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For the completeists, the curious or the historically minded, we present a complete transcript of Dave Hartley’s interview with Todd MacCulloch.
Todd: So is it hard to keep a normal home life when you’re on the road all the time?
Dave: You know, it kind of is.. I’ve gotten better at it. It has it’s challenges. I suppose it’s not unlike some of the challenges of when you’re traveling around playing basketball, being sort of transient and being away from your loved ones all the time. But like anything else, you get better at it.
Todd: Have you been doing it for a long time?
Dave: Yeah… we’ve been touring for six years or so, although I’ve been touring and playing with various bands for going on ten years now. The last three years or so have been a lot busier and more successful. I think The War on Drugs played between 150 and 200 shows in 2011.
Todd: Wow that’s incredible, that’s almost like baseball!
Dave: Recently we’ve started to have enough success that we’re comfortable on the road, but for years we were sort of in the trenches as they say.
Todd: Lugging your own gear and staying in crappy hotels?
Dave: Yeah, sleeping on floors, whatever. Recently things have gotten better.. I’m also at the age–I’m 32–where I’m not really as willing to sleep on a floor or something like that. But it’s nice that we’ve had a little bit more success and we can afford to be more comfortable.
Todd: Glad to hear that you’re doing well. I’ve got a buddy who’s a pinball buddy of mine and–have you heard of Eric Steckel, a young blues artist?
Dave: Not off the top of my head, no..
Todd: Anyways, he went on tour to Europe and came back with paperboy change, and just said, “I’m too old for this.. If I was 20, that’s fine, but I can’t do this for pocket change.”
Dave: Yeah, that’s sort of the rub with being a musician, and I guess it’s similar to basketball in that there are a lot of people trying to do it.
Todd: Right, a lot of people love the game and would love to make money doing it.. a lot of people love music and would love to be paid for it. You’re right, there are a lot of 5 foot 8 guys who love to play basketball.. if you’re gonna be 5’8″ and make it i the pros you’d better be a REALLY good player. I think the taller you are, the less you need to be perfect at anything.
Dave: That’s a humble way of putting it.. and sort of dovetails into my first question. You grew up in Winnipeg. Did you fancy yourself a hockey player growing up, but were taller than average and fell in love with basketball because of that?
Todd: That’s pretty much how it happened. Growing up in Canada, it’s your responsibility to play hockey or at least give it a try. It seemed like all of my friends played hockey and my dad played hockey and my older brother played hockey, so at age three I learned to skate and was playing on a team by the time I was five. And hockey, it gets pretty serious early, I think by the age of 12 we were playing 80 games and having 80 practices in a season–it’s not unlike an NBA season for a 12 year old and at that point I wasn’t ready to commit my whole existence, not being able to hang out with my friends who had given up on hockey, and not being able to play other sports.. Canada has always taken their hockey very seriously, and I wasn’t ready to give everything up for it at age 12, so I quit. And then I started playing a little bit of everything.. my friends have always been really important to me and I’ve always liked to be where they are, and some of my friends–Winnipeg has a high Filipino population, and the Filipino community seems to really enjoy the game of basketball–and so some of my buddies wanted to play on a basketball team, and I thought, “I want to be with my friends and I want to play.” So I signed up and I was coordinated–being in a few juggling competitions probably helped my hand eye coordination… next thing you know I’m playing basketball with them and excelling because of my coordination and height. So I just kind of stuck with it, and at some point–I played volleyball until the tenth grade–at the end of tenth grade I felt like I had to make a decision, if I am going to pick a sport, if I’m going to be playing in the summer for a provincial team or something like that, I’ve gotta make up my mind. At that point it was really a toss up. I liked both games a lot, but I decided, “I don’t like to hit the floor, I don’t like diving,” and in volleyball they practice diving to keep themselves up. I decided “in basketball sometimes you hit the floor but it’s not necessarily a part of the game so I think I’ll choose basketball.” It turned out to be a good decision. I just went from there.
Dave: So how old were you when you choose basketball over volleyball?
Todd: At the end of 10th grade, so 15 years old. The coach of the provincial basketball team said “we’d love to have you, if you want to play you’re on the team,” and the volleyball coach said “we’d like to give you a tryout.” I think I was probably better at basketball, and I may have had the skill set to do well in volleyball, but with basketball I think I was probably further ahead of the development curve than I was in volleyball. Seems like in the US volleyball is in pockets of California and other states whereas in Canada men’s volleyball goes all the way up through University, so Title 9 hasn’t really affected Canada’s athletic University system the same way, so volleyball is quite popular. It’s just, professionally there may not be the same opportunities as many countries around the world that pay for pro basketball.
Dave: At what point did you realize, “hey, I might have an actual future doing this full time,” playing basketball?
