Tormohlen remembered as ‘gentle, kind soul’

By HENDRIX MAGLEY
hmagley@dcherald.com

Gene Tormohlen played college basketball for the Tennessee Volunteers and later played in the NBA.

HOLLAND — Everyone who knew Gene Tormohlen was well aware of just how big of a man he was. While his 6-foot-8, 230-pound stature had a little to do with that, it had more to do with the way he presented himself and supported those around him.

“Gene was a big man and I’m not talking about his height, I’m talking about his heart.” This was a quote that NBA Hall-of-Famer and one of Gene’s best friends, Jerry West, relayed to Gene’s first cousin Joe Todrank about the spirit that Gene always seemed to have.

Gene died at the age of 81 on Dec. 27 in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Born on May 12, 1937 in Holland, his name will be forever associated with the small community in Dubois County.

He helped lead the Dutchmen boys basketball team to its first-ever sectional championship in 1953 and also had the first ever dunk in the Dubois County sectional in an upset over the No. 3 ranked Jasper Wildcats in 1955. He was eventually inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987.

Gene lived all over the United States — from playing college basketball with the Tennessee Volunteers and setting all of their rebounding records; to playing professional basketball in Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis and Atlanta; to working as a coach and scout at the professional ranks in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.

But no matter what, the town of Holland always played a special part in Gene’s life and the Tormohlen family was grateful to be able to host a celebration of life Saturday at Holland United Methodist Church, in the place where his journey all started.

“Dad always loved coming to Holland, so many people took care of my family and he appreciated all the town did for him,” said Tommy Tormohlen, Gene’s son. “To be able to close this chapter and lift Dad into heaven, it means the world to share that with his family and close friends here in Dubois County.”

When he first arrived to play college basketball at the University of Tennessee, Todrank recalls Gene telling him that he wasn’t sure if he would be able to play well with the big boys in Division I basketball. He quickly found out that he would fit in just fine — he still holds the Volunteer records for the highest rebounding average in a season (17.7), total career rebounds (1,113) and career rebounding average (16.9 rebounds per game). He also ranks third in school history with 50 double-doubles, is one of only two Tennessee players to record over 1,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds (Hall-of-Famer Bernard King is the other) and was also selected as one of Tennessee’s top 20 players of all time in 2009.

After a successful college career, Gene (who later became known by the nicknames “Bumper” and “Chairman of the Boards”) had a long and fruitful professional basketball career. He played with the Cleveland Pipers and Kansas City Steers before joining the St. Louis-Atlanta Hawks shortly after. After retiring from playing basketball in 1970, Gene worked as an assistant (and interim head coach for a short while) for the Hawks and was a longtime scout for both the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.

While Gene and West got to know each other during their collegiate careers with Tennessee and West Virginia respectively, they became best friends when West was working with the Lakers as their general manager.

“In 1982, (West) called Dad to come work for him as a scout,” Tommy recalled. “And he got six championship rings from the Magic (Johnson) and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) days all the way through the Kobe (Bryant) and Shaq (O’Neal) days — the family was lucky to get those rings and hopefully my boys will one day keep those safe in a lockbox somewhere.”

Gene Tormohlen's family remembers him as a "gentle, kind soul."

There’s no denying that Gene left quite a legacy with his impressive rebounding statistics and professional career that spanned nearly 50 years as a player, coach and a scout, but the thing that perhaps will leave the longest-lasting mark is the impression he left on all of the people around him.

West said in a video statement that “the time I spent with (Gene) was always amazing” and he thanked him for always being “an incredible friend.”

Stan Alford, who attended the ceremony on behalf of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, said “I wish we had a lot more Gene Tormohlens” and his kind, caring nature made him think of Gene as a “gentle giant.”

Dalen Showalter, one of Gene’s collegiate teammates with the Volunteers, wrote a eulogy with thoughts from several other Tennessee teammates about “Bumper.” Showalter said, “We all got to know a really kind and caring Gene — oh how he loved his lifemate, sweet Julie, and he was always so proud of his grandkids. We got to know a truly spiritual man who loved his family, his teammates and the Lord.”

Todrank, who spent the majority of his young life hanging out with Gene, said, “It’s an honor to call you my cousin and my best friend.”

Ever since he was a little boy, Tommy can recall his father always wanting to help people anyway he could. Sure, Gene had a tough side but at the end of the day, it was obvious that no matter what he did he was going to do everything in his power to be there for someone.

“He was always the guy who would help people through hard times — not just in sports, but community-wise, he’d always make sure to lend a helping hand to the less fortunate,” Tommy said. “All throughout his life I saw that gentle, kind soul.”




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