Mark Eaton is a legendary former NBA All Star, who was the most dominant shot blocker of his era, becoming the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year twice and setting the record (which still stands today) for the most shots blocked in any season in NBA History, (456 – which is an average of 5.56 per game) and nobody has ever come close!
His bestselling book, The Four Commitments of a Winning Team – with a foreword written by NBA Legend and Hall of Famer John Stockton – enables industry leaders, teams and individuals to outsmart, outlast, and outperform their competition and achieve record-breaking success.
Mark’s story is an incredible and improbable journey, which goes from a high school basketball bench-warmer to a 21-year- old auto mechanic with no future in basketball, to ultimately becoming a record-breaking NBA player and All Star!
He is an expert on team building and business building, and teaches organizations how to employ the leadership principles and coaching techniques he mastered in his twelve-year NBA basketball career, one of which is knowing your limitations and becoming great at what you do best.
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Mark Eaton: Do What You Do Best. Intimidating NBA All Star & 2x Defensive Player Of The Year
Joining us is Mark Eaton, a legendary former NBA All-Star, who is the most dominant shot blocker of his era, becoming the NBA’s defensive player of the year twice and set the record, which still stands for the most shots blocked in any NBA season in history with 456, an average of 5.56 per game and nobody has ever even come close. His best-selling book, The Four Commitments Of A Winning Team, with the foreword written by NBA legend and Hall of Famer, John Stockton enables industry leaders, teams and individuals to outsmart, outlast and outperform the competition and achieve record-breaking success. Mark’s story is an incredible and improbable journey, which goes from a high school basketball bench warmer to a 21-year-old auto mechanic with no future in basketball, ultimately becoming a record-breaking NBA player and All-Star. He’s an expert on team building, business building and teaches organizations how to employ the leadership principles and coaching techniques that he mastered in his twelve-year NBA career. One of which is knowing your limitations and becoming great at what you do best. Please join me now with the incomparable, Mark Eaton.
Mark Eaton, thank you for joining me on the show. How are you doing?
I’m good, Chris. How are you?
I’m doing well. I’m excited to have you. I’ve known about you as an NBA player and a speaker more in the last decades as somebody who took it on as something you were passionate about and have done very well with. There are a lot of athletes out there who are asked to speak, but they’re not necessarily making a real foray into the business as you have. I love it because you’re great at it. It’s a wonderful thing to have you here, a celebrity, but also somebody that I remember for years as a Laker fan, who was a real pain in the you-know-what down there blocking those shots. It’s a pleasure to meet you in person here. This is the first time we’ve been in person, even though it’s virtual, but thanks so much for coming. Back when you were with Utah Jazz, you were an incredible shot blocker. You were a guy who was, in my mind, legendary as a guy who dominated in the NBA. You still hold the record for most shots blocked in a season and the most average per game. What are those numbers?
It was in 1985. I blocked 456 shots over the course of that season, and that still stands as the record now. It’s what’s been shocking to me. I would have thought somebody would have surpassed it by now. The average per game was 5.5 blocks. No one has come close to it.
That was many years ago. That isn’t saying that that is still standing now?
It’s remarkable to me. I think about it sometimes. I’m like, “All the great centers have come through the league since then, and nobody has come close to it.” I’m shocked.
It’s a good thing. At the end of every year, you have the champagne like the Miami Dolphins do, and you still got your record. The crazy thing about your story is that you almost didn’t play basketball a couple of different times. In high school, you were not playing. I’m sure you were one of the tallest guys in your high school, down the road here in Westminster High in LA. You didn’t like the game, or did you think you weren’t good enough or what was the reason you weren’t in it yet?Sometimes, we're so quick to look at whatever someone should be doing instead of focusing on what we must be doing. Click To Tweet
I was always growing a lot. When you’re 7’4, it takes a while to get to that height. I can’t say I was that coordinated in terms of basketball back then. I grew up with a bunch of friends and we went to the beach all the time. We played different sports at the park. When it got to high school, it seemed like everybody said, “You should play basketball.” I’m like, “I’ll play basketball.” The coaches didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t know what to do with me. My body was still coming together. At the end of my high school career, I was like, “The sports thing is not going anywhere. It’s time to go do something else.”
