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Big Man vs. Machine
Ex-NBA Player MacCulloch Has a New Passion: Pinball

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."

Not very long ago MacCulloch shared a locker room with Allen Iverson. His colleagues rolled hard, ripping $100 bills from their wallets like so much pocket change. Now he spends his time with men like Kerins, a math textbook writer from Salem, Mass., who still talks with wonder about the time MacCulloch squeezed into the passenger seat of his Honda Civic, and Josh Sharp, a controller for a video game company, who runs the current ranking system.

His new friends are not wealthy. They live suburban lives, tend to be technologically minded and could care less that he was a professional basketball player. Most, MacCulloch assumes, don't even know he played. Their world is pinball. Their endless phone conversations are about the mysteries of each pinball machine and the games' secret tricks. "The key to getting better at pinball is to learn from other people," Kerins said.

And MacCulloch is delighted that this is his world, too.

"Your average jock is not going to be a pinball lover," he said. "He probably only likes sports."

Then again MacCulloch was never much like the rest of the jocks. As a child in Winnipeg, he spent much of his time at the local 7-Elevens drinking Slurpies and playing the pinball machine that was always in the corner. On summer nights as a teenage member of the Canadian junior national basketball team, he slipped down to the game room of the team's dormitory where a rafting-themed pinball game called White Water almost seemed to call to him. And though most of the game's light bulbs were burned out, essentially rendering it useless, he played it for hours.

"I guess I can trace this back to being really addicted to [pinball] and not being very good at it," he said with a small laugh.

Years later, not long after he signed his contract with the Nets and bought a home in New Jersey, he thought it might be fun to purchase a couple of those games he adored so much and put them in his basement. Which he did. Then he got hurt and needed something to fill the spare time. This led to an all-out spending spree on pinball.

"It's become a good outlet for his competitiveness," Kerins said.

His Feet Fail Him

In the summer of 2002, it appeared MacCulloch was on his way to a long and prosperous NBA career. He was 26 and in three years, had turned himself into a center with soft hands and a delicate shooting touch. His breakthrough came in the 2000-01 season when he helped the Philadelphia 76ers reach the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers and wasn't overwhelmed by star center O'Neal when they got there.

That offseason New Jersey gave him the $34 million, Nets point guard Jason Kidd called him "by far the best center I've ever played with," and the following spring he went to the Finals again, played Shaq once more and held his own. A few months later, the 76ers, desperate to get MacCulloch back, traded Dikembe Mutombo to get him.

That's when his feet failed. They had bothered him for a few months, while he was in New Jersey, but MacCulloch figured it was something he could learn to play through. In the 76ers' training camp he had a uncomfortable sensation that his socks had dropped and balled up in the bottom of his shoes just under his arch, and yet when he pulled his shoe off, his socks were perfectly in place. Other times it felt as if his foot was on fire.

He finally had to admit to the 76ers that something was wrong. Eventually he received a diagnosis of bilateral neuropathy, which in effect means he has severe nerve damage to his feet, although doctors say they are not certain why. MacCulloch's symptoms weren't that severe, but they were strong enough to keep him from playing basketball. By age 28, he was retired.

"That was difficult," he said. "I kind of went through a depression for a while."

The hardest part was not knowing if he would get better. The nerves in his feet had spread so far apart they weren't transmitting information to the brain. Once he went to a physical therapist who took off his shoe and told him he had shards of glass stuck in his foot. A few days before he had stepped on a light bulb but had no idea that glass had lodged itself in the skin. At other times, he said, the nerves would try to cover the distance between them by "amping up to fire."

"Parts of my feet are so numb I don't feel anything," he said. "Other parts I feel too much. They're always irritated and buzzing and tingling. You don't know what causes it and you don't know how to make it go away. And it's constant. There's nowhere to run. There's nothing I can do. Being on my feet makes it worse and irritates it, and even if I sat with my feet up on an ottoman that nerve pain is still there. The pain is not a weight-bearing result. It can happen at rest, which is really frustrating."

He has received treatments in which a therapist puts a machine that sends neural impulses over the injured part of the body, which has helped some. But not anywhere near enough to let him play basketball again.

