Reaching Rare Heights
Former pro basketball player Mark Eaton
scores slam dunk as a speaker.
By Paul Sterman
Photo Caption: Demonstrating the defensive skills he was renowned for,
Mark Eaton blocks the shot of NBA player Otis Thorpe, in a 1984 game
between the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets.
When Toastmaster Mark Eaton speaks, audiences look up at a man who stands 7 feet 4 inches – or 223.5 centimeters. His towering presence gives weight to his equally commanding messages of teamwork and how to achieve success.
Eaton, a member of Park City Toastmasters in Park City, Utah, is a former professional basketball player in the National Basketball Association (NBA), made up of the greatest players in the world. His journey to All-Star status with the Utah Jazz defied all odds, and is an inspiration to everyone who thinks their goals are unattainable.
“When Mark gives a speech,” says Julio Garreaud, president of the Park City club and Eaton’s close friend, “you see his stature, but at the same time you see the spirit of the man. I call him ‘The Gentle Giant.’”
“Mark’s speaking is compelling,” he adds, “because the events from his life are remarkable.”
As a teenager, Eaton was the anti-LeBron James. Uncomfortable in his oversized body, he barely made a ripple on the high school basketball team, spending most of his time on the bench. At one point, he gave up on the sport and trained to be an auto mechanic. At 21, Eaton was working full time at a Southern California auto and tire shop – with no intention of ever picking up a basketball again.
Then an amazing turnaround took place. With the mentoring of a kind college basketball coach (who just happened to spot the 7-footer one day in the auto shop), a great deal of hard work and a late-blooming belief in himself, Eaton eventually flourished in the sport. He played 12 seasons in the NBA, was twice named Defensive Player of the Year, led the league in blocked shots for four seasons, and still owns the NBA record for most blocked shots in a season. Eaton did all this by being a team player who knew his role on the court. He did the things that are unsung and overlooked – blocking players’ shots, snagging rebounds off the backboard, using his big body to set screens for teammates – but that are essential to a team’s success.
The lessons he learned in basketball are equally applicable to the business world, Eaton says.
“What I did is, I helped my team win,” he explains in a keynote speech to a group of meeting planners. “I became invaluable to my teammates by the very fact that I learned what I could be excellent at and I focused on it, so everybody else could do their jobs.”
To win in your field, he tells the group, concentrate on what you do best and “put other people first.”
Joining New Teammates
How did Eaton go from professional athlete to professional speaker? He made Toastmasters part of his team. He’s been a member of the Park City club since 2005. Before joining Toastmasters, he often gave speeches to youth groups and community organizations (Eaton played his entire NBA career for the Utah Jazz and is well-known in Utah). However, he wanted to become a professional speaker who could deliver his message to a wider audience. The ex-Jazz man sings the praises of the Park City club, saying Toastmasters helped take his speaking skills to a new level.
“When I started in Toastmasters, I was developing a signature speech about my life and career,” he says. “What Toastmasters enabled me to do was dig deeper into my [speech] ...to add physical gestures, learn how to have a back-and-forth dialogue when you’re onstage, how to deal with your placement on stage, where you should move – the various performance tips that really make a story come alive. Toastmasters was a real stepping-stone for my career.”
Big Mark, as he’s affectionately known, remains a regular and active participant in the club. Club president Garreaud says Eaton is a down-to-earth guy who always tries to improve himself and generously offers feedback to other members.
“When Mark’s your evaluator, he evaluates you with dignity and respect,” says Garreaud. “You’re going to benefit from his comments.”
Eaton’s involvement with the club began when a Toastmaster friend asked him to be a guest speaker at a meeting. The former athlete was captivated with what he saw – the timed speeches, the evaluation process, the awareness of ums and ahs. So he joined, eager to improve his own speaking.
Words from Wilt
In his motivational speeches, Eaton mentions a turning point in his basketball career that came courtesy of Wilt Chamberlain – arguably the greatest player in NBA history.
After watching Eaton run around the court one day, frantically and futilely chasing a much smaller player, Chamberlain pulled him aside. He told Eaton he wasn’t taking advantage of his greatest asset: his 7-foot-4, 290-pound frame. Eaton’s job wasn’t to run after speedier players, said Chamberlain, but to stay close to his team’s basket, protect it by playing defense, block shots, rebound the ball and get it to his teammates.
