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Johnny Egan, former Baltimore Bullets ‘spark plug’ guard and Houston Rockets coach, dies at 83

Johnny Egan, who played for the Baltimore Bullets and five other NBA teams and recorded more than 5,000 points, 2,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in his 11-year pro career, died Thursday in Houston at the age of 83. He suffered a fall in May, according to former NBA columnist and friend Peter Vecsey.

The news of Mr. Egan’s death hit a pair of former teammates hard. Ray Scott and Mr. Egan had known each other since they were selected by the Detroit Pistons in the 1961 NBA draft.

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“It shocked me yesterday when I got the news because Johnny is one of those guys that I never think of in ill health,” Mr. Scott, 84, said Friday. “I know we’re in our 80s and we go through all kinds of stuff, but my thoughts were how he was a constant lover of basketball. My last pictures in my memory of him are of him as an 80-year-old gentleman out shooting baskets with his grandson and showing him all the tricks of the trade and the things he could do because John was probably in America one of the great high school and college players. In the NBA, he was a good player.”

Kevin Loughery, 82, played three seasons with Mr. Egan on the Bullets and recalled how fit Mr. Egan looked when they, Mr. Scott and Johnny Green were honored by the Washington Wizards on Nov. 17, 2016.

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“Johnny looked fantastic,” Mr. Loughery said Friday morning. “He was the same as he was physically when he played, and he had the same attitude. So this really surprised me. I know we lost [former Bullets player and coach] Gene Shue and [former Bullets player and general manager] Bobby Ferry and [former Bullets player, coach and general manager] Wes Unseld, but this really surprised me.”

As a young player in high school in Hartford, Connecticut, where he led Weaver High to a New England championship, Mr. Egan earned the nickname “Space.” According to a biography published in 2020, the nickname paid homage either to his ability to stay in the air during drives to the basket or to the length of his long-distance shots.

Mr. Loughery said Mr. Egan’s nickname was well deserved.

“He could really jump,” Mr. Loughery said. “He would be terrific in today’s game because it’s dominated by point guards. He would be fantastic. He could shoot. He had distance on his shots. He could take it to the hoop.”

At Providence, where he played beside Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, Mr. Egan scored 1,434 points in 80 games from 1959 to 1961 in an era when freshmen were not eligible to participate. As a senior, he led the Friars to their first National Invitation Tournament championship with a 62-59 win against Saint Louis by averaging 18.8 points.

Mr. Scott, who was home in Philadelphia, took a train to Madison Square Garden in New York City to watch Mr. Egan and Providence play in the NIT. “He didn’t disappoint,” Mr. Scott recalled. “He was a great player.”

As rookies with the Pistons, Mr. Scott, the fourth overall choice in the 1961 NBA draft, and Mr. Egan, a second-round selection, bonded immediately. Mr. Scott, a 6-foot-9 power forward/center, said Mr. Egan, a 5-11 point guard, had a prankster-like sense of humor.

Case in point: During a team charter flight that included officials from the previous night’s game, a pilot informed all passengers to wear oxygen masks. While referee Joe Gushue slept, Mr. Egan unhooked Mr. Gushue’s mask.

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“Joe woke up gasping, and we pretended we were asleep, but we kept one eye open watching him struggle,” Mr. Scott said. “It was funny to us because he was a referee. You had no power over the referees. So this was our chance. And that was one of the biggest laughs we ever had. I think we told that story 100 times, and this is the 101st time I’ve told it.”

Mr. Egan arrived in Baltimore in November 1965 as part of a trade that sent Bullets center Walt Bellamy to the New York Knicks. Mr. Egan served as a third guard to complement Don Ohl and Kevin Loughery and received a giant spark plug as a gift from Bullets fans for his role on the team.

Despite a frame that made him one of the shortest players in the league, Mr. Egan had skills that were undeniable, Mr. Scott said.

“He was a little guy, but he could jump in the air, and he had large hands,” he said. “He had the hands of a big man and long arms, and he was fast.”

Mr. Loughery, a 6-3 shooting guard, said Mr. Egan’s attitude was as bold as his drives into the lane.

“Johnny was very confident in his game,” Mr. Loughery said. “I think the one thing about him was he really believed. At that time, it was a lot of big guards, 6-3, 6-4. But he was very confident and very athletic. If he played today with no big people in the middle with the way they play today, shooting threes in that wide-open game, he’d be fantastic. He’d be an All-Star.”

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In the 1968 expansion draft, Mr. Egan was picked by the Milwaukee Bucks, who then traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers, who reached the NBA Finals in the two seasons Mr. Egan played for them. After retiring in 1972 and wrapping up a career that included 5,521 points, 2,102 assists and 1,284 rebounds, he served as head coach of the Houston Rockets from 1972 to 1976 and led the franchise to its first .500 finish and one playoff appearance in 1975.

Mr. Egan stayed in Houston and founded an insurance firm. He banded together a group of customers at the Starbucks that he frequented to participate in charitable events to give back to the community. He also served as the first on-air broadcast partner of former Rockets play-by-play announcer Bill Worrell.

Even as an elder statesman, Mr. Egan worked tirelessly to spread the game of basketball to younger generations.

“He’s an ambassador because of his love for the game,” Mr. Scott said. “He never walked away from the game. He sought to enhance the game and teach kids and do clinics. He was teaching his grandson. … He was far into his 60s, 70s and 80s. Most of us, like me, we’re looking for that recliner, and I never saw Johnny in a recliner. Never.”

Mr. Scott said he relished the chance to spend time with Mr. Egan when they were honored by the Wizards six years ago.

“We sat in the hotel lobby with my son, and we talked far into the night,” he said. “So he was somebody that was in my life from beginning to end, from the time we were drafted. And now he’s gone home to heaven, and I’m going to miss that guy. He was just somebody that was perpetually in my life.”

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Mr. Egan is survived by his son, John Jr., daughter, Kim, and five grandchildren. His wife, Joan, died of ovarian cancer in 1998.


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