SALT LAKE CITY — In a summer pickup game at UCLA about 40 years ago, Mark Eaton was approached by Wilt Chamberlain, who had been watching the future two-time defensive player of the year struggle to keep pace with Rocket Rod Foster. Let's just say they called the 6-foot-1 guard "Rocket" for a reason.
Wilt's advice? Eaton never will be able to catch or keep up with those athletic guards.
"More importantly," Chamberlain said, "it's not your job."
Eaton's job, as the NBA world would soon find out, was to stop those guards from getting into the paint and to send shots at the rim right back at them.
"It was the 'aha' that shifted my perspective and the flash of clarity that launched my career," Eaton wrote in his book "The Four Commitments of a Winning Team."
It also made Eaton, who died at 64 late Friday, the perfect person to mentor another stalwart paint defender.
On Saturday night, after Rudy Gobert led a dominant defensive close — Memphis scored just 2 points in the final four-plus minutes — to help the Jazz to a 121-111 win in Game 3. After the game, he had plenty of congratulatory texts. One, though, was missing.
"If he was there, I would have probably got a text after the game, saying, 'Way to protect the paint, Big Guy.' I know he's watching," Gobert said with sadness in his voice. "And I know he's going to be watching for the rest of the playoffs and everything else. I feel his presence and I definitely had to come out tonight and make sure I was helping the team get a win just to honor him."
On the surface, it's easy to see why Gobert and Eaton would be drawn to each other. They both stick out in any crowd, they both pride themselves on being the best defensive players of their eras, and they both were heavily relied upon in the pick-and-roll game.
But Eaton was 36 years older than Gobert. He played in a different era and was from a far different place. Gobert was playing professional basketball as a teenager; Eaton had to be pulled away from a mechanic shop to play junior college ball. Their stories didn't always align, but their hearts did. That's what led to such a strong bond.
Two gentle giants linked not just by height and defensive player of the year awards, but with kindness and a passion for helping others. On his relationship with Gobert, Eaton said that "7-footers had to stick together." But when it came to Eaton, it was hard to find something he didn't stick with. He made Utah his home, he was still a regular at Jazz games cheering on the team, and he built relationships with players that came long past his time.
"His relationship with Rudy, I think, is emblematic of who he was and his ability to listen," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "And then to offer counsel and support was something that was really unique. Obviously, we will miss him."
Eaton built a legacy of kindness much more lasting than anything he did on a basketball court. Gobert is in the process of doing the same thing.
On Saturday, in just one example, Gobert donated $4,000 — $1,000 for each block he had against the Grizzlies in Game 3 — to Street Ministries, a Christian ministry dedicated to serving the youth of Memphis.
Snyder said that he would almost have to encourage Eaton to come into the locker room and spend time with the team because Eaton was sensitive to the fact that his time had passed and didn't want to step out of bounds. But who couldn't be inspired by his story?
He had a work ethic that allowed him to go from a tire shop to the NBA; he was approachable, his towering build smiling down on everyone. He became a successful businessman, and his Salt Lake City restaurant served as a meeting place for Gobert to talk to him about life, basketball and anything else.
"Obviously, he had a great career but as a human being as a person, was someone that I really look up to, and I learned a lot just from being around him," Gobert said. "So definitely gonna be missed. Not just me, but in the community with all the great things that he's done and all the people that he's been inspiring his whole life."
Utah vs. Memphis
(Utah leads 2-1)
Game 1: Memphis 112, Utah 109
Game 2: Utah 141, Memphis 129
Game 3: Utah 121, Memphis 111
Game 4: Monday, May 31, at Memphis, 7:30 p.m.
Game 5: Wednesday, June 2, at Utah, TBA
*Game 6: Friday, June 4, at Memphis, TBA
*Game 7: Sunday, June 6, at Utah, TBA