Todd: I think in 9th grade in my junior high school–I think the rules are different there without the NCAA–the University coach had come to see me as a 9th grader and I had heard from someone that he thought I might be good enough to play at the university level there. And I just couldn’t imagine it. I had gone to watch them play and they looked like MEN–they were men.. Actually I’ll take that back, even as a freshmen in high school in tenth grade, just thinking about the varsity players that were playing, the 11th and 12th graders, I didn’t think I was even good enough to play with those guys and then when I heard that the local university coach, from the University of Winnipeg had come to watch me play, I just thought, “what’s he doing here, to watch me? I’m not anywhere near as good as the players that he has.” So there were people that saw potential in me, probably because I was 6’6″ at the end of 9th grade, 6’7 in 10th grade, 6’9″ in 11th grade and then my height [7'] by 12th grade–coaches are better at seeing potential than an individual athlete, so I tried to listen to the coaches that believed in me and thought I could excel and do well. I played on a provincial all star team from Manitoba and we toured down to Phoenix to play against some state teams from the US and there were college coaches that had come to watch some of the opposing teams that were playing, and that’s when I 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, so I was recruited by probably 60 NCAA schools, so we had to just kind of sift through the offers and figure out the best spot for me to accept a scholarship. So, at that point I realized that I was going to be good enough to play at a D-I level and get an education out of it. Maybe two years into my collegiate career, actually in my freshman year I had I think 12 points and 12 rebounds against Michigan and they had two of the fab five left and I thought if I can get a double double against Michigan as a freshman, maybe I’ve got a future in this game. And I never really thought it would be in the NBA, I thought I’d be able to play in Europe, play pro somewhere and see the world that way. The NBA just seemed sort of out of reach but as my career developed, probably by the end of my junior year I had a pretty good NCAA tournament where we made the sweet 16–I think I had 31 points and 18 rebounds in an NCAA tournament game–I think that tends to get you a little bit of attention at the next level, and I decided to return to school, and someone said I made a mistake by coming back because I don’t know if I improved my draft status by coming back, but I wanted to finish my degree and I enjoyed college. So I ended up getting drafted 47th in the second round by Philadelphia and ended up playing OK in those two seasons enough to get a contract from the Nets after becoming a free agent.
Dave: Were you surprised when you were drafted? Was it a surprise to hear your name called?
Todd: I thought I was going to be picked earlier. I guess I listened to my agents and scouts.. I thought I’d had a good enough college career, I led the NCAA in shooting percentage for three years, I think I averaged about 66%–it helps when you only shoot from two or three feet away, maybe that was a knock against me, that I didn’t have any range–and I think I was second in the NCAA in rebounding my senior year. So I thought the combination of being an accurate shooter and being a decent rebounder and being this size would be enough. But I think the perception was that I was too slow to compete at the NBA level, so I thought I’d be in the late first round. I had heard rumblings as I would work out for teams, as I’d do the workouts, “late first round, late first round” … But I realize that there’s probably about 30 guys that get told they’re gonna go in the late first round, and there’s really not that many spots. So, 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. And so I was really deflated that I had gone in the second round and thought that I was going to have to fight for a spot. I asked the Sixers if it would be ok if they let me play with Team Canada that summer, and I think at that point they didn’t have plans to keep me so they freed me up to go play for Team Canada, so I got to join Steve Nash and some other excellent players and they helped rebuild my confidence. Playing with someone like Steve Nash will help you feel good about your game and make the game easier. We ended up qualifying for the Olympics. There were two spots available for Sydney the following summer, The Dream Team was going to get one of those spots, so there was one spot left for either Brazil, Argentina, Puerto Rico or, in this case, Canada. We ended up facing Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico and the winner got to go to the gold medal game against the US and be guaranteed a spot in Sydney. I had a terrible game against Puerto Rico, but Nash was amazing, and we won. So at this point, we are IN, our mission is accomplished. So at this point we have to go play the US in a game that really had no bearing on our mission, but I knew that Coach Brown, the coach of the Sixers, who drafted me, was leading the Dream Team, so I thought “I need to try to play well.” We ended up losing by probably 50 or something, and at the end of the game I got a call from my… most of the time stat sheets aren’t passed around the international locker room the same way they are in the NBA, so you don’t really know how you did, it’s just, did your country win or lose. And I got a call from my 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.” So I think my path changed with playing well against good competition in front of Coach Brown. That kind of changed my career, or at least my opportunities.
Dave: And you guys pulled off an upset in that tournament, didn’t you? You beat Yugoslavia who was heavily favored?
Todd: That was actually in the Olympics, yeah, we did pull off an upset. That was an interesting story in terms of sports psychology. A lot of us were just happy to get to the Olympics, but the coach pretty quickly said, “great job, guys, now we’re in, we’re not going to just go an be participants in the opening ceremonies, we’re going there to medal.” It changed our focus from just being a participant to trying to compete on the world stage. And we knew that with Nash and some of the other guys we had a decent chance. We upset Australia in the first game, we beat Spain and then Angola, and then at this point the goal was to not finish fourth in the pool. There are six teams, the bottom two get eliminated. If you finish fourth you cross over and face The Dream Team which means you’re basically as good as eliminated, so you had to be top three. We talked before the game, “alright guys, we’re doing good, we’re getting wins, we’re playing Russia, all we have to do is win or lose by less than 16.” So basically I think our mindset was “we got this, we’ll probably beat them and if we don’t, we’ll definitely not lose by more than 16.” We had the wrong focus going into the game, and as the game’s being played we were down, I think, 14 or something like that and they came down and scored. Now they’re up 16 and now Nash came down and it was almost like a shot at the buzzer to win the game, but he missed the last shot. So we lost by 16. We knew what would happen if it was more than 16, we knew we’d be in and not facing the US if it was under 16, but we didn’t know what would happen if it was ON 16, and so it went through this whole formula and we ended up a .03 difference where Australia was going to get the go ahead and we were going to finish fourth and face the US team and basically be eliminated. People were writing in the paper how we’d blown our opportunity and Canada would finish fourth in the pool and this and that, and our coach and the sports psychologists sat down and said, “guys, there’s a way we can change this, all we gotta do is go beat Yugoslavia, and if we do that we’ll finish first in our pool and then none of this will matter. So let’s go do that.” So we ended up beating Yugoslavia and finishing first in the pool, and that was all great until we crossed over and met France. We lost by 5 in the quarter final game and it eliminated us from medal contention. We went from being on a total high and having the whole basketball community of Canada on a fun ride and then all of a sudden, the quarter final game is just a game you can’t lose, and we were relegated to the 7th/8th place game after that. It kind of let the air out of the balloon but it was a great experience to play in the Olympics and to play so well for most of it.
