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to injury, Canada Basketball named 14 N.B.A. players to its 21-player roster for its Olympic qualifying bid. That means Canada Coach Nick Nurse, of the Toronto Raptors, has more N.B.A. players than roster spots (12) at his disposal, which is a first for any nation apart from the United States since professionals were granted permission to participate in Olympic basketball in Barcelona in 1992. Canada must win a six-nation Olympic qualifying tournament in Victoria, British Columbia, from June 29 to July 4 to join the United States in the 12-team men’s basketball Olympic field in Tokyo.
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