I grew up with a family that my father was a vocational educator. I went to trade school for a year in Arizona, learned to be an auto mechanic because I didn’t have any other better ideas at the time. After spending a year in Arizona doing that, I came back to Southern California and got promptly fired from the first job I had and ended up in a tire and auto center in Buena Park. I was there for about 1.5-year when I’m working on cars and then happened to be down the street from a Cypress Junior College. One of the assistant coaches happened by one day and saw this 7’4” guy out there fixing cars and pulled in. Like everybody else, he’s like, “What are you doing here?”
He convinced you to take a shot at basketball. They must have taught you some tools that you didn’t have before that and set you on your way.
He did. It took him a while to convince me to even give it a try because everybody that came in the shop when you’re 7’4” is like, “Why don’t you play basketball? Why don’t you play for the Lakers?” I’m like, “I don’t go around telling you what you should be doing with your life.” This coach had some unique understanding of how to play basketball as a big guy. He had some relatives that were big that played basketball and he knew some things about the game that I didn’t know. He said, “Come out with me for 1.5-hour one evening and let me show you some of this stuff. If you like it, great. We’ll talk about what’s next. If not, I’ll leave you alone.”
As I went out to the court with him and he showed me some simple things I could do with the basketball that didn’t require a lot of dribbling, simple footwork moves near the basket, I was intrigued and said, “This is interesting.” We agreed to start working out after I got done bending wrenches all day and going out on the court after work. He started slowly working with me. It took about four months for me to get a grasp of what an athlete was supposed to do. I’d been eating junk food for three years. I wasn’t much of an athlete at that point in time. I decided to go back to junior college to give it a try for one year to see what happens and things went well.
By the end of my first year, I had attracted enough attention that the Phoenix Suns took a shot on me, drafting me out of junior college. I didn’t accept the offer because it wasn’t a guarantee of any sort, but it made me consider the possibility that I should get a little more serious about the game of basketball. I quit work as a mechanic. I got a job selling cars. I was a bouncer and stayed with junior college. I eventually went on to UCLA and spent two years there.
How did that go?
That was a little bit of a struggle. Junior college had been a lot of fun. We won the state championship. I thought UCLA was the place you needed to be. Larry Brown was the coach. He had a different philosophy about big guys. He wanted to play an up-tempo fast game. I didn’t fit in that well. It was frustrating to sit on the end of the bench thereafter the success I’d had in junior college. I thought about quitting, getting my toolbox back out, but my junior college coach, Tom, would always say, “You got to keep working. It’s not about this year. It’s about you’re building for the future.” I had an interesting interaction that summer between my junior and senior year, playing at the men’s gym. I was out on the court, and all the great players in LA would show up at the men’s gym at UCLA every afternoon.
It was the greatest pickup games or practice games you could ever imagine. Magic Johnson was there, James Worthy, Norm Nixon, all these great players. One day, I’m running down the court. I’m trying to catch all these guys and it seems like I’m five steps behind all the time. It’s not in the play. I’m not there. I’m frustrated about it. It was on the sidelines for a minute and thinking, “I don’t know if I can play at this level.” I feel this big, large hand on my shoulder. I turned around and it was a Wilt Chamberlain. He looked me in the eye and said, “First of all, young fellow, you’re never going to catch those guys. Secondly, it’s not your job. Come with me.”
He took me out of the court and put me in front of the basket. He said, “Do you see this basket behind you? Your job is to stop players from getting there. Your job is to make them miss their shot and collect the rebound, and then throw it up to the guard, let them go down the other end and score it. Your job is cruise up to half court and see what’s going on.” All of a sudden, the whole game of basketball made sense to me. I understood what I needed to do on the court, I could be a benefit to my teammates and excel in my little area of playing defense and blocking shots. That little five-minute conversation turned into a twelve-year NBA career because I focused on that one thing that I could be great at.