Dave: You guys finished 6th or 7th overall?
Todd: Yeah, the 1st and 4th game, who ever loses that is relegated to 7th and 8th, the losers 2nd and 3rd place go for 5th and 6th, so we had a 7th/8th place game against Russia and won in triple overtime. 7th place was a little disappointing after the start that we had. But Canada hadn’t been to the Olympics since 1988 in basketball, so it was the mission of the team, and none of us had ever played in the Olympics, and since there are only 12 countries represented, at least then there were, it’s quite an accomplishment just to make it, and we’re all very proud of our country.
Dave: Ok, so fast forward to the next season. You go to Philly–had you ever even been to Philly before?
Todd: [laughs] No, I had never been to Philadelphia. I knew, as a hockey fan, about the Philadelphia Flyers. They were one of my favorite teams to collect the sticker books of and I remember they had the long, full legged cooperalls, and I had those as a kid because I thought they were cool. I came to find out that there weren’t a lot of people who thought they were cool, but as a kid all I knew was, the Philadelphia Flyers. My US geography wasn’t that great, growing up in Canada and only having spent a lot of time in Seattle. I was pretty sure it was in Pennsylvania, but had to go check a map and go out for the press conference. So we moved out there, and I really was just trying to make the team. I mean, I had a guaranteed contract for the league minimum, but that’s pretty small change for these guys, so I need to act as if I’m not expendable and try and prove my worth every day at practice, so I tried to put in some extra work and some extra conditioning and try and earn a spot. Unfortunately for some of the guys ahead of me, they sustained some injuries, but sometimes on the professional level that’s what it takes to get a chance. Some of our other big guys had some injuries and I got a chance to play, and was able to play well in those instances. I gained the confidence of the coach and the assistant coaches and played well enough to get a nod for the rookie all star game in San Francisco, that was a really big surprise for me, to go from being a second round pick to playing well enough to be selected for the rookie All Star game.
Dave: What was the culture like, at that time, on the Sixers? In some ways it’s considered the an era of glory for Philadelphia basketball, which has sort of been rebuilding since then. But other people remember that era differently–it was sort of a controversial time, in the league as a whole, a time where selfish playing and big personalities dominated, to the detriment of the game. I’d love to hear your perspective on what the locker room was like and what the culture on the team was like.
Todd: I thought it was great. I wasn’t sure how I would fit in, coming from Winnipeg, Manitoba and then Seattle, but I fit in great and loved the guys. I wasn’t sure, coming from a pretty close knit college team, that we would have that same camaraderie and common goal, I thought guys might be out for their own or trying for a contract or a shoe deal or all these things, but I think everyone–the main guys were pretty well set in terms of their contracts and we did have a common goal. We had struggled with Indiana to get past them in the playoffs and there was just this, “we need to get back to the playoffs and do better, get home court advantage in the playoffs,” because the home fans are so supportive. The culture was good. The guys really liked playing together and I just remember really getting to know the guys quickly and really liking them and then, talking to Eric Snow and saying, “I can’t believe how great these guys are, I was kind of expecting something different.” And he said, “we’ve got a special thing here. I’ve played elsewhere and it’s not always like this.” So I had just kind of assumed that every team was like this, where guys get along and they share the ball and they play defense.. and a lot of that is Coach Brown’s identity. He wanted the defense to be a certain way, he wanted guys to take charges, and he wanted big men to run the court and rebound the ball. The identity, I think, sort of came from Coach Brown and guys really helping on defense and not leaving anybody alone. So it really was a team effort. The team, I think, was wisely assembled, too. It was built around Iverson’s strengths and “let’s get some guys who can play defense, guys who can rebound the basketball, guys that run the court.” As a whole we had a very unselfish team, and it showed in the way we played and finished–I’m referring more to my second year, in my first year we lost in the early rounds of the playoffs, in my second year we went to the finals. In the first year we were building up towards that, but I think we gained a lot of confidence that we could compete with the other teams in the East, and the West, too.
Dave: Compare your experience in Philadelphia with your experience in New Jersey, which was another very successful team.
Todd: Similar, similar teams. So I left for New Jersey, and it was a difficult decision because I really loved my time in Philadelphia. I loved the teammates and the coaches. But [The Nets] made me an offer I really couldn’t refuse, but it was hard to leave. And then I get up there and was just lucky again. I really liked the guys that were there; [Keith] Van Horn and [Kerry] Kiddles and Jason Kidd and a young Brian Scalabrine, a great guy. A young Richard Jefferson, who turned out to be a heck of a player. Jason Collins, Lucious Harris was a great guy and Aaron Williams. So all of a sudden I find myself in another situation, I didn’t know I would be in a situation where everyone was great people that played hard and your leader is Jason Kidd and he’s diving on the court and giving supreme effort, you kind of have to follow that. Jason was such a good passer and they were pretty smart in the way that they assembled that team, one of the big reasons I accepted the offer to go to New Jersey is I knew that the trade for Jason Kidd had already happened, I knew he’d be there. Even though they hadn’t been very good the year before, I knew you could kind of throw out that record with some of the moves that they had made they were going to be a better team. It was a similar experience in that we jumped out to a–I think we started 10-0 or something like that–jumped out to leading the East the same way we did with Philadelphia and were able to hold that and have home court throughout, and in both cases it was huge. I think we had two seven game series with the Sixers, the Toronto series came down to game seven and the Milwaukee series came down to game seven, and I know in New Jersey the Indiana series went to five games, except of course the Finals didn’t quite go to seven games, but there were some tough series, and by being the top team I think it really helped. So, similar experiences. Great coaching staffs with both teams, and a nice mix of youth and veterans who realize “we have to capitalize on this chance that we have.” The East[ern Conference] was probably down a little bit, compared to the West[ern Conference], so there was an opportunity to represent the East where in other years it may have been more challenging with some of the dominance that Miami’s had and things like that.
