The former Washington and NBA player is using vintage and modern pinball machines and hosting 64 players from 12 countries this weekend in the private event.
BAINBRIDGE — On this week a decade ago, Todd MacCulloch was playing in an altogether different tournament, against an altogether different opponent.
MacCulloch was the starting center for the New Jersey Nets, fighting a fierce low post pas de deux with that decade’s best center, Shaquille O’Neal, in the NBA Finals against the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers. He was on center stage, playing in front of packed houses and critical worldwide television audiences.
MacCulloch played in two consecutive Finals, losing both to the Lakers. The year before his season with the Nets, he was backup to Dikembe Mutombo for the Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers.
“I just had so much fun in that (Philadelphia) series,” he said, sitting under a tent in his driveway Friday. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to get any time. When I got some time in Game 2, I just felt like a little kid. I felt like I could run fast. I felt like I could jump high. I mean I’m no Shaq, so I just wanted to go out there and do my best and I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun than I did in that game.”
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This weekend, MacCulloch is playing in a world championship again. But this is as far removed from the madness of the NBA Finals as an event can get.
This time in fact, he’s hosting the championship. And by hosting I mean it’s being held at his beautiful, sprawling house nestled in the trees on Bainbridge Island.
Now, instead of going mano a mano against Shaq, he’s going mano a machine in the International Flipper and Pinball Association’s world championship. Because of space limitations, it isn’t open to the public, so this is as anonymous as a game can get.
“Obviously these two worlds couldn’t be further apart,” MacCulloch, 36, said between rounds of the opening day of the three-day championship. “To play in the Finals against the Lakers was the pinnacle for me. The only way it could have been better is somehow winning a series. But it was incredible to be on one of the top two teams in the world.”
This weekend, MacCulloch literally is playing host to the world’s 64 pinball wizards, representing 12 countries. The games are on his turf, and many of the machines are his machines.
“This June is just a little more laid-back than those Junes in the NBA Finals were,” he said. “There are some moments of brief intensity and frustration here. Basketball is a mental game like pinball, but when the game starts muscle memory kind of takes over.
“But in pinball, you can play the same game 50 different ways. There are almost six decades of games here, and with all of the different eras of machines, it’s like you’re playing against Shaq one day and Bob Cousy or Jerry West the next. There’s a different skill set you need for the different machines.
“It’s a very addictive hobby and really wonderful people. I was excited to have them come and hang out here. My wife said this is like planning a wedding. But I think it’s a wedding with Porta-Potties. It’s more of a trashy wedding. But we all love this game so much, and that’s why I was willing to open my home up for these players.”
MacCulloch’s den is crowded with players and machines. Plastic is laid on top of the carpet, and a sign on the door asks all players to remove their shoes.
Some of these machines were built in the 1950s and others, like the new AC/DC machine, are the newest, state-of-the-art games. The difference in the machines is the difference between dinosaurs and eagles. It’s like playing one game at Fenway Park and the next at Marlins Park.
The newer games are faster. They have as many as five balls in play at once, and ramps have been added that create another level of playing field. When the multiple balls are put into play, MacCulloch, borrowing the phrase from a friend, sometimes yells, “I won a ticket to Crazytown.”
In his driveway, the natural quiet of Bainbridge is interrupted by the low rumble coming from MacCulloch’s two garages, which also are venues for these championships.
There is the staccato clink-clink-clink of the balls rattling off the bumpers and the thump of machines as players try to nudge the silver balls in various directions. It sounds like a typical Friday night at the casino, all flashing lights and ringing bells. It’s a contagious cacophony that makes a visitor want to join in the fun.
Bowen Kerins, 37, writes high-school math textbooks for a living. He is a two-time champion and has written 50-page strategy guides that are available on the web. They are as detailed as one of Raptors coach Dwane Casey’s scouting reports.
The best pinball players, like Kerins, generally seem to be the smartest. They may have soulful wrists, but more important they have analytic minds. They can see game patterns develop. They have an understanding of physics, the angles and trajectories of the balls. They know how to manipulate the machines to change the paths of the balls.
“I feel like I’m watching sports with a different eye now than I did before I started competing,” said Kerins, who remembers sitting in the rafters of the Boston Garden and booing his host when MacCulloch was playing for New Jersey. “I watch how players handle the mental stress that is put upon them in games. You can only control the next thing you do, whether it’s the next at-bat, or the next free throw, or the next down in the football game.
“I try not to look at my own scores, or the scores of my opponents, or think about who my opponents are because in the end I’m just playing against their scores on a pinball machine. I think being clutch in sports is just forgetting you’re in the moment and just treating that moment the same way you would when you’re on the playground.”
Pinball players come in all sizes and shapes. Attire is arcade-casual — T-shirts, shorts, hoodies, sandals or sneakers. This is a grassroots game, as democratic as the Constitution.
“It’s a strange community,” said French champion Franck Bona. “Nerds? Maybe. But we are happy nerds.”
MacCulloch interrupts our interview, unfolds his 7-foot frame from a chair and announces, “The subs are here.” He means the sandwiches. This weekend is a marathon, and it’s the host’s job to make sure that the best pinball wizards in the world are well fortified.
For MacCulloch this is an entire life away from the NBA. But he looks as happy as he did in Game 2 of the 2001 Finals running up and down the floor against Shaq and the Lakers.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com