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, 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.
Although 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.
“I perceive him as one of the fastest-rising players,” said Bowen Kerins, who is 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.
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. Although 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.
MacCulloch played at the University of Washington. As a senior, he averaged 18.7 points and 11.9 rebounds per game with a .662 field-goal percentage.
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. Then he got hurt and needed something to fill the spare time. This led to an all-out spending spree on pinball.