Inside the Bond Between Two Seven-Footers in Utah

Inside the Bond Between Two Seven-Footers in Utah

Rudy Gobert and former Jazz center Mark Eaton have formed a unique bond off the court.

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Last March, with the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering the NBA and Rudy Gobert publicly targeted as the reason why, Mark Eaton fired off a few text messages to his seven-foot friend.

“I just told him to hang in there and that it would pass,” Eaton, the ex-Jazz center, said in a telephone interview. “I think looking back if it wasn’t him, it was going to be somebody else within the next day or two that was going to kick it off. I just kind of touched base with him and said, ‘Hang in there. It’ll be O.K. Just keep your head up.’ ”

The bond between Eaton and Gobert was forged in 2013, when the 7′ 1″ Gobert was little more than a supersized rookie. Eaton, who co-owns a restaurant in Salt Lake City, popped into the Jazz locker room a few times that year. “Us seven-footers,” says the 7′ 4″ Eaton, “we stick together.” As the friendship grew, Gobert would drop into Eaton’s restaurant, even visit him at his home. “I love his insight,” Gobert told Sports Illustrated. Defense was a frequent topic of conversation: Eaton swatted more than 3,000 shots and picked up two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 11 seasons with the Jazz; Gobert has already been named the NBA’s top defender twice—and has more than 1,100 blocks of his own.

“We shared some stories about how to play the center spot, how to defend the paint, the mindset you need in terms of being down there at low post and keeping the ball high and things like that,” says Eaton.

Anything specific?

“That your job really is not to guard your man, your job is to guard the paint,” says Eaton. “I learned this from Wilt Chamberlain way back when, at the five spot, especially given his skill set is similar to mine in terms of what he does well on the floor. And I think growing up and playing Euro-style basketball, it’s a little different thinking in terms of that five spot and the center position. So I was just giving him, from my experience of being in the NBA, about what is required to really be effective at that spot, which is that you’re not concerned just about your own man, you’re concerned about everybody else’s man, too. And that your job is to guard that basket. That’s your priority. That’s the number one job.”

Utah has recovered from the drama that threatened to hamper the team last season. The relationship between Gobert and Donovan Mitchell has been repaired. The roster has been replenished, with a healthy Bojan Bogdanovic joining a rejuvenated Mike Conley and an explosive Jordan Clarkson in the Jazz’s post-bubble rotation. Utah has the NBA’s best record. And Gobert is one of the biggest reasons why.

Defensively, Gobert is having another outstanding season, in a two-man battle with Ben Simmons for Defensive Player of the Year. “A walking top-10 defense” is how one Jazz front office member described Gobert, and it’s easy to see why. But his offense continues to improve. Gobert is averaging 16.7 points on an NBA-best 67% shooting. He’s on track to lead the league in screen assists, per NBA.com, for the third time in the last four seasons. On a team that bombs three-pointers, Gobert is still able to make his presence felt on the block—which has not gone unnoticed.

“He already was pretty confident around the basket, but I’ve noticed just some up-and-under moves and some different ways he approaches attacking the basket that are subtly different than they were a year ago,” says Eaton. “I don’t know if he worked with somebody during the summer or what he did, but he seems to be much more confident.”

Gobert agrees. “I feel like I’m just getting better year after year, and even if, when you look at raw stats, there’s things that are a little harder to achieve,” says Gobert. “I just feel like my awareness and my focus, my leadership, everything I do, has been to a higher level this year. It’s exciting for me and for the team and to see that the work has just paid off.”

Eaton is happy to see Gobert and Mitchell having success after the challenges of last season. Eaton knows something about successful pairings, having observed the Karl Malone–John Stockton partnership for eight seasons. And he sees real potential in the Gobert-Mitchell connection.

“I think they’re a great counterbalance to each other,” says Eaton. “The pick-and-roll is one of the most amazing plays in the game of basketball. If done correctly it is virtually unstoppable. And those two guys do it as well as anybody. It’s fun to watch those guys because I think he helps open up the floor for Donovan, and I think Donovan, on the other hand, really enjoys playing with him and knowing that he’s back there and then knowing that he can throw the lob up there and he’s going to get it.”

As for the Jazz, Eaton sees a level of connectivity he recognizes from his most successful Utah teams.

“One of the things I see when I watch them play is what’s going on when the play stops or where’s the communication at?” says Eaton. “That’s been kind of a hallmark of the Jazz team, is that they all communicate well with each other and you see them talking to each other. It’s reminiscent of Jeff Hornacek sitting in a huddle, drawing a play on the floor while Jerry Sloan’s talking, because that’s the kind of commitment it takes to win. You can’t just sit there and say, “O.K., coach, what do we do next?” It’s like, you got to talk to your teammates and get them going and make adjustments. You see LeBron doing it all the time. He’s talking to his teammates, like get out there and do this. And I saw this in the Jazz. I think it’s just a great hallmark of great basketball and great basketball teams.”

COVID restrictions have limited interactions between Eaton and Gobert to digital, though Eaton hopes that will change in the offseason. A few years back, Eaton introduced Gobert to the Dirty Sixer, a bike company created by a 6′ 6″ French entrepreneur for plus sized athletes. Eaton convinced Gobert to buy one. “You can’t run all summer long,” says Eaton. “That’s hard on your knees.” Gobert, according to Eaton, bought a dozen for his team. “I keep trying to get them out on a bike ride with me during the summer,” says Eaton. “After the season’s over I’m hoping we get a chance to get back out on the bikes together and go cruise around our city.”

After the season. Which neither Eaton or Gobert is in any rush to see finished.

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