When I give my presentation, that’s what I talk about. The first point of my The Four Commitments Of A Winning Team is knowing your job, focusing on that one thing you’re excellent at. It was a mind-blowing experience for me. At the same time, when I came back from my senior year, I still didn’t play. I sat on the end of the bench, even with this information, but it prepared me for what was coming next. When I got a chance to try for the NBA, I’m like, “I’m doing that one thing Wilt Chamberlain told me,” and it worked.
Did he ever follow up with you? Did you ever get a chance to thank him for that later on?
I’d see him once in a while. He came through Salt Lake one year for some other reason. He came to a game. I saw him at the airport and like, “You’ve got to come to the games.” I was like, “I’ll come.”
Did he remember you from the UCLA moment?
Yes. He was a regular in these pickup games because he lived up above the Campus Bel Air there, and he’d come down to the men’s gym and hoop with the guys, then go play volleyball down on the beach in Santa Monica. He’s the most incredible athlete you’ve ever met in your life. This is after playing in the NBA. After I got done playing the NBA, I could barely walk, but he’s out there playing beach volleyball, hooping with the guys in the men’s gym. At the same time, he’s very helpful to a lot of the guys. I’m not the only guy he helped. He would sit and chat with guys about their game on what’s going on. We did have a few follow-up conversations.Being on a team is predicated on your commitments to the people around you. Click To Tweet
Anybody who watched the NBA in those years, the Utah Jazz, Lakers here in LA, it seemed like we could never get past you in the playoffs. I know that a couple of years after you retired was when Kobe showed up. The first game he ever played was against Utah Jazz. The first 2 or 3 shots he took were all air balls. Am I remembering that wrong?
I remember that, and that’s not uncommon. I remember Karl Malone when he first showed up with Utah Jazz young guy out of Louisiana Tech. He shot some air balls and was all over the place. It takes you a couple of three years to understand the NBA game. It’s different than what you experienced in college. Everybody adjusts and adapts to it differently, even some of the greatest players. Michael Jordan, same thing at first year or two, you’re like, “I think he’s going to be good.”
That was probably the winning combo for the Lakers, was for you to retire the defense to get a little bit less dominant there in Utah, and then Kobe to come up and when Shaq came in. Playing with the teammates you had like the legendary Hall of Famers, Karl Malone and John Stockton, in my opinion, maybe the best point guard I’ve ever seen next to Magic Johnson. Those two are as good as it gets. It was amazing. It’s too bad that he never won a championship. It’s too bad that Jazz didn’t win a championship back then.
I always want to ask athletes, and I can ask you this, even though that’s not something people about when they think of you, “He never won a championship.” They think that about Stockton, Tony Romo and Buckner, the ball goes through his legs, like defeat and not being a champion, that doesn’t ruin your life. It doesn’t make you feel it was all a waste. The public fans think about sports in a harsh way. How does Stockton think about that these days? If you still talk to them, I know you still live there in Salt Lake. How do people deal with that?
The playoffs and winning a championship were all about coming together at the right time with the right group of people and the momentum at that point in time. The two years of Jazz went to the finals in ‘97 to ‘98. Michael Jordan was on the other side of the coin and they came up a little short. However, if you look at the overall history of the team of the Utah Jazz, when I first came to the team in ‘82, we were given away posters of other team’s players trying to get people to come to the arena. We are in the last place. The team was on the verge of bankruptcy. The NBA at that time was not healthy financially. Being a part of the rise of going from nothing to average and a few thousand fans, nobody even knew your name to becoming respectable team, playoff team, one of the higher echelon team in the NBA was what most of us are most proud of having been a part of that rise in that team.
John played here for nineteen years and here’s a guy from Spokane, Washington, played at Gonzaga who nobody had ever heard, and this was before the internet. You’re drafting players based on scouting service reports. He comes to Salt Lake and ends up playing nineteen years, becomes the All-time Leader in Assists in the history of the NBA. It’s an extraordinary group. Karl Malone, the same thing, eighteen years, finishes 2020 with the Lakers. He becomes in second leading score next to Kareem in the history of the NBA. They are relatively unknown guys in the league and created a culture here with the team that still stands where we predicated ourselves on hard work, playing hard defense, going after loose balls, running an opportunity and the stuff that our coach Frank Layden instilled in us early on and was carried on by Jerry Sloan. That’s what endeared us to the fans, community and NBA as well.
