WILKINSON — Gene O’Neal can still thrill ’em.
Whether it was in the Eden High School basketball gymnasium back in 1945, or Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday, the man they call “Tink” knows how to bring a crowd to its feet.
Invited to Butler University to be honored as one of the last living players to have been coached by Bulldogs luminary Tony Hinkle, O’Neal put on a show, though not in the way he once could. Back in 1945, O’Neal was an Eden Flyer junior armed with one of the deadliest shots in the county. He regularly posted double-digit point totals in an era when a team averaging more than 40 points per game was considered high-scoring.
He led Eden to back-to-back sectional championships and became what is believed to be the first career 1,000-point scorer in Hancock County history en route to earning a scholarship to play for Hinkle at Butler.
On Saturday, though, the 86-year-old, deprived of his legendary shooting stroke, managed to slay the crowd of more than 9,100 with the only tool at his disposal — a microphone.
“There was one day in practice,” O’Neal began, his image and words displayed on the Hinkle Fieldhouse big screen during a break in the Butler-DePaul basketball game. “Mr. Hinkle came over to me said, ‘I want to play you in a game of 21.’ I said, ‘Boy, that would be all right.’ And he said, ‘You shoot first.’”
To this day, O’Neal does not know why the legendary coach asked him to play the game. All he knows is how it ended, as he explained to the crowd Saturday.
“You know in 21, you hit a long (shot), it’s worth two, short’s one. So I hit seven straight longs and seven shorts, and that was 21 points. I never missed a shot.
“I handed the ball over to him, and I said, ‘The game is over coach. I skunked ya.’”
The Butler crowd bellowed with laughter, as they rose to their feet to give O’Neal a standing ovation.
O’Neal clearly appreciated the gesture, but he was not quite finished. Like most who know how to put on a show, he saved the best for last.
“I want to say one more thing.”
The crowd around him quieted to listen.
“I brought my same girlfriend with me today. The same one who used to come out and see me play. We’ve been together 66 years.”
With that, the crowd went wild, and the TV camera panned to Elaine O’Neal, Tink’s wife. She reddened with embarrassment, knowing her face was plastered on one of the biggest video boards in the country.
A couple days later, though, Elaine sat just a few feet away from Tink in the living room of their small home in Wilkinson, and as she listened to him recount this story, she smiled proudly.
O’Neal was gracious enough to share many other stories with the Daily Reporter during a recent visit to his Wilkinson home and farm. In this two-part series, we’ll recount more of the memories of Gene “Tink” O’Neal — the Greenfield-Central Athletics Hall of Famer who helped turn Indiana basketball into what it is today.
You will learn, in O’Neal’s own words, the story behind his 47-point outburst against Charlottesville High School, his connection with the first African-American basketball player in Hancock County history and, of course, the origin of his legendary nickname.
The school record
The tale of O’Neal’s 47-point spectacle against Charlottesville in 1945 began in a barbershop.
Charlottesville — which later consolidated with Wilkinson to become Eastern Hancock — had recently hired a well-respected coach named J.B. Good, O’Neal said.
Good had enjoyed some big success as the leading man at Mt. Comfort, winning multiple sectional championships in the late 20s before retiring. However, Charlottesville was able to coax him back into the coaching ranks. Once he returned, the achievements of his past seemed to color the opinions of the future.
One day, the story goes, while sitting in a Greenfield barbershop, the coach was asked about the upcoming Eden-Charlottesville basketball game. He declared that the Flyers (who later consolidated into Hancock Central High) were a coach away from being a complete team.
“He said, ‘They’ve got the best players in the county, but they got the poorest coach,’” O’Neal remembers. “Well, our coach (Max Weddle) got wind of that. He told us that night, ‘I’m going to show him how poor of a coach I am. I am going to beat him as bad as I can beat him.’”
Then Weddle unleashed O’Neal.
A 6-foot-2 sharp-shooting forward, O’Neal’s scoring prowess ranged from a menace under the basket to a marksman beyond today’s 3-point arc, which did not exist in O’Neal’s time. Had the line been established, O’Neal suggests, his career and game totals would have risen dramatically.
