WILKINSON — Mentally drained and filled with emotion, a choked up Christy Stephenson had trouble narrowing down a single favorite memory.
With a friendly smile and positive spirit, Stephenson’s grandfather, Gene “Tink” O’Neal, left a mark on nearly every life he touched.
After a lifetime filled with happiness, O’Neal, 88, of Wilkinson, passed away Saturday at the Hancock Regional Hospital. But the Hancock County hoops legend, said Stephenson, should be remembered for more than a man with a burning passion for basketball.
And more than anything, O’Neal loved his family.
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“He was well known in the community for basketball and was proud to talk about his career,” Stephenson said. “But we were number one. He would always take us (grandchildren) on vacation, sometimes two at a time, but it was always fair.
“There are so many memories with him.”
O’Neal’s wife, Elaine (married 68 years), survives, as does his three children, seven grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren and nieces and nephews.
A successful basketball player at Eden High School (later consolidated into Hancock Central and eventually Greenfield-Central), O’Neal, a 6-foot-2 forward, was Hancock County’s first 1,000-point scorer and led the Flyers to back-to-back sectional titles during the 1945-46 seasons.
“He just lived for basketball season; it was his first love,” Diana Apple said, O’Neal’s only daughter. “That’s what he looked forward to, and he just loved to watch the kids (family and students at Eastern Hancock) play ball.
“He lived a very happy life.”
And O’Neal wasn’t just loved by family. The Eastern Hancock community grew fond — and familiar — with the man who rarely missed a Royals sporting event. According to Apple, her father has been attending games in the county for approximately 70 years.
“He rarely missed a sporting event at Eastern Hancock, from sitting out at freezing cold football games, to attending girls varsity softball games,” John Collins said, whose daughter Morgan is a senior at Eastern Hancock. “It just won’t be the same walking into the gym on a Friday night and not seeing Tink sitting in his front row seat.”
After graduating from Eden, O’Neal continued to chase his basketball dreams at Butler University, where he played for the legendary Tony Hinkle.
In fact, after being honored at the school last year for being one of the last living athletes to play under Hinkle, O’Neal told a story of topping the head coach in a game of 21.
He never missed a shot.
Known as a terrific shooter at a time when the 3-point line didn’t exist, O’Neal, who is in the Greenfield-Central Athletics Hall of Fame, normally reached double figures for Eden when 40 points was considered a high-scoring affair.
His best game, though, was a 47-point gem against Charlottesville in 1945. It was a total he reached before the fourth quarter and marked a school record. His team won 109-32.
Although he cut his career short at Butler after one season for the sacrifice of building a family, the love of basketball was just beginning for O’Neal, who grew up on a farm outside Greenfield. It was the place he first learned to shoot on a rim attached to a barn.
Shortly after Butler, O’Neal joined a semi-pro basketball team alongside many of his past Eden Flyer teammates. Only playing for a couple of years, O’Neal earned the league’s Outstanding Player of the Year award during the 1949-50 season.
According to Collins, O’Neal would travel around the county on days when Eastern Hancock did not have a game, searching for the best contest in the area.
For his last game, just this year, O’Neal was able to travel to the Richmond Semistate to see one of the state’s top young recruits, Romeo Langford, who finished with 47 points.
“I stopped at the hospital to see him a couple weeks before he passed and our entire conversation was about basketball,” Collins said. “I just can’t say enough good things about him.”
Service: A Celebration of Gene “Tink” O’Neal’s life will take place 1 to 4 p.m. July, 30 at the Farm Shop (7500 N. State Road 9) in Wilkinson.
Wife: Elaine O’Neal
Children: Diana Apple, Roger O’Neal and Richard O’Neal
Birthday: April 24, 1928 (Green Township, Hancock County)
High school: Eden Flyers
Passions: Family, basketball and Eastern Hancock sports
A celebration of Gene “Tink” O’Neal’s life will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. July 30 at the Farm Shop (7500 No. State Road 9) in Wilkinson.