What are the odds? How can someone who only got three minutes of playing time during his high school career, and only 47 minutes of playing time at a major college program, become an NBA All-Star?
His name is Mark Eaton. He was a 7’4” project that worked out. He barely played in high school but kept working to get better. After junior college, he went to UCLA, a national basketball power. Rarely getting into games there, he used “practice as his games” and continued to improve.
His coach at UCLA didn’t know what to do with a player Mark’s size, so Eaton rarely left the bench. Most players would have quit, but Mark kept a positive attitude. Instead of sulking he continued to work.
After college only one team saw his potential and had enough interest to draft him. The Utah Jazz and Coach/GM Frank Layden picked him in the fourth round of the 1982 NBA draft. The team was one of the worst in the league. They had a bad record and a small budget for signing players.
It turned out to be a blessing. Mark was picked for his size and potential but needed a chance to play. Since the team was trying to get better, he got a chance to play and improve. He made an immediate impact, setting a team record with 275 blocked shots in 81 games.
Then three quarters of the way through the season, he got his big break. The starting center (my dad, Danny Schayes!) got traded to the Denver Nuggets and Mark got to be the starter! Imagine that, he wasn't good enough to play on his high school team or in college, but through perseverance he was a starter in the NBA!
Just think it almost never happened.
Growing up in Southern California, Mark graduated from Westminster High School. Since he didn't play much in high school he decided that it was time to get a job. He attended the Arizona Automotive Institute in Phoenix and graduated as a service technician.
He worked as an auto mechanic back home in California for about three years. At 21, he was discovered by a junior college coach, Tom Lubin. As a new mentor, Tom encouraged Mark to try basketball one more time. Mark agreed, and Lubin took him as his “apprentice.” Mark fell in love with the game again as he led the school to a California state title.
He then moved on to UCLA hoping to continue his success, only to be left out as the Bruins coach rarely used him. Knowing he wasn't going to play much for the entire season, he decided to do whatever it took to get better. He came early to practice and stayed after everyone left. Mark always remembered that his junior college coach, Tom Lubin, told him that one day he would get his chance.
When his chance finally came with the Jazz, he was ready. What a chance it was! He was a star in the NBA for 12 years. At the time of his retirement, he ranked second all-time in total blocked shots, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Eaton is currently the NBA’s all-time leader in blocks per game, with a career average of 3.50. His jersey, Number 53, is now retired in Utah.
What I learned from him is to explore what you’re good at. When you find it stay focused on that one thing, then put the effort into being great at it. There are no short cuts and no substitutions for hard work.