Dave: So there’s a lot of talk now about the Center Position being a thing of the past, or if not a thing of the past, having a diminished or changing role on an NBA team. They even took the Center Position off of the All-Star ballot this year.
Dave: Yeah, now it’s just front court and back court, which was a controversial move. And, obviously, the early 2000s was a pretty center-dominated time–The Lakers won multiple championships around a Center. Do you think that’s true, or do you think that the pendulum is swinging–actually I should back up and preface this by asking, how closely do you follow the league right now?
Todd: I don’t follow it that closely 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. I do follow playoff basketball and did watch some games last season and will probably tune back in come playoff time, but there are just too many games in the regular season to follow and also being here in Seattle and not having a team, there’s not as much focus on the NBA when there’s not a local interest here. I would love for Seattle to get a team again and hopefully try to get plugged in to that organization, at some point. But I haven’t been following it that closely. But I have noticed, it seems like the center position is starting to diminish and for a long time a lot of teams had gone away from it, but the teams that were winning championships still had that anchor, whether it was Tim Duncan or Shaquille O’Neal, or going back, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. You can look back in history and see all those anchor points. But now with Miami winning, and the Lakers winning with Pau Gasol not being a traditional center, not necessarily being a back-to-the basket player, it seems like, even though guys are still seven feet tall, they have a different skill set. I think it makes them more dangerous, with Pau being able put the ball on the floor and shoot jumpers and be more versatile, and I think it would make it more difficult for someone like myself, who was a more traditional, back to the basket, true center, it might be harder to compete. I think the first time I played the four spot in my life was in the NBA Finals, game 2, when I was on the court with Dikembe Mutombo, who was playing the 5, and I had never even–I mean, in some systems the 5 and the 4 are interchangeable and at other times they have different roles. I wasn’t very good at hedging on screens, often I would stay back. But in this case Dikembe was hanging back, so I was supposed to be the one hedging on screens, and I wasn’t able to do very well. There were a bunch of times where I’d heard Coach talk about, “if someone from the wing passes into the post, you want to stay with your man so it’s not just a give-and-go, you stay with until you get to the center, then you can come back and double team.” Well that just went right out the window because it had never been directed personally to me and I had never guarded anyone on the perimeter throwing it into the post. And in this case I’m trying to guard Robert Horry, the pass goes into Shaq, I knew I was supposed to double but I forgot to stay with Horry until the last minute. I went right to Shaq, Horry saw me turn my back and ran right to the basket for a layup and I thought, “well that’s what Coach Brown has been talking about for the last couple years.” So for me it was difficult to play that four spot. For me to try and guard someone like Dirk Nowitzki, who can put the ball on the floor, step outside and hit threes. I think it’s changing because some of these guys who are my height are able to shoot threes, are quicker–I think there will still be a place for a big man to have an important role on a team, but in terms of being an anchor point, it looks like it has moved more towards the Kobe Bryants and Dwayne Wades and Lebron Jameses. Guys like that, [Paul] Pierce, seem to be the fulcrum of a team.
Dave: I’m sort of obsessed with this idea of “a center” because, on that token, The Bulls never had a dominant center at all, but they did have–
Todd: They had the three headed monster.
Dave: They had the three headed monster, and the greatest player ever.
Todd: Yep. They had Luc Longley, and they had Bill Wennington. People used to say to him “I thought I was tall,” and he’d say, “I thought I was ugly.”
Todd: I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I like to use it. Of course, I can’t use it because I don’t want to be mean. [laughs]
Dave: Let’s fast-toward again and talk about the neuromuscular condition that came to light when you were back in Philly, I’m not sure how to pronounce it–
Todd: Charcot-Marie-Tooth is one of the diagnoses that was there, and I’m not sure if that was accurate or not. Basically I saw lots of neurologists to try and figure out what was going on, and one of them thought that it was that. There weren’t really specific tests to determine it–there are only certain neuromuscular conditions that can be proven with a blood test and those came back negative. Outside of that, neurologists just do their best to make a diagnosis. But basically, bilateral neuropathy was the diagnosis because they weren’t able to pinpoint it. Basically, nerve problems in both of my feet. The soles of my feet were damaged and nobody knows exactly why, but I had burning sensations and tingling and a loss of proprioception and discomfort. I was getting physiotherapy a couple years ago and I had stepped on a pinball light, one of the bulbs had come out of the game, and I was in flip flops and stepped on it. I went to physio and the physio was working on my feet and she said to me, “do you want me to take this shard of glass out of your foot?” I said, “yeah, I didn’t notice it from a pain perspective, but from an infection perspective you should probably remove it.” Just lots of dead areas on the soles of my feet. They weren’t really able to figure out what the cause was.
Dave: When did you realize that maybe your basketball career was in jeopardy?
Todd: I think it was when I came back, when I was traded from New Jersey. 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. So that’s when I started learning about things like paresthesia, where the nerves are sending incorrect signals of stimulus to your brain… so basically I feel like my feet are taped, like the trainer has taped my feet. If I wear socks now, it only takes a few moments before it feels like my feet are being compressed, and so whereas running shoes used to be the most comfortable footwear that I had, and I had a closet full of running shoes, now they feel like they are three or four sizes too small. So now I wear open toed sandals 24-7, which gets a little cold around here in the rain, but even having socks and running shoes on is extremely uncomfortable after a really short amount of time.