The counseling changed Eaton’s whole way of thinking. He carved out a specific niche in basketball and excelled at it.
His message to others: “What’s your greatest strength? There’s probably one asset or strength about you that causes those clients to call you up again and again and again. That’s what you should be spending 80 percent of your time doing. In this world of multi-tasking, it’s hard – but get back to what you’re excellent at.”
As he was developing and refining a keynote speech about himself, the ex-basketball player also worked with a speech coach, New York City-based Lisa Yakobi. She says audiences have responded powerfully to Eaton’s story.
“People are really surprised to see a professional athlete be such a good speaker,” says Yakobi, noting that many former athletes are content to recount their past glories in the sports arena while Eaton wants to give audiences practical advice for their own lives.
When he touts the values of teamwork, she adds, he has instant credibility. “There are many, many people who speak about teamwork, but very few of those people have actually been on a team,” says the speech coach. “Mark was on the Utah Jazz for 12 years, when the average time for an NBA player is [less than] four years, because he knows teamwork.”
Eaton’s journey – from basketball dropout and auto mechanic to NBA All-Star and professional speaker – has a certain cinematic arc to it, and his story may indeed hit the big screen one day. A Park City-based filmmaker has written a script about Eaton’s life and hopes to turn it into a feature film.
World’s Tallest Car Salesman
Eaton’s presentation style is conversational. He jokes about his height, sharing one story about his days as a college student working selling cars at a Datsun dealership: “Perhaps you can picture me, behind the wheel of a B-210 Honey Bee, explaining to the customer that this was actually a roomy vehicle.”
But he didn’t always have such a playful perspective about himself. As a teenager, he was extremely self-conscious about his size, wishing he could shrink away from all the gawking. Painful as it was to revisit those times, Eaton says he was determined to share those feelings and experiences so that all audiences – sports fans and non-sports fans alike – could find common ground with his story. While most people can’t relate to being over 7 feet tall, they can relate to feeling different and vulnerable in some way.
“They get it,” Eaton says.
Learning to move comfortably onstage has also been a challenge. Because of his size, Eaton says, he’s always felt somewhat inhibited with movement – as if not wanting to take up even more space or call more attention to his size. But he knew that to be a successful speaker, he had to have a more confident, assertive presence.
“I realized I have to learn how to let go of that self-consciousness and really learn to be comfortable with who I am,” he says.
Eaton says the act of sharing personal aspects about himself has been liberating – and made him feel freer and more comfortable in his body language and movements.
Eaton is just one of the group in the Park City club – not a celebrity, just another member there to learn and help others. The club is a thriving one, with more than 60 members. It meets at 7 a.m. every Tuesday, and Eaton and fellow members typically go for coffee afterward, to socialize or talk more about Toastmasters. Park City is a skiing paradise, and Eaton says some members attend club meetings dressed in their ski gear and head straight for the slopes after the meeting.
Eaton also credits the communication and leadership skills he’s honed in Toastmasters with helping him as a businessman. After retiring from professional sports, Eaton became a successful entrepreneur. Among his ventures: operating two acclaimed restaurants – Tuscany and Franck’s – in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the restaurant business, he says, communication is key to practically everything: obtaining financing, marketing your restaurant, addressing the City Council or a government agency, chatting with customers, and talking to the people who work for you.
“You can have a vision and idea of where your business needs to go,” notes Eaton, “but if you can’t effectively communicate it in a way that employees can buy into it, it’s going to be a one-man show.”
Passing It Forward
When a basketball player passes the ball to a teammate so he can score, that pass is called an assist. Mark Eaton played with the greatest assist man in NBA history: the Utah Jazz’s John Stockton, who dished out nearly 16,000 of them. Big Mark was on the receiving end of some of those passes. Now Toastmasters is delivering an assist to Eaton’s speaking career.
“It has been a place where on a weekly basis I can practice,” says Eaton, “where I can stand in front of an audience and not just give a speech but have a conversation with an audience.”
For more information about Mark Eaton visit his Web site: www.7ft4.com.
Mark Eaton was interviewed last October in a Toastmasters Podcast. To listen to the episode, visit www.toastmasterspodcast.com and type Mark Eaton in the site Search box.
Paul Sterman is an associate editor at the Toastmaster magazine and member of a Toastmasters club in Orange, California.