When Mark Eaton was 21 years old, he had left the game of basketball behind him. He didn't have the stuff. So instead, he became a mechanic, working on cars.
Thing is, Eaton is 7-feet tall. How many 7-foot mechanics do you know, hunched over or under a car?
While working, Eaton was regularly asked by people why he wasn't playing basketball. One day, a man named Tom Lubin, who was a basketball coach at the local Jr. College, spotted Eaton at the mechanic shop.
Lubin returned at least a dozen times, trying to convince Eaton to give the game of basketball a shot. But Eaton wanted nothing to do with it. After about 15 attempts, and becoming very convincing, Eaton finally gave in to Lubin's requests.
Lubin told Eaton that he could teach him specific strategies for a "big man" that would make the world of difference for Eaton. During the one private practice together, Eaton was taught some highly specific and very useful stuff. A light-bulb went off in his head.
"Maybe I could do this," he thought to himself.
It was four months until the season started. Lubin convinced Eaton to sign-up for classes at the Jr. College and join the team. Eaton, despite his doubts, decided to go for it.
Over the next four months, Lubin would meet Eaton at 6 A.M. and go running with him for one hour before Eaton had to go to work at the mechanic shop. Then, immediately after work, they'd go to the court and work on agility drills, footwork drills, and shooting. They needed to get this mechanic into athletic shape. It wasn't easy. Eaton's hands were tight and knees bruised from all of his work as a mechanic.
That first year, Eaton took night classes, continued to work as a mechanic, and had a pretty good season. Lubin continued to work exhaustively with Eaton, helping him every step of the way.
After this first season, Eaton was eligible to be drafted into the NBA because, at the time, eligibility was based on whether a person's college class was graduating, and Eaton had taken a few years off to work.
Lubin had some contacts at the Phoenix Suns and got Eaton a 5th round draft pick for the NBA minimum of $30,000. However, that money was not guaranteed, was based on performance, and if he took it, he'd no longer be eligible to play college ball.
The very fact that he got drafted changed something in Eaton. It changed his commitment. It also amplified Lubin's commitment.
Lubin got Eaton a different job, one that was less physically demanding. Eaton got a fire inside of him that didn't ever go away. That second year, they won the state championship and hundreds of schools around the country were recruiting him to play for them.
Eaton decided to opt-out of the offer from the Suns and play for a big college program. He decided to go with UCLA. Sadly, his time at UCLA was very painful. They were a fast-paced team and didn't really have room for him in their style of play. So he spent his two years at UCLA on the bench. He was devastated.
Whenever he was down, Eaton would call Lubin, and Lubin would boost him and help Eaton regain healthy perspective of the situation.
"If you can't play in the games, then practices are now your games," Lubin told him, "You've got to get as much training as you can. Take the long-term perspective."
During that time in Southern California in the summer months, the best basketball players in California would play summer pick-up games at "The Men's Gym at UCLA." NBA players like Magic Johnson and James Worthy would be playing with college players. They were some intense and semi-organized pick-up games.
Eaton was playing in those games and having a really hard time. He wasn't having the impact he wanted to on the games. And he was getting close to giving up. He would try chasing the guards up and down the court but to no avail. They were too quick.
After one failed attempt chasing a guard down, and panting exhausted on the side-lines, a big hand landed on Eaton's shoulder. It was Wilt Chamberlain. And he told Eaton, "You'll never catch that guy. Stop trying. It's not your job to catch that guy."
Over the next five minutes, Wilt proceeded to share some extremely valuable information with Eaton that changed everything for him. Wilt taught Eaton how to be successful as a big man, which included NOT running up and down the court constantly, but stopping at half-court to insure he was always on defense. His job was to stand under the hoop, protect his team-mates, and stop the opposing team from getting to the basket and making shots.
In that moment, Eaton learned his job.
After his time at UCLA, Eaton got picked up by a small team with no credibility and no winning records, the Utah Jazz. The Jazz had just gotten a new head coach, Frank Layden.
That first year was rough. All the players were trying to get individual statistics because that's how you got bigger contracts and more fame. But Layden worked hard to change the culture.
"No one cares about a good player on a losing team," he told his players, "They only care about good players on a winning team."
He proceeded to explain that, if they would work hard to make their team-mates look good, that their individual stats would go up.
No one likes being a loser, so the team bought into it. And from that second season forward, the Jazz would go on to appear in 20 consecutive NBA playoffs. Something that had never been done before. Before that second season, the Utah Jazz had never appeared in the playoffs.
Some of the aspects of the culture Layden instilled were:
- To be a family-- and to love each other like a family
- To believe in each other
- To believe that "I win if the team wins"
- To trust each other
- To think about other people more in general (Layden would regularly ask, "When was the last time you called your mom?")
He was helping them become more self-less as an team. And he convinced them that if they did, their individual stats would go up. "A rising tide raises all ships," he told them. When you change a part, you change the whole.
During that second year, not only did the Jazz make the playoffs as a product of this new culture, but they also won their entire division for the first time in history. And on top of that, four of the Jazz players were the NBA leaders in individual statistics:
- Mark Eaton led the NBA in blocked shots
- Adrian Dantley led the NBA in scoring
- Rickey Green led the NBA in steals
- Darrell Griffith led the NBA in 3-point shots made
As Layden promised, if you work as a team, your individual statistics will go up. Over the next several years, Eaton would continue playing and succeeding with the Jazz. He shares these experiences and many more in his book, THE FOUR COMMITMENTS OF A WINNING TEAM.
The four commitments are:
- Know your job (what he learned from Wilt)
- Do what you've been asked to do (what he learned from Lubin during his challenging times at UCLA)-- rather than "trying your best," which could be bad advice, you should do what is needed. In order to do what is needed, you need to ask questions, seek clarity and expectations, and then execute on what is needed.
- Make other people look good (What he learned from Layden about focusing on other people)
- Protect others (something he later learned about his role as Center for the Jazz was protecting his team-mates). If a person doesn't feel protected in a relationship, they won't take risks. They won't speak up. They'll hold back their best performance. But if they feel protected, they will push much, much harder. You build loyalty, trust, and commitment when you protect those around you. Who protects you? And who do you protect?
If you want to read a good book on the power of coaching and teamwork, this book has some serious gems.
Eaton's story of going from mechanic to NBA all-star--and everything he learned on the way-- is very inspiring and instructive.