Todd MacCulloch: NBA alum, pinball wizard

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. -- Todd MacCulloch played in the 2001 NBA Finals, in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and in the 1997 and 1998 NCAA tournaments. But his current championship involves a little more preparation on his part. For one thing, he had to bring in an electrician to secure the tournament power supply. He also had to order a tent in case of rain. And provide food for 64 people over three days. And help arrange lodging and transportation for many of those competitors.

You see, MacCulloch is not just competing in this weekend’s International Flipper Pinball Association world championship; he’s hosting it. At his house.

Seriously. It’s like playing the NBA Finals at LeBron James' house. Only with fewer fans and more portable toilets.

"We’re on the septic system here, and I’m sure it would get kind of jacked up pretty quick," MacCulloch said. "So there’s a couple porta-potties coming and a portable sink coming.

"I don’t have a transportation coordinator. I don’t have a caterer. We don’t have a private plane. We’ve got people bringing over games in pickup trucks. We’ve got porta-potties. You don’t see a lot of porta-potties in the NBA."

The MacCulloch home might not be Staples Center, but it sits in a gorgeous, wooded setting on a suburban island that is a beautiful 35-minute ferry ride across Elliott Bay from downtown Seattle (it’s the same island where Dr. McDreamy lives on "Grey’s Anatomy"). In what could be described as the ultimate man cave, MacCulloch’s home holds 80 pinball and arcade machines spread over three rooms in the main house, plus three levels in an adjoining building. In addition to the pinball machines, he has air hockey and bubble hockey tables, a miniature bowling lane, an antique baseball game, and a TV screen suitably large for an NBA arena.

His wife, needless to say, is very understanding.

A beautiful island home. A loving wife. Two children. What else could a man want?

"I just had the slurpee machine cleaned and just had it tuned. And there’s plenty of syrup up there, five gallons," MacCulloch said. "If I can’t beat my opponents, I want them to get high on sugar and have brain freezes so they lose their focus.’’

• • •

The slurpee machine plays an important role in an ex-NBA center hosting a world pinball championship.

"I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, smack dab in the middle of Canada. It’s very isolated and very cold for a good chunk of the year, but for some reason, the 7-Eleven Slurpee is a cultural icon beverage there," MacCulloch said. "Ever since 7-Eleven has kept records, Winnipeg has won the Slurpee Cup for per capita sales of any metro city in the world, and we’re very proud of that.

"So I would go to 7-Eleven for my Slurpee, and most of them would have a pinball machine, and I would play pinball while drinking my Slurpee."

MacCulloch continued playing pinball during his basketball career, and when he reached the NBA, he used part of his earnings to buy a couple of his favorite machines for his home, which led to a few more ... and a few more ... and a few more. "It was the opposite of getting tired of them. I just found them fascinating," he said. "I played them and got better at them, and thought maybe there are a lot more great games out there."

He also reached out to competitive players as he traveled the country.

"I met him through a random email," four-time world pinball champion and Boston Celtics fan Bowen Kerins said. "It was like, ‘I want to come up and play pinball in Boston. How does that sound? We’ll go hang out.’ I’m like, ‘Who is this crazy guy?’ Then he signs it Todd MacCulloch and I’m like, ‘It can’t be THAT guy. It has to be some other guy.'"

"He heckled me before he knew me," MacCulloch said of Kerins taunting him at a Celtics game. “He was yelling at me and he didn’t even know me. I did a little talk at a pinball convention and said, ‘This guy doesn’t know me. I don’t go to his office where he writes math textbooks and go, ‘Two plus two is four, sucker! Your next book is gonna suck!’ I don’t heckle him in his place of work. I leave him alone, and he gets his works done. Why do you come to my place of work? I’m trying to earn a living for my family, and this guy is giving me a hard time."

"If you give me $10," Kerins responded, "you can come in and heckle me, too."

MacCulloch’s NBA career ended prematurely when a painful neuromuscular disorder in his feet forced him to retire at age 27 after the 2002-03 season. His competitive fire is now devoted to pinball. He plays in competitive leagues in Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, and won October’s Pinball Expo Flip Out Tournament in Chicago. He is currently ranked 129th in the world.

Basketball and pinball are completely different games, MacCulloch said, and not just because you can drink Slurpees in pinball.

"When I first started competing, I thought I would have a slight edge on some people just with my competitive past and being in pressure situations," MacCulloch said. "I considered myself a reasonably clutch player. I hit a couple big buckets at the University of Washington, and I made some key free throws and blocked a few shots at the buzzer. I felt like I could come up big when I need to, and I don’t cringe under the pressure.

"And then I found quite the opposite in a lot of pinball tournaments."

MacCulloch excelled in some of the largest, loudest basketball arenas with TV cameras broadcasting his play around the world. Then he found himself alone in front of a pinball machine, and his body clammed up and his hands got sweaty.