So I started having problems in preseason workouts, and I thought I would be able to get through the season and that I’d be ok, and that it would be a tough year and that my feet were just going to bother me and maybe I’d just need a couple months of rest after the season. Training camp was very difficult, going for for 5 or 6 hours a day with a couple of sessions, and then they got pretty bad during training camp and got a little bit better. And I mentioned to–well, [The Sixers] already knew i was having problems and they said, “we’ll send you to some of the top specialists.” And they were great about sending me to some of the top neurologists in Philadelphia. Then I went to Boston and down when we were at Duke University and the University of Michigan, so I was very encouraged that there was going to be some surgery or pill or treatment that was going to basically get my nerves to start feeling the way that they did before. I’d go in to see these neurologists and they’d say, “we’ll get this figured out, we’ll figure out the cause, we’ll figure it out how to reverse it,” and I’d leave feeling very optimistic. But after they did nerve conduction velocities, NCVs, where they kind of poke and prod you and measure the responses as they come back to your spine, they were all kind of shaking their heads at the end, not sure why it had occurred and why my numbers were much slower than they should have been. And so I started to get really discouraged as a lot of these experts couldn’t really explain how it’d happened or the best way to change it. I started to think, “if no one knows how this is going to get better, how am I going to get better?” I was just hoping, talking to some neurologists, that nerves do heal over time, but it’s a very slow amount of time. They might grow a millimeter, or something like that, so I thought it might take a series of months or a year before my nerves would heal. Unfortunately, they haven’t. I’ve done some alternative therapies, some sort of neuro-resetting with some sort of electrical stimulus unit to try and reset some of the nerves, and that definitely has helped, but not to the point where I could get back onto the court.
Dave: So what was that like when it dawned on you, “oh my God, this career is over indefinitely”? Was pinball something you sort of turned to for therapy, or was it just something you filled your time with?
Todd: A little of both. It was absolutely devastating to come to the realization that–I guess I just wanted it to be an injury where someone could someone could say, “MacCulloch is out 6-8 weeks with a broken leg,” or, “he’s got a sprained thumb.” I wanted someone to put a length of time on it, even if it was two years, just tell me when I can get back and play, instead of, “we just don’t know. We don’t know how much better it’s going to get, we don’t know if it will get better.” And so it was just devastating and sent me into a pretty severe depression, to just have lost my career, which I loved. And I loved being back in Philadelphia. It just seemed like everything in my life was going extremely well, and then to have this happen, which I really didn’t understand why or how it happened. And then to think, “well not only is my dream job gone, but also I’m faced with having chronic foot pain for the rest of my life.” Being 27 years old, the career is one thing, but just to think, “if they can’t fix this now, who’s to say they can fix it in the future? I don’t want to be living in pain forever.” It was really depressing to think about. So I was really in a funk. I stayed on the Sixers roster–I played about half of that season and was on the injured reserver for the rest of that season and the following season, in the hopes that I would get better. That year, when I would just sit on the end of the bench for that year, 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. It wasn’t until the next season when Billy King suggested, “why don’t you try jumping on the radio with Tom McGinnis and doing some broadcasting, I think you’d be good at it?” I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it, but I thought it would probably be a good thing to do. And as soon as I started doing it I got some self worth back and I started to enjoy the games more, whereas when I was just sitting there watching the games it was hard to do, but this way my mind was occupied. I still got to be around the team, I got to be a part of a new team, the broadcast team, see the game from a different perspective, learn about the game and continue to be involved. I think that really helped me mentally, and that job went on for the next five years. So that really helped, and I was able to connect with some other pinball collectors around the country as we would travel with the team. If we ended up with the night off I would meet up with the local pinball collector and play some games. So it was therapy that way. It was good, in some ways, to be different from the game, as well as be something to take my mind off of it. It’s a fun game. I was able to just pull up a chair and sit–I sit a lot when I’m at home, the more I’m on my feet the more they hurt, so if I’m playing for long periods I’ll just pull up a bar stool. It was fun to play at home and have my friends join me… and at some point I became competitive. You know, it’s a totally different sport. I thought some of the advantages I’d gained from playing in pressure situations and feeling like I had done well in high school and college and some free throws in key games, I felt like I had been reasonably clutch. Looking back, I think maybe my teams were clutch. I had made a few plays, down the stretch. So I thought I would be better able to handle some of these pressure situations in tournaments where my opponents probably didn’t have a job that put them in these pressure situations that I thought I had been able to deliver in. But I just ended up clamming up and getting nervous and playing kind of hectic and frantic, and ended up losing some key games where, you know, maybe fifty dollars was at stake, something small. But it didn’t matter. So that kind of went out the window, me thinking my past sporting life was going to help me. In the last little while I’ve just had to learn, the same way I learned with basketball. Some of the best players, and I’m not really in their ballpark yet, but they play their best when the pressure’s on, and they really step up and play like they’re in their basement, like they’re comfortable. So I’m trying to adapt some of those strategies, to just forget about what pressure you put upon yourself, when it’s really just a perception of the way you see it. I’m working on the mental aspect of the game. The money is really not, the prize money is not big at all, but it’s still fun to perform and do better in pressure situations and tie breakers and things like that.
Dave: Do they let you sit when you play in tournaments?
Todd: I think they do–I used to bring a stool with me, or in cities like Chicago or Pittsburgh that I would frequent, I would have a stool that I would leave at the facility or at a friend’s house, and then I continued to get some of those alternative therapies on my feet and I think that helped me get to the point where I would go to those cities and not need them for the weekend. I would be standing on my feet for a couple of days and be sore at the end of it, but I guess a normal person would be sore at the end of it. So they’ve improved to the point where I can get through a pinball weekend. It’s better than it was. The burning isn’t as much, the tingling isn’t as bad, so some of those nerve sensations have been reduced because of the treatments I’ve gotten.
