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MARK EATON : This is a tall story that appears to have a happy ending. It's about a late-bloomer who happens to be 7-5 and on his way to becoming an NBA star.

January 06, 1985|MIKE LITTWIN | Times Staff Writer

The moral of this story is that you can't teach height.

That's the premise upon which the National Basketball Assn., that shrine to the overactive pituitary gland, was founded.

The idea is to unearth someone who can swat down airplanes, put him in short pants and place the order for new letterheads--preferably something with world champion on it. King Kong was the prototype. But settle for anyone known as Human Eraser.

Introducing Mark Eaton. He stands 7 feet 5 inches, plays professional basketball for the Utah Jazz and is apparently on his way to becoming an NBA star. They don't have a nickname for him yet, but there may be a contest soon.

If, however, there seems to you a certain inevitability to all this matching of height to professional success, think again. There's a corollary to the rule, which says that height isn't everything. Consult Goliath. Or Doug Flutie.

"I remember when he came into the league, he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time," New York Knick forward James Bailey said of Eaton.

That Eaton could do them consecutively was the result of years of hard work. Height and agility, rarely companions, were constantly at odds in the case of young Mark Eaton. The only inevitability Eaton faced was a lifetime of hearing people ask him how the weather was up there.

"I'm not God's gift to the game," he once said.

In high school, Eaton's best sport was water polo. He didn't play varsity basketball until his senior year at Westminster High, where he sat on the end of the bench and suffered taunts from fellow students. He went off to school, but not to play basketball. Instead, he was studying auto mechanics in Glendale, Ariz. One day, while working at a Mark C. Bloome in Orange County, Eaton was sighted by an assistant basketball coach at Cypress College. The coach didn't need a telescope.

After two years at Cypress, Eaton was in demand as an athlete and was even drafted by the Phoenix Suns, but his newfound popularity was not to last. He chose to play at UCLA, where he got lost, playing only 11 games his senior season and not many more minutes.

Still, the Jazz wasted a fourth-round draft pick on Eaton, figuring there were no other 7-footers left to pick from. Utah had finished last in the league in rebounding as well as blocked shots. Somebody tall might help.

"We had no idea that he would develop the way he has," Utah Coach Frank Layden said.

Veteran Jazz center Billy Paultz, who at 6-11 is dwarfed by his teammate, said people shouldn't be surprised that Eaton has progressed. "When you start from zero, that leaves some room for improvement," he said.

Mark Eaton can't get over it: Not only is he in the NBA, he's a factor. Nobody drives down the lane when Eaton is in the way without thinking at least three times. As teammate Darrell Griffith said, "Nobody is going to jump over him."

In his third season in the NBA, Eaton leads the league in blocked shots, averaging 5.6 a game, and is eighth in rebounding, averaging 11.1. He is second in the league in defensive rebounds. Although Eaton's offense is still a few years away, Layden thinks Eaton ought to be an All-Star now.

One problem, he's not on the ballot.

"They told me I was the last cut (from the All-Star ballot)," Eaton said. "I thought that was pretty good."

You see, Eaton is still having trouble believing his press clippings. How can he suddenly be so good?

"Coming into the league, I just hoped to be a good backup center, come in for 10 or 15 minutes, pop around, play for a few teams and try to make a career of it," Eaton said. "I felt if I got the shot that there were some things I could do. I didn't know I could lead the league in blocked shots or be a top-10 rebounder.

"It's a different feeling. I like going to a city, picking up a paper somewhere and seeing where the key to the game is going to be getting Mark Eaton out on the floor, making him play one-on-one defense. It's satisfying to me, considering some of the players I have on my team--Adrian Dantley, Darrell Griffith--and they're more concerned about me than they are about them. Set up on offense to stop me ? It's hard to believe."

It's crazy but it's true. He wasn't good enough to play in high school or good enough to play at UCLA, but the Milwaukee Bucks recently designed their entire offense to take Eaton out of the game. The Bucks put their center near midcourt and just kept him there, making Eaton come out and guard him.

"You have to get him away from the basket," Indiana Coach George Irvine said. "You can't get him up in the air because he doesn't jump. He just stands there and blocks your shot."

The other night against Indiana, he smothered one, then caught the ball in the air, setting up a fast break. Eaton is very smooth with his blocks, tapping them to a teammate, never concerned with how a block looks. He doesn't name them.

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