"I just ended up flailing and getting really frustrated over a $15 prize," he said. "I was playing like it was the NBA Finals, but I played more comfortably in the actual NBA Finals. I found myself not stepping up and being anti-clutch.

"I started looking at why and realized I was giving myself too much credit when I should have been giving my teams credit, being one of five and being on a team where people are keeping their composure and playing as a unit, and I’m just a piece. I fit in well as a team, where in pinball, it’s like playing singles tennis. You’re the only one to count on."

MacCulloch is 7 feet tall but says that if anything, his height is a disadvantage in pinball. "I don’t think we see anything more that would help us," he said. "One of the best players in the world, Lyman Sheets, gets in a low stance where he’s almost lined up behind the ball like aiming a rifle."

More of an issue is MacCulloch’s chronic foot condition. It still can be so painful for him to stand that he plays pinball in a chair. "I had to completely relearn how to play," he said. "Sometimes I’ll play sitting down, and sometimes I play standing up."

MacCulloch’s collection of pinball and arcade machines is impressive, ranging from some of the newest games to a stunningly gorgeous Rock-Ola 1937 World Series baseball arcade. Some are absolutely ridiculous, but my favorite is unquestionably the old "Star Wars" video arcade game. That machine swallowed so many of my quarters when I was in college, playing in the same University of Washington district arcade that MacCulloch later frequented. I pushed the start button and instantly returned to those days of my youth, blasting away at TIE fighters, zooming in for my attack on the Death Star ("Use the Force, Luke") and completely losing myself in the joy of the moment.

Within minutes, MacCulloch’s whole pinball passion made complete sense.

• • •

Four days before the tournament’s start, people are bouncing around MacCulloch’s home like pinballs ricocheting under the glass.

Kerins, Zach Sharpe and other top players are trying out MacCulloch's pinball machines and arcade games. Guys are trucking in extra machines to add to MacCulloch’s collection. The electrician is checking out the circuit capacity. And MacCulloch is serving up slurpees fresh from his machine and entertaining guests with the story of his innovative solution to finding leg room on planes when you’re 7 feet tall: Camp out in the plane’s bathroom.

“I’ll sit in the can for hours at a time because there is more leg room,’’ he said. “Obviously, you don’t want to deprive someone of the basic needs so I was like, ‘How do I allow people to use this service and still be comfortable? I know -- I’ll just sit here and I just won’t lock the door.’ So, I would sit there, and people would open the bathroom door and start walking in and go, ‘Oh! Sorry, sir!’ ‘No, you know what, you didn’t disturb me at all. Here. After you.’ And I’ll get up and let them in, and when they leave, I’ll sit in my office again.

"I’ve spent a chunk of time in airplane bathrooms. I’ve flown to Fiji in the bathroom. I’ve flown to Australia in a bathroom."

MacCulloch’s size issues are another reason his home is a good venue for the tournament. He had much of it custom designed for a man of his height (8-foot-high doorways, high ceilings, etc.), so it lends itself superbly to gathering with family, friends and the world’s finest pinball players.

Actually, there are two major pinball championships. The Professional & Amateur Pinball Association, like the Masters, is held every year at a facility near Pittsburgh. The IFPA, like the U.S. Open, is held at rotating sites. Last year’s championship was in Sweden, the 2010 event was in Minnesota and the 2009 tournament was in England at a venue named Pinballers Anonymous Headquarters. This year, it’s at MacCulloch’s house.

"This is like the biggest thing that one person can host," MacCulloch said. "So it’s a huge honor and responsibility. It’s in my house. Kind of crazy."

MacCulloch considered hosting the tournament a couple of years ago when it was in Las Vegas, but he figured an island outside Seattle might not be a convenient location for the large number of European competitors.

"I can see why they would go to Las Vegas. I can see where they would spend the money and take the time to go there. And I didn’t feel my place was worthy," he said. "Bainbridge Island -- I love it, but is it a world-class destination for Europeans to come on their vacations? That’s up to them. So I felt like I would love to volunteer but I didn’t think it would qualify."

After competing at the 2009 championship in the English countryside -- and enjoying it very much -- MacCulloch decided his house was suitable after all. "If people would travel the way I did [to England] and have a great time, then maybe Bainbridge Island isn’t looking so bad," he said. "... There’s often not a home-court advantage in pinball, but with the tournament being here, we’ll see if some of that home-court advantage can work in my favor."

I’ve been to Vegas, and I’ve been to MacCulloch’s house, and frankly, I prefer the latter. There is no neon, no showgirls, no Siegfried or Roy, no people flushing their money away -- just the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, plus a welcoming and very funny host who offers his guests all the slurpees they can drink.

"When you’re playing here, there’s slurpees," MacCulloch said. "I need to get some drink holders to put on the side of the games. It’s good to have some sugar flowing through your veins -- ice in the veins, I guess, when you’re playing pinball."

Hmmmm. Might need to rent another porta-potty.