Fieldhouse memories

WILKINSON — Though he attended Butler University for only one year, a few months ago Gene “Tink” O’Neal proved he had been a Bulldog his entire life.

Chris O’Neal, Tink’s grandson, had surprised Tink — an Eden High school basketball legend believed to be the first man in Hancock County history to score 1,000 points — by transforming half of his grandfather’s barn into a “fieldhouse” in his honor.

While tractors and other large farm equipment adorned the far side of the barn, the near side had been reconstructed to resemble a basketball court, complete with a hoop mounted on the barn’s side paneling and yellow court markings painted onto the gray cement floor.

About 10 feet left of the hoop, though, is where the homage came together.

Erected there was a massive billboard ornamented with photos of Tink, both young and old, along with the words: “Tink O’Neal Fieldhouse.”

Tink was touched. “How nice is it that a grandson wanted to do something like this for his grandpa,” Tink later said.

The former Flyers sharpshooter, who led his team to back-to-back sectional titles in 1945 and 1946, was now nearly 87 year old but wanted to commemorate the moment with his family by doing what he did best — making a basket.

Unfortunately, time had taken its toll on Tink, and he could not do it. He was old and out of practice. It had been too long.

Frustrated yet determined, he later told his wife, Elaine, that there would not be a fieldhouse named in his honor where he could not sink a basket.

“I told her, ‘I’m going up there when nobody’s there, and I’m going to make a shot.’”

And that’s exactly what he did. A few weeks later, a resolute Tink traveled the half mile down the road to his fieldhouse and for the first time in ages worked on his game.

“I eventually made a layup and then a free throw.”

He would go on to say one of his 3-point attempts skimmed the rim, but that was all the juice his old body could muster.

Still, it was a proud moment for a proud man.

Tink could now say that in a game of one-on-one with Father Time, he had come out on top.

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 second of a two-part series, we 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, why he only spent one season at Butler, his connection with the first black basketball player in Hancock County history and his link to Indiana’s most famous team.

The history

Tink O’Neal and his wife were just two of more than 40,000 Hoosier faithful to descend on Milan in the aftermath of the high school’s 1954 state championship. But there was difference between the O’Neals and the rest of the mob.

Tink and Elaine were just going to congratulate a friend.

In O’Neal’s one and only season at Butler, he had the privilege of playing alongside future Milan coach Marvin Wood. The two became fast friends. Despite O’Neal leaving after one year, they remained in touch, and before Wood’s team completed its magical run through the state tournament, O’Neal contacted his old teammate.

“I told him, ‘If you win state, I’ll come up to Milan and help you celebrate. … But I didn’t think I’d ever have to go,” O’Neal said with a smirk.

Of course, he did.

So, along with a hefty portion of Indiana, the O’Neals headed to Milan. When they arrived, the town was so jam-packed with fans, they had to park miles from the school and walk the rest of the way just to get to the heart of the celebration.

“To make a long story short,” O’Neal said, “he saw me out in the crowd after it was over, and he motioned for me to come down to the gym with him. And we did. We went back there, and he says to me, ‘O’Neal,’ he says, ‘I know you’d like to hold a state championship trophy.’

“I said, ‘Yeah, that would be all right.’ So I held that Milan trophy. It was something. No one else around got to do that. I was pretty lucky.”

O’Neal enjoyed another unique honor during his hoops career. As a member of the early 1940s Eden teams, he played with Tom Brooks, the first black basketball player in Hancock County history, O’Neal said.

But today, O’Neal doesn’t look at playing with Brooks as an honor, at least not because he was black.

O’Neal had gone to school with Brooks since they were in third grade, and he had always seen Brooks as just another of his friends.

Of course, he was a friend who, if he was around, O’Neal had to be particular about which restaurants or hangouts they attended, as many wouldn’t let Brooks inside.

And then there was the senior field trip, when the school told Brooks he couldn’t attend, because some of the motels they were going to be staying at wouldn’t let him in.

O’Neal recalled that he and his classmates did not stand for such injustice and voted instead to just stay home.

“Tom was a fine man,” O’Neal recounted. “And a fine ball player, too.”

The explanation

The coaches begged him to come back. They even promised him a starting spot. But his mind was made up. Tink was going to marry Elaine.

O’Neal spent one very productive season at Butler before departing. He was the leading scorer on the Bulldogs’ reserve team, was one of only three freshmen Hinkle promoted to varsity and was well on his way to a solid, if not start-studded collegiate career.

“The coaches came after me,” O’Neal said, “but I wanted to get married and get a job and support my family. That was my decision. I had to sacrifice something, and I chose basketball.”

O’Neal said he has never regretted his choice.

“You know, that’s the secret to life,” said the happily married man of 66 years. “A man and a wife who get along. That’s it.”

Just because O’Neal was finished at Butler did not mean he was finished with basketball. O’Neal quickly signed on with a semi-pro basketball team and played alongside many of his old Eden teammates. O’Neal spent a few years traveling around the state competing in the sport he loved and in the 1949-50 season, he even earned the league’s Outstanding Player of the Year Award. The trophy is on display on a coffee table in his living room.

The character

After sharing a few hours and lunch — an excellent meal prepared by Elaine that began with homemade chili and concluded with sweet pecan pie and vanilla ice cream — with a grateful reporter, Tink asked a question for what felt like the 1,004th time: Will the article include the names of his friends from those historic Flyers teams?

Without that great group, he insisted, he never would have become the man he is today. He never would have scored 1,000 points; he never would have received a scholarship to play college basketball; he never would have been invited to Butler and celebrated as a hero of a bygone era.

They were, he noted, the reason people across the state of Indiana still know the name ‘Tink O’Neal.’ They are the reason for his legacy.

For a man approaching the end, he said, to be remembered after all this time is a special honor not many men can boast. It is a debt he owed those men that he could never hope to fully repay.

But in an effort to do so, and to honor those — mostly deceased — who helped shape the legendary Tink O’Neal, here are the names of 1944-45 and the 1945-46 Eden High School Flyers, two-time sectional champions:

1944-45 — Gene O’Neal, Bob Martin, Keith Spegal, Keith Snider, Jim Fair, Brooks, Max Moore, Raymond Brizendine, Harry Johnson, Alson Turner; coach: Max Weddle; student manger: Jack Jackson; cheerleaders: Barbara Albe and Monna Johnson.

1945-46 — O’Neal, Martin, Spegal, Snider, Fair, Brooks, Bud Adams, Bus Heiden, Gene Barrett, Hubert Albea and Gene Foster; coach: Weddle; student managers Jackson and Paul Bennett; cheerleaders: Jessamine Maroska Carroll Foster.