Former NBA Player Todd MacCulloch Is Now a Pinball Star

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. -- All around him there is music now. Jangling. Clanging. A little steel ball rolls up a ramp and down the ramp, off the bumper, off the flipper, off the wall, back up the ramp, back down the ramp. Lights flashing. Numbers roll.

At this moment, Todd MacCulloch is not watching the numbers. He seems to hear nothing of the constant noise ringing around him like a Las Vegas lobby in his basement, so engaged is he in the plight of the rolling steel ball. In fact he is a remarkable sight: a 7-foot-tall, nearly 300-pound man who once thrust his ample girth against Shaquille O'Neal's in two NBA finals, standing at a pinball machine called Medieval Madness that is distinguished from the dozens of other machines that surround him solely by its a ghoulish, metallic moans.

The machine is talking to him.

"I am the king of pain," a voice growls. "My men will destroy you."

There was a time not long ago when the New Jersey Nets made MacCulloch fabulously wealthy, bestowing upon him a contract that paid a guaranteed $34 million over six years -- an extravagant sum considering he always figured the NBA wouldn't have much use for a slow, awkward center from Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Then as fast as it came, his career died. A year after he signed the deal with the Nets, the nerves in his feet began deceiving him, rendering him unable to run and jump. A year after that he was retired; young and rich with nothing to do. Many athletes in such predicaments struggle to find a meaning in their post-sports existence. They dabble at golf. They collect exotic cars. They shop for mansions.

MacCulloch bought pinball machines. So many, in fact, that they spill from the basement of his sprawling, 6,000-square-foot house on this island a half-hour ferry ride from Seattle, taking over a guest room, an eight-car garage and all of the lower storage room beneath the garage as well as half of the family room upstairs. In total there are 80 machines, some brand-new, some antique, strewn across his property, the sum of which he figures cost more than $200,000. All of this to the dismay of his wife, Jana, who recently stood in the kitchen and took stock of a house she was slowly losing to a free arcade.

"I never knew anyone who had a pinball machine in their home," she said.

Then she rolled her eyes.

"He said there were some pinball machines he would like to buy and we've slowly argued our way to where we are now," she said.

It also did not take her husband long to realize there was something of a competitive pinball circuit, with international tournaments and world rankings. And though his basketball career was over, he was soon creating a new one as a pinball player, no matter how little revenue such a pursuit might generate. His career earnings over four years have totaled about $700. His world ranking is 130th but some of the country's top pinball players say the number is deceiving since many players build up points by playing the same tournaments every weekend. Since MacCulloch has been playing about six tournaments a year, a top 60 or 70 might be more realistic. He might even be able to make as much as $1,000 a year.

"I perceive him as one of the fastest-rising players," said Bowen Kerins, who is currently the world's second-ranked player. "Two or three years ago he was good. Now he's really good."

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