Top of the Key: Hoops, Pinball and Bilateral Neuropathy – Talking with Todd MacCulloch

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Photo by Jim Capale | ESPN.com
Photo by Jim Capale | ESPN.com

I know what I like: voices in harmony, major seventh chords, and thick, spacey drones. I like science fiction. Hard science fiction. I like basketball and I love to play pinball. They are simple things and they give me pleasure, especially when they unexpectedly overlap. At one of these intersections stands Todd MacCulloch, former NBA Finalist and pinball champion. Talking with him on the phone recently was a joy; I found him to be intelligent, humble, forthcoming, and extremely generous with his time (you can read the full transcription of our conversation here).

His path has been unconventional. Like most Canadian youths, Todd fancied himself a hockey player, but his rapidly increasing height had other ideas. In high school he committed to basketball and “got noticed as a 6’9″, 6’10″, 6’11″ skinny kid from Winnipeg that had decent footwork and a decent ability to catch the basketball.” By his senior year he was seven feet tall and being recruited by colleges all over America. He chose Washington and powered them to the sweet sixteen in 1998, leading the nation in field goal percentage three consecutive years (one of only two players ever to accomplish the feat).

Todd finished college, got his degree and was projected to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Disappointingly, though, he was taken 47th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers: “I think the perception was that I was too slow to compete at the NBA level”. About this and other setbacks, Todd is refreshingly honest: “I slipped to the second round and was crushed. I thought I had failed and that they had forgotten about me and that I wasn’t a very good player.” Being drafted that late generally means you show up to training camp and fight for a spot. It can mean playing overseas and ultimately never making an NBA roster.

To regain his confidence Todd joined Steve Nash on the Canadian National Team to try for a spot in the 2000 Olympics. In the qualifying competition they upset a number of teams and earned a trip to Sydney, but it was his performance against the third Dream Team that changed the course of Todd’s life. Despite being on the wrong side of a 50 point blowout, Todd knew he was playing in front of Larry Brown, coach of the US Olympic Team and the Philadelphia 76ers. As the stat sheet was being passed around Canada’s locker room, Todd got a call from his agent saying, “you got 22 points and 16 rebounds against The Dream Team, you just got yourself a two year guaranteed minimum contract for the Sixers next year.” This was a recurring theme in my nearly two hour conversation with Todd MacCulloch: adversity, humble perseverance, opportunity capitalization.

Todd’s NBA career was brief but fruitful. As a rookie he quickly found a place in Brown’s rotation and became a valuable piece of the only Sixers squad to make it to the Finals since the Moses Malone era, at key moments facing the unenviable task of trying to slow down Shaquille O’Neal at his peak. This earned him a large free agent contract from Jason Kidd’s Nets, who also made it to the Finals the following year (again facing Shaq’s Lakers). After being traded back to the Sixers, though, things took a dark turn when Todd began to notice strange sensations in his feet.

“I was with Philadelphia right before training camp and I was starting to have problems with my feet, numbness and such. I could have sworn that my sock, my NBA sock, had kind of rolled down my ankle and like it was just balled up–like it had just rolled up and stopped right on my arch. That’s what I felt. So I’m thinking, “well I don’t know how that’s happened, it’s never happened in my life.” So I went off to the side and took off my shoe, to roll it back up, and it was in normal position. It hadn’t moved at all.”

This was the beginning of the end of Todd’s basketball career. No conclusive diagnosis was ever reached, but the long and short of it was: unbearable foot pain and an inability to play the game that he loved. The nerve specialists used words like paresthesia and bilateral neuropathy–essentially fancy terms for, “we can’t figure out what is wrong with your feet, nor can we fix it.” He struggled through half a season, but it was over. The heartbreak still sounded raw in his voice:

“It was just devastating and sent me into a pretty severe depression, to just have lost my career, which I loved…when I would just sit on the end of the bench for that year [the 2003-2004 season], I would just look around and be totally depressed and look at 20,000 fans and think that all of their feet were probably fine and working, and why couldn’t I have a pair of their feet? And how I had worked really hard to be where I was and now it was being taken away.”

To help ease the transition from basketball participant to bystander, Todd joined the 76ers’ broadcast team as a color commentator and traveled with the squad for another four years. A competitor at heart, though, Todd’s lifelong interest in pinball was gradually growing into an obsession. In every city the 76ers played, Todd knew all of the spots to to find a machine and began seeking out the local pinball collectors and aficionados. Soon his private collection ballooned from a few machines into a world class pinball arcade; last year he hosted one of the world’s premiere pinball tournaments. His skills grew along with his game room: after dabbling in a few tournaments Todd shocked the pinball community in 2011 by winning the Pinball Expo in Chicago, defeating some of the world’s best players on the way to his first world championship trophy. He obviously relished the win but was characteristically low key about his talents: “All those guys would have beaten me nine out of ten times, and it just so happened that tenth time happened a bunch that day. I felt like I got lucky all day.”

Luck, or not, the win legitimized Todd’s pinball credentials. He was no longer “the Paris Hilton of pinball,” as he described himself, “where [he's] famous to these guys but it has nothing to do with [his] pinball skills.” When recounting his improbable victory in Chicago, Todd got noticeably excited and went into great detail about some key moments. It’s clear: this is where his mind is at now. Competition is in his blood and, despite his ever self-deprecating demeanor, you can tell he wants to be the best:  “While I’m a good player, I’ve never been a great player…some of the best players, I’m not really in their ballpark yet.” Notice that last word. Yet.

Perhaps the most surprising moment of the conversation was when I began to question Todd about the present state of the game. He sort of clammed up and I had to ask, “do you even follow the league?” He admitted that he doesn’t: “Right now with a four and a half year old and a two and a half year old, between preschool and swimming and soccer and ballet and gymnastics, I haven’t been following it that closely.”

This blew my mind at first, that I was more interested in the NBA than a former pro. But then it clicked. I’m on the outside looking in, speculating. I’m guessing about the dynamics between a coach and an aging star, wondering about the true extent of a limping guard’s injury, trying to decipher and predict plays. Todd has been on the inside, he doesn’t need to speculate. And now he has a new passion to which to devote his time.

It reminded me of a question I often get when doing interviews about Nightlands or The War on Drugs: what new bands are you listening to? I usually clam up and admit, “none.” I spend my time making music and listening to old records, not following new bands. Unless I’m friends with them, I’m generally not interested. I’d rather spend my time watching hoops. Or playing pinball.