Back Troubles Force Utah's Eaton to Retire

From Staff and Wire Reports

Mark Eaton, the 7-foot-4 center of the Utah Jazz who has been struggling with a degenerative back ailment, retired Wednesday, ending an 11-year NBA career.

Eaton, 37, attributed the move to "lingering physical injuries." His career had in effect ended a year ago when pain from deteriorating discs forced him to drop out of training camp and miss the 1993-94 season.

Eaton, who played at Westminster High, Cypress College and UCLA, had vowed to return, but decided to retire after therapy failed to correct the problem.

"It's amazing when you look back at it," said Eaton. "It was a lot of fun, and I certainly didn't think it would turn out this way."

Knee surgery and back problems had limited him to 17 minutes a game in 1992-93, his last playing season, well below the 25-minute average of the season before. Eaton's shot-blocking average dipped to 1.23 from 2.53 the year before, and his 2.8 points per outing was the lowest of his career.

But the Jazz, who drafted him in the fourth round in 1982, never expected him to be their leading scorer. Eaton, whose scoring average never topped single digits, instead made his living clogging passing lanes and terrorizing shooters.

Four times he won the NBA's shot-blocking title, adding defensive player of the year honors in 1985 and 1989, the same year he was in his only All-Star game.

"I would have liked to have played last year and maybe this year, but I think a couple more years would have been it," Eaton said. "I accomplished much more than I ever dreamed possible, but the time had come for me to move on."

An awkward teen-ager struggling with a rapidly growing body, Eaton played sparingly as a senior at Westminster. He was working at a tire store when Cypress College assistant Tom Lubin spotted him and talked him into playing basketball at Cypress.

Eaton enrolled in 1978--three years after playing in high school--and helped the Chargers win the State community college championship.

He accepted a scholarship to UCLA, but spent most of his time on the bench, playing only 41 minutes during his senior season.

Eaton, who owns homes in Laguna Niguel and Park City, Utah, will focus on programs for troubled youths and a restaurant. He will try broadcasting college basketball games next year.

He acknowledged many of his greatest memories will be of the Jazz, though he never got to play in an NBA title game.

"We were able to take a team that was in dire straits and not very popular and make them a contender," he said. "Sure, the (championship) ring would be great . . . but I know that when I stepped out on the court, every game I gave it 110%. That's enough for me."

Jazz owner Larry Miller said Eaton's role in building the club from a loser to a playoff participant had been critical.

"He and John (Stockton) and Karl (Malone) have been such major parts of what's built this franchise into what it is," Miller said. "It's like parting with a friend."

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