Dave: So what has been your best pinball moment? I read online that you won a tournament in Chicago last year?
Todd: Yeah, that was my best moment by far, there’s not even a close comparison to that, that was the Chicago Pinball Expo, or the Pinball Expo in Chicago, and this was the Flip Out Tournament. It’s the main tournament. If you were talking about the four majors in tennis, or The Masters in golf, this is in the discussion, I would say. There are two world championships–one is in Pittsburgh, and one moves around the country and the world, and those two are very prestigious. And then, after that, the Pinball Expo is in the discussion. It’s in the home of pinball, Chicago has been the home of almost all manufacturers, ever, for pinball and almost all the designers are there and a lot of good players are in Chicago. So it’s a prestigious tournament where a lot of great players will turn out. I’ve played in it for a number of years and my goal has always been to just make the big dance and make it to the finals, which in most cases is a 16 person final. There may be 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 people trying for those 16 spots. And while I know I’m a good player, I’ve never been a great player. I’ve kind of been in the 15th, 16th, 17th spots in these tournaments, more often the 17th than the 16th, so this was no different. I go and buy a bunch of–well, every entry is a “try”–most of the tournaments are set up where you go and play a game until you get a good score, and then you can move on to the next one. You play a game until you get a score that you’re happy with, that will get you enough points to move on to the next one. And so for someone like me, it ends up costing me a bunch more money than someone who is really good who can just play the game once or twice and be happy with that. I kind of need to throw darts at a dartboard enough times until I finally hit a bulls eye. It becomes a factor of time, as well. At some point there is a cutoff. And so Saturday at midnight–let’s say it took 100 points to make it to the top 16–I was maybe at 99. I was one point out, I was in 17th place and I had almost run out of tickets and at the last minute I was able to acquire four tickets, which meant four tries and they were going to let me play those out. It’s almost like in football where they’ll let the last play run out, even if the whistle blows. I had the tickets in hand and they’re not selling anymore, and you’re allowed to play those out. And so out of those four tries I was able to improve one of my scores enough to sneak into the 16th spot. So at this point its 1 in the morning and you have to check in for the finals and you have to check in at 8 am the next day. As the 16th place finisher, there’s a playoff between the two players who are tied for 8th and 9th, and one is the three time pinball world champion, the number one ranked player in the world. So he’s in the tiebreaker and I’m guessing he’ll win the tiebreaker, and I won’t have to face him. Well, unfortunately he lost and I played him in the first round, best two out of three, each match with a double elimination. So he’s beaten me every other time we’ve played, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll probably never beat him, and I think in the past I had defeated myself before the match had even started. I would never lose on purpose, but I think I just thought, “there’s no way I can beat this guy.” So, fortunately, one of the tournament games was Tron, which came out a year before–this was in October–and I had purchased Tron in June and liked it so much that I had played it almost exclusively in June, July, August and September, so by October I had put a lot of games on it. So two out of the three games that we played were on that, and the other was Wheel of Fortune, which I have here at home, which many people don’t like. So I was able to beat him, best two out of three, and knock him to the losers bracket. At that point I felt like everything else was gravy. I didn’t know that I’d ever beat him in my life, and so then I won the next match. Then I faced the 14th ranked player in the world, and somehow defeated him. Then I faced the 4th ranked player in the world, and somehow I beat him two out of three. Then I faced a three time world champion who is actually a programer at Stern, so he had programmed some of the games that we were competing on. Somehow I beat him two out of three and knocked him to the losers bracket where he defeated another three time world champion, and then he came back up to the finals. And because I was still in the winner’s bracket, I just had to beat him once two out of three, he had to beat me twice two out of three, which if I was a betting man–I try not to be–I would have put my money on him. And somehow I had won game one of the match, which shocked me, so I was up one-nothing. And then he made his selection for game two, and I was in position to win. He had played his third ball and had an average game, and I was just below him and didn’t need very many points at all. And all of a sudden, there were probably only 15 people watching, but I felt this enormous burden, felt this enormous monkey on my back, that I had the championship in my hands, and I just totally froze and started making terrible decisions and ended up draining short a few hundred thousand in that game from victory. There was a collective sigh and gasp from the 15 people watching and I just thought, “I’ve totally blown it, I’ve let him back into this thing, this was my chance and I’m not going to get another chance.” I kind of felt like other people felt that way, but wasn’t sure until later when a couple people came up to me and said, “yeah, I kind of thought you were dead at that point.” That’s what I wanted to think and tried to use some sports psychology and think, “if I can find a way to put this out of my mind and forget about that game and just go win game 3, then it doesn’t matter–somehow I need to forget my disappointment of letting one slip away and take advantage of this next game.” So I went over and turned on Wheel of Fortune, that was my selection, and my opponent… [laughs] … wasn’t a big fan of the game, so I thought that was a good sign. So I had to play first, and my third ball drained and I was only slightly ahead of him after two balls, so I thought I was going to lose the game, but I didn’t realize that my bonus was quite significant, which boosted my score up to where he was going to have to play a little bit. It wasn’t just… he was going to have to earn it. He ended up having a bad third ball, so that was the end of the tournament. I couldn’t believe that I had won, so I grabbed a water bottle and poured it over my head. I was kind of acting silly because I was completely shocked that I could go from–you know it would almost be like someone just sneaking in to the NCAA tournament and then somehow winning it. I think it’s one of the longest shots in pinball, so I’m very proud of the tournament. I still can’t believe it happened. The friend of mine that ran it sent me the bracket, basically the chart graph that showed my path to victory, so I guess I have some proof that it happened. But I still can’t believe. And I went back this year as the so-called defending champion and was quickly ousted by my friend. My friend Bowen is a three time world champion and has been very helpful in helping me with the mental aspect of the game, as well as strategy, and all of these things. He had been eliminated last year, so he was kind of in my corner in between ball one, ball two, ball three, talking about “alright, here’s what you got to do to get ready, don’t look at what he’s doing, it doesn’t matter what he’s doing.” So it was almost like having a trainer in the boxing ring in your corner; he really helped me stay focused and win. This year I won a couple of matches and then I faced him, and he was like, “I’ll help you up until we play, then you’re on your own.” I knew I was in trouble, and he just completely destroyed me when we went head to head. Fortunately I didn’t have to face him the year before and, as I continued to watch the finals, the usual suspects rose to the top. I’m looking at all these great players playing in the final four thinking, “how was I even a part of that last year?” These guys were just putting up massive scores that I couldn’t imagine getting on my best days–I mean, they were playing some games I have at home, and for months or a year I was never able to get scores anywhere near what they were putting up, and so I think it was a combination of luck and, if I had a bad game, say on Wheel of Fortune I got four million, which is terrible, my opponent ended up with three million. There were times when I didn’t have my best games and, fortunately, my opponents had slightly worse games when I needed them to. Anyways, that’s a long explanation, but that was by far my favorite pinball moment.