What fans they had and they still have. I have a lot of friends who live in Utah and they’re passionate about it. I went to the arena back in the ‘90s. It was small, intimate and loud. I don’t know how anybody would want to go in there and play. The Jazz in 2021 lost their first game at home. It’s still very intimidating. You said that you were an unknown as well.
It was a fourth-round pick and no chance of making the team even after being at UCLA for two years. What I did is that when I got done at UCLA, my junior college coach and I made a strategy. We created our own marketing plan and we started calling all the worst NBA teams in the NBA because the bigger they’d have the best chance of giving me an opportunity. I paved my own way to go to a couple of try-out things where maybe an NBA scout would show up like in Jersey City, Cincinnati and places like that. We called the Utah Jazz on the telephone. Frank Layden was the coach and GM back there. The front office was about six people. He answered the phone and he’s like, “I never heard of him. Send me a tape.”
We did, which was, he later claimed was 30 minutes of me taking off my warmups at UCLA. He came out and watched me play in a summer league at Loyola Marymount in Westchester. He saw enough because I’d continued to work because one of my junior college coaches had told me, “Keep working.” He said, “You’re rough but I’ll give you a chance. I’ll sign you up for one year. I guarantee you afforded those $45,000. Come to Salt Lake, workout with our coaches extra, come a month early before anybody else gets there and we’ll give you a chance to play.” I was like, “Coach, that’s all I’m looking for.”
I showed up a month early. I did all this stuff. The coach wanted me to do. This was in September, and by February 1st, I was the starting center of the Utah Jazz and stayed with the team for twelve years because he was willing to give me an opportunity. It’s an unlikely story because we cold-called our way into the NBA. I think about that now. I don’t know how you even do that now. You’ve got to have good videos and all that stuff, probably to be noticed and recognized by everyone, but I was looking for any chance, anywhere to play at any time. The Jazz gave me that opportunity. Here it is, 2021 and I’m still here.
You came in and started dominating quickly. In your first year, you were still in the top three block shots in the NBA, is that right?
Yes. People sometimes ask me and be like, “Mark, how did you know when you made it? You knew that you were going to made it in the NBA?” About the second month that I was with the team, we’re playing the Dallas Mavericks or an expansion team at that point in time. I remember my coach Frank Layden put me in the game and the second quarter. I blocked like six shots in five minutes. I remember specifically, after one of those shots that I blocked, I turned and looked up the court. I looked over at the coaches on the bench. They were looking at each other. I’m like, “I could do this job.” I knew, and it was going back to the same advice that wills are given was like, “Play defense.” That’s what kept me in the league for a long time.
I like one of the things that you touched on earlier that you talk about, which is, “Know your lane and the thing that you’re the best at, that you’re great at. Figure out what that is and do that.” That’s one of the things that you do like to talk about.
The first point is focusing on that one thing you’re excellent at. What are those inherent skills and traits that you already have that you can be leveraging more because sometimes we’re quick to look at whatever we all should be doing? Everybody else should be doing their job. Sometimes we have to look in the mirror and say, “What am I good at? What do I bring to the party?” It’s not just a normal, natural conversation. We want to get out and speak with groups, do breakouts or try and dig into that a little bit deeper that, “Let’s look at some of these traits, skills and see which ones resonate with you and how could you double down on those and use what you’re already doing to greater benefits that of your team and yourself?” It’s an important point that I think a lot of people overlook sometimes.
Going back to your Jazz team. There are many legends there, Stockton, Malone and your coach, Sloan. He’s probably one of the greatest coaches in the history of all sports. He wasn’t your coach at first?
