On April 4th, 1984, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made history by becoming the all-time scoring leader in NBA history. And he did so in perfect fashion. Kareem used his unbeatable skyhook to score over Mark Eaton in the fourth quarter to score his 31,421st point. Mark Eaton led the NBA in blocks that season and went on to win the Defensive Player the next season (he came in second in 1984 behind the great Sid Moncrief). It was such a storybook moment Sports Illustrated even penned a great story on it called: “A Sky Hook that was for the book.”
There’s just one problem, Kareem’s storybook ending actually took two tries! On the previous play, Magic Johnson got the ball to Kareem. Kareem set up for his skyhook against Eaton, and with Eaton all over him, he missed the shot, and Eaton got the rebound! The Lakers actually got a fast break opportunity on the next play, but Magic slowed up instead. The Lakers had a 17 point lead in the fourth, so rather than score, they set up the same play again. This time the skyhook went in, and Kareem was in the record books.
Mark Eaton being an amazing defensive presence that might get overlooked for flashier scorers pretty much sums up his career. According to Wikipedia, Eaton was given advice from Wilt Chamberlain to focus on rebounding, blocking, and passing while at UCLA. He took that advice to heart and turned into a defensive powerhouse. Some of his accolades:
Two Defensive Player of the Year awards (1985, 1989)
Five All-Defense teams
Four seasons leading the NBA in blocks. 1985 with 456 remains a record, and the only time a player has record 400+ blocks since the stat has been recorded.
Two weeks ago, I was “happy” that Ben Wallace finally got into the Naismith Hall of Fame, even though he should have been a unanimous first-ballot candidate. One of my backburner subjects was going to be the absolute disrespect the Naismith Hall of Fame has towards defensive powerhouses, including Mark Eaton. In tragic news, Mark Eaton passed away last week before making the Hall of Fame. And to me, this is unforgivable. Eaton will likely make the hall posthumously, but he should have been in it for over a decade now!
Since I’ve been on the Hall of Fame kick lately, trying to crystalize my criteria for what a Hall of Fame player has been on my mind. Mark Eaton is probably borderline from a few “Advanced Stats” standards, but with good reasons.
The 100+ Wins Produced Club
Perhaps the easiest test to use is if a player accrued 100+ Wins Produced in their career. Eaton falls short here but about 20, but with forgivable reasons, I’ll explain below.
Brocato Prime Plus
James Brocato had an idea I’ve liked for examining a player. Take their six best seasons (they don’t have to be contiguous). This gives you an idea of their peak play while forgiving things like injuries, off years, etc.
The “plus” part is from me. Basically, if a player gets certain accolades during their career and has a decent enough Brocato Prime, they should be in the Hall. Examples include MVPs, Finals MVPs, and yes, Defensive Player of the Year awards. With a Brocato Prime of 57 Wins and a 0.175 WP48, Eaton qualifies. I’d still label this borderline but still worthy of the hall.
On the whole, Eaton’s entire career and timing are interesting. Eaton graduated high school in 1975 and became a mechanic! He was encouraged to play basketball a few years out of high school, was a standout at Cypress junior college, and was drafted by the Phoenix Suns. However, he transferred to UCLA instead, where he sadly didn’t get much playing time. Luckily, Frank Layden of the Jazz still wanted Eaton because he was 7 foot 4! This decision panned out, to put it mildly.
One of the biggest hurdles to Eaton’s legacy is the era he was in. As a high school graduate, Eaton made $20,000 as a mechanic in the 1970s, which would be a six-figure income today. He chose college over the Phoenix Suns. While it would be unthinkable for a seven-footer to focus on water polo instead of basketball in high school — which Eaton did! — or become a mechanic instead of going to the NCAA, in the 1970s, the NBA wasn’t the same as today. Even once Eaton made the NBA, his starting salary was $100,000, which was done to convince him not to play in Europe. That’s a little under $500,000 today. For perspective, the last pick in the 2020 NBA draft — Sam Merrill — made $900,000 last year and is guaranteed another $1.5 million next season. Basically, the best time for Eaton to develop and play as a pro-basketball player was when just being a mechanic or getting your degree looked like a better option!
Of course, the NBA’s focus on offense has always been a hindrance to defensive players. It took Eaton three seasons before he was averaging 30 minutes per game for the Jazz. And sadly, I can agree that offensively, Eaton wasn’t great. He finished his career with a True Shooting % below 50%, which is pretty bad for a center. But his defense more than made up for that. However, the fact that NBA teams will give more minutes to offensive players can hurt totals for defensive players. And this, in turn, can hurt awards/etc. Eaton played in one All-Star game. It’s hard not to wonder what he would have looked like getting 35 minutes per game as a 26-year-old. His NBA career as a legit starter didn’t really start until he was 28!
One last rough part of Eaton’s legacy is when his prime was. Eaton was a beast for the Jazz from 1983-1992. The Jazz had the NBA’s best defense four times in that frame! Sadly, the Lakers ruled the West until the 90s. That was just long enough for the Blazers and Suns (thanks to Charles Barkley) to become forces in the early 90s. The Jazz would turn into contenders in the mid-90s. Sadly, Eaton was out of the league by then due to injuries. He was a great player on a contender, but, sadly, the timelines didn’t match up.
Eaton took an unlikely path to the NBA and put up a Hall of Fame career. Had he been born a decade later, it’s possible he’d have been a first-round draft pick that led the Jazz to a title. Even without that, in an injury-shortened career that started late, Eaton was one of the best defensive players in the league for a decade. He made Kareem take two shots to score his “unstoppable” skyhook. He beat Hakeem Olajuwon for Defensive Player of the Year by one vote! Any player like that belongs in the Hall, and here’s hoping the Naismith Hall of Fame corrects that sooner than later.
Great Wikipedia article on Mark Eaton here - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Eaton
Of course, no NBA analysis is complete without Basketball-Reference - https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/e/eatonma01.html.
YouTube of Kareem/Eaton duel for the scoring title