When he retired in 2004, the 76ers gave him a job doing color commentary on their radio broadcasts. His droll humor was a good fit and it allowed him to stay close to the players and still feel a part of the team. But by last season, most of his old teammates were gone. He found he had more in common with the radio broadcasters than he did with the players. The final confirmation of his status as a non-player came outside the 76ers' hotel in Cleveland when a fan started halfway across the street to ask for an autograph before realizing MacCulloch was not on the team. The man's face filled with disgust, he cursed and walked back across the street.

"I wasn't worth walking across the street to accost and be asked for an autograph," he said. "I remember thinking: 'Yep, this guy thinks I'm somebody when in fact I'm a 7-foot radio announcer.' "

Before this season, the team told him it wouldn't be using a color commentator anymore. Jana had just given birth to their first child, a girl named Carmen, so they closed up their house outside Philadelphia and moved back to the home on Bainbridge Island they bought as an offseason retreat when he was still playing.

There are still times when he gets depressed. Because of the lingering discomfort in his foot he has to wear either flip-flops or shower shoes. This bothers him, too. But then he thinks about a movie he saw recently, about a Mexican soccer star who is driving on his way to sign a huge contract with a professional team when a little girl runs into the street and he kills her. The soccer player never plays again. The girl's family is destroyed. And he remembers how the movie starts, with the old adage that appears on the screen: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your dreams."

Fierce Competition

When MacCulloch started playing competitive pinball he assumed he had an advantage over the others. He was a professional athlete, after all. He was the NCAA Division I field goal percentage leader for three years at the University of Washington, had played in NBA playoff games and for Canada in the 2000 Olympics. He knew something about pressure and he knew how to handle it. He figured that when the pinball matches got close he would be able to endure the tension.

This has not happened.

"I still get nervous in big tournaments where there has been some big money on the line and it might have been a fraction of what I made in a check in the NBA," he said. "But it's still the pressure of the moment -- the heart starts beating a little bit, the games are designed to increase the music just to make you feel something, to make you feel the pressure and rush your shots. When I've needed to I haven't been able to pull some games out of my, um, hat."

In basketball he always had the ability to do what athletes call "slowing the game down," seeing every possibility, making careful, methodical decisions even as he was running full speed. In pinball he feels himself speeding up, the game too often spinning out of control. He wonders why this happens and figures it is simply because he hasn't played as much as the other players, some of whom have been competing for 30 or 40 years.

At times MacCulloch rejects the idea that he is using pinball to replace basketball. He says he plays for fun, to meet people and to add to his collection of games. A few weeks ago, at a tournament in Seattle, he was matched up with Sharp for a game that was supposed to start in five minutes. Sharp thought he had time to grab a sandwich and was nowhere to be found. MacCulloch frantically called Sharp's cellphone, imploring his friend to return for a match in which he was certain to beat MacCulloch rather than have to forfeit.

And even when Sharp returned, just in time, MacCulloch had done research on the game they were about to play -- one neither knew well. He offered the tricks he gleaned to Sharp, who used them to score 2.5 million points. MacCulloch had 100,000.

"So he took the knowledge that I gave him but he was able to much better implement it and that was the end of my day," MacCulloch said. "That was fine because it was pinball and most people are good people and you would expect the same."

There are times he does concede he becomes competitive. The other players notice it. Even when he is at home, playing for fun, he reacts to mistakes by slapping his enormous hands on the machine and stalking away.

"In some ways I see myself as an athlete," he said. "I still have problems with my feet and I can't run around. In some ways it feels like forever ago. I almost forgot what I looked like in my former life. My body has changed a lot, not in a good way."

Because he can't stand for a long time, MacCulloch brings a stool with him when he plays. In a way this bothers him because it's another sign that he can't move around the way he once did. But he shrugs. Years ago, when he first started playing professional basketball, he bungee-jumped twice and went skydiving once. Now he hobbles from pinball machine to pinball machine like an arthritic old man.

But he does not stay depressed for too long. Pinball has brought him a purpose, a fire he never imagined. Free completely of basketball, he is considering going to more tournaments next year, trying to make the big run Kerins believes he has in him.

"I still want to get better," the tallest competitive pinball player said. "I still want to improve. I still want to win some pinball hardware and get a trophy one of these days."

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