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Chance Encounter With Wilt Chamberlain Launched Mark Eaton’s Career

Mark Eaton #53 of the Utah Jazz plays defense during an NBA game at The Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1988. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – In the latest episode of the podcast Thurl Talk, former Utah Jazz forward Thurl Bailey talked to teammate Mark Eaton about his life before basketball, his new book The Four Commitments of a Winning Team, and a chance encounter with NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain that launched Mark Eaton’s career.

Before making it in the NBA, the seven-foot four-inch center had committed to life as a mechanic before Cypress Junior College assistant basketball coach Tom Lubin spotted Eaton working in a brake and tire store.

Though others had spoken to Eaton about a life in basketball, it was Lubin who convinced the future 11-year pro to return to the floor after a failed high school basketball career.

It was really Coach Tom that said look, I know some things about being a big guy that you don’t know about,” Eaton recalled, “I had never experienced that before, and after much cajoling on his part I finally said okay I will come out with you for a half an hour so you can show me what this is about and hopefully you’ll leave me alone and I can go back to work. In doing that he opened my eyes to a part of the game of basketball that I never knew about.

Though Lubin’s commitment got Eaton back on the court, a chance encounter with NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain forever changed how the bag man saw the game. After retiring from the NBA, Chamberlain lived in Bel-Air near UCLA where Eaton would finish his college career.

After watching Eaton struggle to chase smaller guards in a pickup game, the Hall of Famer pulled the fellow big man aside to help him better understand his role on the court.

Look young fella, you’re never going to catch that guy,’ Eaton remembered, “And more importantly, it’s not really your job. He said come here, so he grabbed me and he took me out on the court and he put me right in front of the basket and he said you see this basket behind you, your job is to stand here and block shots, your job is to stop the other players from getting to the basket, collect the rebound and then throw it up to the guard, let them go down to the other end and score it and then your job is to kind of cruise up to half court and see what’s going on.

Eaton used that advice as one of the four pillars of success in the book, knowing your job.

“I said alright I am going to focus on defense, I am going to focus on helping my teammates I am going to focus on blocking shots, ” Eaton told Bailey, “That little five-minute conversation turned into a 12-year career. So that’s the genesis of the overview of what I call knowing your job.”

The book features a forward from Stockton, Eaton’s teammate with the Jazz and the NBA’s all-time leader in steals and assists.

“John will kind of surprise you sometimes,” Eaton said, “He’s a pretty deep thinker, and really appreciated that he was willing to do that for me because it really helps set the tone for the book. You and I both know he was probably our favorite teammate and a great guy to play with and a great competitor.” 

One of Eaton’s four commitments of a winning team may feel particularly important for Jazz fans in light of the recent fallout between All-Stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. While Eaton praises the value of the team, he warned friendships off the court aren’t the most important aspect of winning.

“Guys on our team didn’t always go to dinner with everybody or hang out with other guys on the team,” Eaton said, “But when you stepped on the court you became one unit and that’s being in the zone, thats hitting the center of the bullseye.”

You can listen to the entire Thurl Talk episode with Eaton below.