No, he wasn’t. Frank Layden was the coach in the early ‘80s who had been the general manager and became a coach. He brought us together. He had a group of guys who didn’t have a lot of experience and/or players that were cast-offs from other teams. We only had a couple of guys that were legit stars like Adrian Dantley and Darrell Griffith. He said, “If you guys would stop competing with each other so much and start cooperating with each other, the individual accolades will follow.” He taught us to make each other look good out on the court if we wanted to succeed. He put that framework together. When Jerry Sloan came in, that’s a few years later and took over, and he had already been an assistant coach with us for a few years, he took that framework.Only through working with each other and truly being committed that the business wins. Click To Tweet
He said, “I’m going to turn up the heat. I’m going to demand that you play even harder together and that you’re there for each other, which I call it protecting each other on the basketball court because that’s when the good stuff happens when you count on your teammate.” When I did well on the basketball court, I protected my teammates. I told them, “You can go out and try and steal a basketball. If you miss, I will get between your man and the basket. I’ll be that last line of defense that you will share with me.” Jerry demanded that. As a boss, it was easy for me to play for him because he expected the same things every day. Frank was a little more of an emotional coach or more up and down.
Jerry was even-keeled, a lot of intensity and he demanded a lot, but it was the same thing every day. You can look at a press conference from 1989 and compare compared to 2004. He’s saying the exact same things after a game. I loved playing for him. We lost him in May 2020. One of my great friends and the guy I grew up with on a farm in Southern Illinois, who even after coaching for 23 years as a head coach in the NBA, you can still call them up and say, “Jerry, I’m thinking about putting a fence on. Can you bring your post hole digger over here and help me out?” “Sure. Let me get my truck and I’ll be over there.” That’s the kind of guy he was. No airs about him at all. He was down to earth, and that’s what I loved about him. Every guy that played for him says the same thing, “He’s the guy who won in that foxhole the next year.” That’s the kind of guy he was.
That’s what made him special as a coach, that idea of how he got everybody to play hard for each other. Was it not as much X’s and O’s as well?
We had the X’s and O’s, but we had a great assistant coach by the name of Phil Johnson, who had a very illustrious career in the NBA primarily as an assistant coach. He was the X’s and O’s guy. He and Jerry played off of each other so well. Jerry demanded excellence all the time. He’s like, “Come on and get out, you guys. Know what you’re doing, don’t jackpot around, but we’ll look like mashed potatoes,” out there with some of those famous sayings that he used to throw at us. Guys would just fight for them and were the next players. He knew whatever he was going through. He wouldn’t ask me to do anything out that he wouldn’t do himself. Many times, you’re just going to go out after the arrest or after a player. We’re holding them back and that’s the intensity. We love him.
He was tough. I remember that very well. Your team was defensively sound, and with you as the centerpiece, such a tough team to score on. When you look at the NBA, the business landscape, both of those areas, there’s a lot of changes that have happened since you were in the NBA and before the pandemic. What do you see now that you think is an improvement in business in the way that we’re coming out of this pandemic and things are going to look a little bit different in the way that people work from home and people work with each other? They’re hearing each other more, there’s more communication going on and also, with the NBA. Tell me your thoughts on that.
The one thing I’ve noticed in both arenas are that we’ve become more employee/player-centric. The needs of the individual are maybe a little greater, or at least more listened to now than maybe they were many years ago. The teams that do well, the businesses that do well embrace that as the players or the employees are a major asset of what we’re doing. We maybe do need to do a little better job of taking care of them, listening to them and making them a bigger part of our organization as opposed to somebody doing a service or a job for us. I liked that. It’s different than it’s been in the past, but that’s what the next level is. Trying to find a way to integrate that together and still make your business work and thrive.
A lot of businesses have found that produced some great results for them when they do take the time to listen because there’s a lot of people out there and got a lot of great ideas. If you’ve got an open-door policy where they can come in and chat with you, the guy in the third cubicle down the hall might have the answer to do it and have the company do a complete 180 and going a whole new direction was something new that you never even thought of. That’s what I’ve noticed.
What I’ve noticed about you is you love speaking. This is something you’re passionate about and you enjoy, which is different from some other professional athletes. You’ve had some incredible mentors and teachers. You had the Wilt moment, community college coach stick with you all the way through helping you get into the NBA and the coaches that you’ve had. It seems like you are paying that forward as well. Is that the underlying reason you liked speaking so much?