Fortunately for Charlottesville, the line did not exist, and O’Neal had to settle for 47 points, an Eden record and a sum he reached during the beginning of the fourth quarter before Weddle decided enough was enough, taking O’Neal out. The Flyers won the game 109-32.
“It was an awful hard feeling thing,” O’Neal said of crushing their county rivals. “Eden High and Charlottesville fans … got into it after the game. Poor sportsmanship, they said. Of course, we were just kids. We just played basketball.”
Growing up in a time with where there was not much to do and even less money to do it, O’Neal often found himself with a basketball in his hands, working on his shot.
As a child, O’Neal, who was raised on a farm outside of Greenfield, mounted a goal on his barn door and often shot at it for hours.
When it rained, O’Neal placed a bucket on top of a hay mount inside the barn and shot at it for hours. Sometimes, O’Neal would nail a coffee can to the door of his back poor and shoot a little ball at it for hours.
“Nowadays, they have these kids playing in kindergarten,” O’Neal said with a chuckle. “It’s amazing. We didn’t have any of that. All that shooting, that was my, that’s what I liked to call my AAU.”
It often happens that the origin story of a lifelong nickname is concealed by time, surrounded by unprovable myth or buried deep within the mind that forged it never to be accessed again.
Fortunately, that was not the case with “Tink.” Though less than eager to talk about it, O’Neal divulged the details on his legendary name.
“All it was, was when I was 3 or 4 years old, I couldn’t talk plain. And my neighbor always tried to deal me out on my toys. … Of course I was serious about it, being a little fella. I always told him, ‘I’d think about it.’ But it came out ‘tink about it,’ and he just started calling me Tink. … I went to school in the first grade, and it was Tink, and I could take you over to the cemetery, and I have Tink on the tombstone I have set up for myself.”
Coming Thursday, O’Neal shares why he only played one year at Butler, and his love of the “fieldhouse” his family built for him on his Wilkinson property.
Eden High School’s Gene “Tink” O’Neal is believed to be the first Hancock County boys basketball player to accumulate more than 1,000 points in a career. While Eden no longer exists — it merged into Hancock Central, which later became present-day Greenfield-Central — O’Neal’s prolific point total helps the Flyers’ legacy live on.
Hancock County players with at least 1,000 career points below. Total points listed, with player, school, year graduated.
2,343 — Mike Edwards, Greenfield (1969)
2,064 — John Hamilton, Greenfield-Central (2000)
1,463 — Keegan Carmony, Greenfield-Central (2004)
1,447 — Dustin Smith, Eastern Hancock (2011)
1,415 — Derek Harmon, Eastern Hancock (2003)
1,390 — Tim Miller, Mt. Vernon (1998)
1,369 — Rhett Reed, Greenfield-Central (1998)
1,315 — Larry Spegal, Wilkinson (1955)
1285 — Tom Giles, New Palestine (1975)
1,264 — CJ Coleman, Mt. Vernon (2014)
1,210 — Pete Hubert, Eastern Hancock (1976)
1,145 — David Essington, Greenfield-Central (1988)
1,134 — Kent Raymond, New Palestine (2004)
1,100# — Richard O’Neal, Eastern Hancock (1976)
1,057 — Ryan Reed, Greenfield-Central (1994)
1047 — Kevin Bell, Greenfield-Central (1982)
1,041 — Matt English, Greenfield-Central (1991)
1,027 — Michael Morris, New Palestine (2013)
1,025 — TJ Ott, New Palestine (1998)
1,009 — Mark Galbraith, Greenfield-Central (2004)
1,004 — Gene “Tink” O’Neal, Eden (1946)
Nearing the century mark
982 — Ryan Curry, New Palestine (2015). The Dragons’ senior (21.6 ppg) will likely reach 1,000 points at Connersville Saturday or at home against Mt. Vernon Feb. 20.
# Approximate total
Gene “Tink” O’Neal played with Eden Flyers from 1942-1946.
Eden High School existed from 1919 to 1955, when it consolidated with Maxwell High School to form Hancock Central. The Panthers of Hancock Central later consolidated with Greenfield High School in the fall of 1969 to form the Greenfield-Central High School that exists today.