BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. – In the summer of 2002, it appeared Todd 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 Shaquille O’Neal when they got there.
That off-season the New Jersey Nets gave him a six-year, $34 million contract. 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 an 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.
Before this season, the team told him it wouldn’t be using a color commentator anymore. His wife, 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 off-season retreat when he was still playing.