Being on a team is predicated on your commitments to the people around you. That’s the only way it works. Sometimes in business, we use that terminology, “We’re a team,” without thinking about what it means from a deeper level. When you’ve played at the highest level of team like in the NBA, it becomes natural to you. That’s how you look at teams. When I’m speaking to a group or coaching a company, it’s the same thing. I use that same viewfinder to look at where are the breakdowns? Where are the issues? Where are people not truly committed to each other and why? I use that as the guiding light to unraveling some of the challenges that might be going on.
I hope that people, when I leave the room, and I know I do, because I get the feedback, that they walk out with a renewed sense of their commitment to the people around them like my coach had that commitment to me. That’s why I do it. I wouldn’t be here if that coach wandered into my tire store that, “Do you know some things about basketball? You don’t. If you want to do this, I’ll be here for you every day.” He was there with me every day for our many years of relationship. That’s why I do it. That’s what I’m committed to helping other people to do.
It’s evident and special. My final question for you here is you’ve done this for at least a decade at a high level working with businesses and out there as a thought leader and speaker, what do you think is the number one mistake that people make in their lives or that businesses and cultures are making? You’ve been at the highest level with an incredible culture and an incredible team with great leaders. You’ve seen it work and you’ve been doing this in the private sector for many years. What do you think is the number one mistake that you keep seeing people repeat or businesses repeat?
Number one, the recognition that when you are working with those other people like yourself, they want to get to the next level. They want to be helped, whatever that looks like. Our job is to be there for each other. It’s only through working with each other and truly being committed to each other in that regard that the business wins and ultimately, you win. The biggest mistake is that people forget that. You go through mergers and acquisitions, changes and, “This week I’m working for you. Next week you’re working for me.” Because of the economy and everything else in the pandemic, companies had to change, adjust and adapt. We sometimes forget how important the players are and how important the team is.
If you spend a little extra time getting to know the people you work with on a slightly deeper level and understand what their needs, wants and desires are going forward, it creates a common bond and a playing field and foundation that you can build from that’s not just a bunch of individuals out there, but you’re one cohesive unit. That gives you a launching pad and where you go from there is up to you. That has to be the foundation. That’s what I see as the primary challenge and sometimes missing link in business.
Mark, this has been amazing. I could talk to you for hours. I’m a basketball fan. I’m a fan of greatness and you certainly are coming from such a high level in your career and in your past. It’s cool that you care about others and that you are passionate about what you do here as a speaker and as a thought leader. It’s very refreshing for me to work with somebody like you, who is very accessible and down to earth where when you deal with some celebrities, it gets a little hard to connect with them like I have with you. Everybody I know has had something to say about you. You’re accessible, you go over and beyond, and you enjoy yourself while you’re there. Thanks so much for doing all of that. Thank you for being here on the show. This has been awesome.
Thank you, Chris. It has been a lot of fun. I love to do it and spend some more time talking basketball.
I would love that. It has been a pleasure. Thank you so much. I will talk to you soon.
About Mark Eaton
MARK EATON is a successful, award-winning motivational speaker, entrepreneur and author of the best-selling book, The Four Commitments of a Winning Team! He has spoken to hundreds of world-class organizations including IBM, FedEx, Phillips 66, Caesars Entertainment, T-Mobile, LG, and businesses, government agencies and universities at every level. He has been featured as a team-building expert in print and online publications such as Forbes.com, Sports Illustrated, Wharton Business, and Entrepreneur.com.
Eaton is also a 7′4″ NBA All-Star who played with the Utah Jazz for 12 seasons, led the NBA in blocked shots 4 of those seasons, was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team 5 times, was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year 2 times, and still holds 2 NBA records—most blocks in a single season (456) and career average blocked shots per game (3.5).
Mark inspires and teaches organizations how to employ the principles and coaching techniques he mastered in his twelve-year basketball career. The Four Commitments of a Winning Team enables industry leaders, teams and individuals to outsmart, outlast and outperform their competition and achieve record-breaking success. CEOs, meeting planners and clients alike have touted Mark as the “best speaker they have ever had” and appreciate the fact his message has immediate impact and actionable takeaways. Mark’s message is ideal for those looking to strengthen and motivate their team, increase commitment between co-workers, and create an environment of safety and trust.