The giant spark plug in Johnny Egan's attic is nearly as big as he is. A gift from Bullets fans, the 4-foot trophy depicts the spunky guard's role on Baltimore's NBA team one-half century ago. Then, he'd come off the bench, time after time, to ignite the offense or fire up the defense.
"To Mr. Spark Plug, Johnny Egan, Baltimore Bullets 1965-66," the plaque reads.
"I've kept it all this time," said Egan, 75, of Houston, Texas. "That means a lot."
For three seasons he played for the Bullets, a ball-hawking firebrand who averaged nine points a game. Never mind Egan's size (5 feet 11), which made him the league's shortest player for most of his 11-year career.
"I had the hands of a 7-footer," Egan said. "My nickname was 'Space' because, when I drove [to the basket], I could go long distances in the air. People called me a freak, but I was quick. I could jump and I never loafed. With those assets, I never doubted my ability going up against bigger guys."
An All-American at Providence, where he played beside Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, Egan landed in Baltimore in November 1965 as part of a trade that sent the Bullets' enigmatic center, Walt Bellamy, to the New York Knicks. He fit the team as a third guard behind high-scoring Don Ohl and Kevin Loughery.
Several weeks later, against first-place Los Angeles, Egan hit two free throws with six seconds left to beat the Lakers. In a 113-94 victory over Boston, he had 21 points and 8 assists to defeat the seven-time defending champion Celtics. And though the Bullets were swept by the St. Louis Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, Egan poured in 48 points in three games.
Those were tough times for the Bullets, a last-place team in Egan's final two seasons. In 1966-67, they lost 13 straight and finished 48 games back despite a roster that included a budding Hall of Famer (Gus Johnson), three future NBA coaches (Egan, Loughery and Ray Scott) and their soon-to-be general manager (Bob Ferry).
"We had a great crew but no real center at a time when big guys dominated the league," Egan said.
Worse, the Bullets lacked continuity, burning through four head coaches in three years. But die-hard fans rallied around the team and whooped when "Space" unleashed his teardrop shot while hanging in mid-air, a skyball that floated over the outstretched hands of the Chamberlains and Russells before floating through the basket.
"I'd throw the ball about 12 feet up, so it couldn't be blocked," Egan said. "I did that a lot."
Taken by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1968 expansion draft, then dealt to Los Angeles, Egan played two seasons with the Lakers, who reached the NBA finals both times. He retired in 1972 and coached Houston for 3 1/2 years, leading the Rockets to the first .500 finish in their eight-year history.
He settled there and started the insurance firm he still owns. A widower — Egan's wife died of cancer in 1998 — he has two children and four grandchildren, including a 10-year-old with whom he'll play one-on-one most Sunday afternoons. The game stilll has a hold on him.
"There's a ball in my bedroom that I touch every morning," he said. "I throw it up and down and bounce it between my legs. Why? Because people still challenge me. I'll go to the YMCA and [shoot around] with the guys and someone always asks for a game.
"I'll say, 'You think you can beat me? Don't let this grey hair fool you.'"
A fitness buff, Egan does 50 push-ups daily (fingertip and regular), swims, bicycles and practices yoga. He stages basketball clinics for kids, showing them how to both spin the ball off the backboard and make behind-the-back layups.
"I used to end each clinic by sitting at half court and making a set shot," he said. "Sometimes I did it on the second try, and sometimes on the 20th.F But I can't do it any more, it's too damn far. What I can still do is stand at half court, throw the ball behind my back and make the basket."
At 75, it's good to hear the ooohs and aaahs.
"God gave me everything I have so I figure, why waste it?" Egan said. "You're in this game 100 percent for life, if you've got the passion for it."