Dave: Were you sort of well-known in the pinball community for your past career?
Todd: [laughs] Not for my pinball play. I think I’m the most famous pinball player, almost like Paris Hilton, where I’m famous to these guys but it has nothing to do with my pinball skills. I think this legitimized me, in a sense, where–I can’t remember the female tennis player who has lots of contracts for modeling but has never won a tournament–a little like that, because of my sports background and because most professional athletes don’t do something quirky like this, there’s been some attention, so I’m somewhat known throughout the pinball community. It hasn’t really been for my play. People know I’m a good player, but I’m definitely not among the elite. I think this helped a little bit.
Dave: That must have been a big relief, to win, as well as just, fun. It must have been a relief to think, “hey, I’m actually really good at this and not just getting attention because I’m a former pro basketball player.”
Todd: Definitely. It made me feel good that I’m improving. 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. I’ve tried to downplay it a little bit, but some people who were there have just said I was in the zone. It was similar to basketball, especially at a high level in the NBA or in big games, where there would be a certain level of nervousness that I would have, some butterflies before a big game. But I tried to channel those and say, “you know, I’m nervous, but it’s because I don’t want to drop the ball, I can’t miss this opportunity.” I think in basketball I was able to focus my nervous energy into the importance of, “I need to catch this ball from Iverson, I need to score it.” I had a pretty narrow job. The point guard really has to see the whole court, and obviously the more you can do at any position, the better your’e going to be, but as a center it was pretty clear what I needed to do. If I got the ball a couple feet from the basket, I need to score it. And so I was able to really focus it. In this case, I was nervous all day, playing these matches, and I really couldn’t believe I had won a couple of these. People were coming up to me and asking how I felt, and I was saying, “I’m nervous, but it’s that good kind of nervous,” where I was really attentive and on edge, kind of a low level of adrenaline I guess. It was just fun to play against some of the big boys and have some success.
Dave: I play a lot of pinball but I don’t know anything about competitive pinball. How do they select the games and how does that affect who has an advantage in a matchup?
Todd: It affects you a lot. The games are all decided by the tournament organizers, wherever you are. There’s a big tournament–and I’d love to–you live in Philly, right?
Todd: Ok, so hopefully you’ll be able to come out and check out this place called PAPA headquarters. Professional Amateur Pinball Association headquarters in Carnegie. It’s on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.
Todd: It’s just incredible. This gentleman has this personal collection of, let’s say, 450 games.
Todd: It’s beautiful. From the outside it looks like an industrial area, nothing special on the outside, but then you go inside and it’s 30,000 square feet of games. Just rows and rows of games. Uncluttered, professionally maintained. It’s just this incredible space. There’s food and the games aren’t crowded and there’s carpet and it’s just incredible. So twice a year they open it up. One is in August, and they call that the Pinball World Championships. So in that case the tournament director, he’ll sort of scour those 450 games and no one will know, it’ll be a big secret so no one has an unfair advantage. The thursday of the tournament people will show up that morning and there’ll be a bank of 10 games there for the A division, which, I don’t play in the A division there. That’s for those guy I was lucky enough to beat one time in my life but most of the time they destroy me, they all play in the A division. And so I’ve been playing in the B division. There’ll be 10 games set up in the B bank and then there’ll be 10 games for the C bank. And there’ll be another 10 for Seniors and Juniors. In that tournament the format’s a little bit different. In some ways it can be advantageous and in some ways it can be really frustrating, where, instead of having to individually hammer out games and, say, play Whirlwind until you get a score you like and then play Medieval Madness, where you just need one game at a time and once you got it you check it off your list. This one is a series of games, of the 10 games in your bank, you would tell the scorekeeper which five you want. So you pick the five you have at home, or the five you like or the five that you’re good at. But each run is all connected. You pick the five, and then you play them in no particular order, and that makes up an entry. So if you’re doing great and your first three games are awesome and then you do terrible and you do terrible and just blow it on the last two, that entry is null and void and you’ve wasted that good effort. You’ve got to pay 10, 15, 20 bucks for another shot. You could have four great ones and then one could destroy it. There’s a lot of people walking around pretty frustrated by, “if it wasn’t for this game, I could have had it.” But at the same time, if you’re a consistent player and you play five solid games, you don’t have any breakout games and you don’t have any stinkers, a solid run where nothing’s terrible can get you in. So in that tournament, the games are chosen by the tournament director, and it changes ever year. There are certain games that have random elements where some player might have an advantage over someone else, they try and eliminate those games. There might be some game that has one repeatable thing that doesn’t make use of the whole playfield and you could just shoot a ramp over and over and over, and if that’s the case they probably wouldn’t select it. They know which games work for A bank, they know which games the top players can exploit. They might throw in some games that have shorter average ball times. Or they might–I don’t know if this is the right word–bastardize the games to make them more difficult. Take out the outlane posts, take out the center post, put on some bigger rubber