That 7 Foot Tall Guy Sure Can Play a Mean Pinball

Todd MacCulloch parlayed one pretty good NBA Finals series as a 76’er against the Lakers in 2001 into a $34 million contract with the New Jersey Nets. After only one year in Jersey, albeit one that took them to the Finals, he was traded back to the Sixers for Dikembe Mutombo. Unfortunately for MacCulloch and the Sixers, it turned out that MacCulloch’s feet were battling against him, eventually receiving a diagnosis of bilateral neuropathy, a condition which means he has severe nerve damage in his feet. Only 2 years after signing that 6-year $34 million contract, the 28 year old MacCulloch was retired, unable to stand the rigors of playing basketball any more.

These days MacCulloch passes the time playing on any of his over 80 different pinball machines. In fact, he’s so into pinball that he participates in tournaments and is a ranked player, currently 130 although apparently the rankings are a bit screwy and he really should be more like 60-70. For someone whose average game salary in the NBA was approximately $70K, MacCulloch has pulled down a robust $700 in pinball earnings.

Of course, it’s not about the money, for MacCulloch it is the love of pinball, something he can trace back to his childhood in Winnipeg when he’d go the 7-11 and play the pinball game in the corner. Once he signed his contract with the Nets he bought a couple pinball machines and, while injured on the Nets roster started playing more and more to pass the time. Soon his obsession was full-bore. These days he spends hours on the phone with other pinball enthusiasts comparing machines and strategies, finding an outlet for his competitive instincts.

When he plays in tournaments MacCulloch brings a stool as even still the pain makes it too difficult to stand at length. Recently when he went to treatment for his nerve damage his physical therapist was shocked to find glass in MacCulloch’s foot, he’d stepped on a lightbul days before but because of the nerve damage had no idea.

“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.”

Now, on the verge of his 33 birthday, MacCulloch is relaxing into his retirement, meeting up with friends from the pinball world and participating in tournaments against people, some of whom have been competing for over 30-40 years. You’d think that for a man who has battled Shaq down low in the paint and held his own that pinball would be a cake walk in comparison, but that is not the case for MacCulloch.

“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.”

Despite the nerves, MacCulloch’s star is rising on the pinball circuit. “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.” So look out world, and keep an eye out for a 7 foot tall, 300 pound giant of a man pounding away at a pinball machine at the local pinball tournament.

[Washington Post]

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