posts on either side of a ramp to make the ramp narrower, so they find a way to take it to the level where the games don’t last forever. So that’s how that tournament is selected. My wife and I hosted the other world championship of pinball, back in June, here. That’s called IFPA, International Flipper Pinball Association. They have a ranking system, pinballrankings.com. Six years ago they wanted to increase pinball awareness and competitiveness, they wanted people to go to tournaments, form tournaments, start leagues. And they thought a good way to do that was for people to see where they are. People like to see their name moving up. They like to compare themselves to other people. So they took the data that they had from Chicago tournaments and they had 500 players ranked, 6 or 7 years ago, and now they’re up to 15,000 players from 35 countries. So list has grown and of that list of 15,000 people, the top 100 or so get an invitation to be a part of the 64 person tournament that moves around from a US city to a European city. In this case we offered for our home to be the site for that tournament. So in this case, the games were my games that I had in my collection. I didn’t have enough games from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s to fill out the requirements from different eras. In order to win that tournament you’ve got to be well versed on old games, middle-era games and newer games. So I had friends truck in 30 or so games, put them in garages and wherever else we could. If you win that one you really have a good overall ability to play lots of different machines from different eras. Whereas in other tournaments they might separate, it’ll probably be modern, machines from the last 10, 15 years. Or there will be a Classics Division that’s separate. If you like to play the old school games only, play in that one. If you want to play in both, play in both. Most of the tournaments will separate classics from modern. If you play at a bar somewhere, the games that are selected are the games that they have. So it all depends on who is hosting and what games are there.
Dave: That’s fascinating, I had no idea it was so complex. What are some of your favorite games? What are some of your strongest games?
Todd: Growing up, I loved playing Pinbot back in the day at the roller skating rink and in 7-11s and things like that. Later came Jackbot, which is the same playfield but with a more modern software and display. So the first games I bought were Jackbot, Whitewater–I don’t know if you have played that one–
Dave: Yep, I have.
Todd: So I have that one, it’s one of my favorites.
Dave: That’s a Pat Lawlor machine, right?
Todd: Dennis Nordman actually did Whitewater. Whirlwind was Pat Lawlor.
Dave: Right, right.
Todd: Medieval Madness was the third game that I bought. This was back when I signed with the Nets, I bought those three and was pretty hooked on them. Then I realized that maybe it’s not just these three that I like, so I bought an Addam’s Family and then I grew the collection. And recently I was operating three of my games, Jackbot, Whitewater and Fish Tales at a local restaurant/bar and then this past summer the building got struck by lightning and burned to the ground. It was just a bad situation. But currently I really like Medieval Madness, that’s tons of fun. Lately I’ve really been enjoying Stern’s latest games. I got Tron back in June. Last December I got Transformers which I really like. I got Iron Man, which I love, and I got AC/DC, which I know you’ve played that.
Dave: I have to ask what you’re high score is on AC/DC.
Todd: I could turn it on. I could guess, it’s something like 112 [million], something like that. X-Men I really like as well. And I’m anxiously awaiting Avengers. What about you?
Dave: Wow. Well, there’s a little taco place near my house that, they tend to cycle machines through there, so I play whatever they have, trying to get the high score. They had Family Guy, which was really good, that’s a Pat Lawlor.
Todd: Yeah, exactly. That’s a good one.
Dave: I’m not a huge fan of the show, but I thought the game was really good. Then they got the AC/DC, which I liked, although the average ball length was really quick, it took me awhile to get the hang of it.
Todd: Yeah, it can be harsh, for sure.
Dave: Yep, very fast. And now they have the new Spiderman game.
Todd: That’s another really good one.
Dave: Yeah, I played that last night for hours and finally got one of the high scores. Some of my buddies in town, we are pretty cutthroat trying to out do each other.
Todd: Do you play together or do you show up at different times and see who’s names are up there?
Dave: A little of both. Technology has made it fun because now you can take a picture and text message it.
Todd: [laughs] Text him and say, “hey come get some.”
Dave: [laughs] Exactly. I think they were talking about getting Austin Powers, next. The really interesting thing is, Secretly Canadian, the record label for both The War on Drugs and my own band, Nightlands, is talking about making a pinball machine for The War on Drugs. Taking the AC/DC machine and retrofitting it, because it’s already built for musical purposes with the songs–
Todd: Right, with the jukebox and such. So would they program it? Would it play your songs?
Dave: Yeah, I think ideally. Obviously they would have to get together with a programmer and figure it out
Todd: Right, how to work with the software and change it out.
Dave: The art would probably be the easy part, the software would be the hard part. I’m hoping that this interview will put a little pressure on them to make good on their word.
Todd: That’s cool. I hope you end up with the game. That would be pretty cool, one of a kind–would they do one of them? Or one for everybody in the band?
Dave: I think they’d do one, and they’d probably put it–there’s a venue in Philly called Johnny Brenda’s, which is one of the better local venues in the city, and we are the first band ever to play there, actually, when they opened six or seven years ago, so we kind of feel connected to this place. We’re playing there on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Eve Eve, so it’s kind of our Cheers, for lack of a better term. So we’d probably put it there. But after a while I’d say, “ok, it’s time to come home.”