The Pinball Blog. The Machines. The People. The Events. The Addiction! Pinball Heroes: Industry Interviews.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Pinball Heroes: Todd MacCulloch

OK, so Todd MacCulloch might be better known for playing basketball than pinball, but he's hoping that's all going to change. With NBA being Stern's next pinball machine and with Todd coming to the UK in the summer to play in the European and World Pinball Championships it seemed a perfect time to catch up with him for an interview.

The Pinball Blog: So you're Todd MacCulloch, do you want to be remembered as a basketball player or pinball player?

Todd MacCulloch: I would like to be remembered as a pinball player but only on NBA Fastbreak. Just Kidding. I think I would like to be remembered for pinball but that seems like a bit of a longshot at this point. There is really nothing memorable about my pinball skills at this point. I think my pinball opponents would remember swiftly defeating "the biggest guy at the show". Unfortunately intimidating size does little on the pinball battlefield. I think I am best remembered from my basketball career in that I went to back to back NBA finals in 2001-2002. If only I could get to one pinball final, that would be something I would remember.

TPB: You earned a few dollars playing basketball, do you get the "he's got money" treatment when buying pinball machines or do you look for a deal?

TM: I did earn a few dollars playing basketball. It is a little strange to have your salary posted in USA today at least once a year (while you are playing) for everyone to see. I think when I first started collecting games, I probably overpaid until I learned the range of what each title would cost an average Joe. Sometimes my friends would do the negotiating for me so there wouldn't be any funny business or phantom price increases. It would seem a little shortsighted for someone to try to take advantage because I wouldn't feel the need to be a repeat customer. The people that treated me equally and fairly saw me come back to them the next time I needed a new game.

TPB: When you're playing in a pinball tournament is there a certain machine you hope you don't have to play (and one you do)?

TM: I would rather not see Creature from the Black Lagoon. This game tends to end up being dreadful for me when it matters. I hosted a fun pinball competition last year at my home with 16 players. We needed to all play the same game to establish a starting point. We all played Creature. I posted the lowest score of all 16 players...ON MY OWN MACHINE! This put me in the lowest group of 4. I finished first in the next game on a different title and moved up to a higher group. The person with choice of the next game once again chose my killer CREATURE. Of course I finished last in our group and was once again banished to the lowest group of 4, where I stayed for the rest of the evening. The CREATURE had bitten me twice and I couldn't recover. I had a friend over who is a very casual player. He asked me which game in my gameroom he had the best chance of beating me. I told him honestly that that would be CREATURE. Once he defeated me in the first game, he quit playing, walked upstairs without giving me the opportunity to get even and told me he was done. He likes to remind me of that sneaky victory he had. Needless to say, I have since sold the CREATURE machine in favor of games that let me win every once in a while.

On the flip side, I have seemed to have some success at EARTHSHAKER. Im not sure why, I have been able to keep the game going for a bit. I also sold this machine, go figure.

TPB: When you were playing basketball you had arcades in 2 homes with pinball machines and other stuff from different eras of coin-op. When you sold your home in Philly did the arcade go with it?

TM: When we sold our house in Philly, my gameroom games were not part of the deal. I had cleared the game spaces out before we started showing the home. We were worried that someone interested in the home might get scared off by all the pinball machines. They might wonder what kind of normal good homeowner would have so many pinball machines. When we cleared out the basement of the pins (fairly jammed in there) several people commented, "I didn't know you had a sink down here!" as it has been well covered with pins. I rented a 53 foot truck and filled it with games and shipped them cross country to their new happy home.

TPB: If you could only own one pinball machine what would it be?

TM: That is a very difficult question. That's like saying if I only had one breath to take, how long could I live? I would have to ask myself if it would be worth living if I could only own one. Just Kidding. I think Whitewater would be my choice. I think the amazing Dennis Nordman nailed it with this game. It has so many cool elements and I personally love the theme. It is a very challenging game with great sounds. Whitewater,... instead of "don't leave home without it", " don't leave home without playing it!"

TPB: You're coming to the UK this summer to play in the European Pinball Championship AND the World Pinball Championships, any chance you'll be winning them?

TM: Yeah, if nobody else shows up. Or if we decided to compete at SUMO wrestling instead of pinball. Or if everybody lets me win. The pinball community is very generous but I just don't see this happening. I didn't advance past the opening round of EPC in Sweden so my goal will be to make it past the preliminary round.

Of course being featured on The Pinball Blog must be one of your all time highlights but is there a moment in pinball that gets close to a basketball high?

TM: Being featured on The Pinball Blog is definitely a highlight for me. As far as pinball, I really haven't had that many highlights. I suppose winning my first pinball trophy (2nd place) on Fireball at 2009 Texas Pinball Festival was my biggest pinball highlight so far. The most elation I have ever had from any kind of sporting event was winning the Provincial championship in Manitoba Canada in Grade 11. We were playing the defending champions and we won 61-59. I chipped in 50 for our squad. It was an out of body experience and I felt like I was on a cloud. I have never been able to quite recapture that feeling in any sporting venture, including the Olympics and 2 NBA finals. Maybe a big finish at a future pinball tourney will bring back that same feeling of weightlessness. At my current weight, that would be impressive.

TPB: My wife and family think I'm a nut with all this pinball stuff, is yours more understanding?

TM: My family has been very supportive. My baby girl is only 14 mos. old so she hasn't voted one way or the other but she can already reach and push the flipper button. She likes to add 3 players to my single player game by pressing the shiny blinking irresistable start button over and over. She loves to shift the gear shifter on Getaway. So far so good. My wife doesn't play on her own but usually agrees to play a few games with me on my birthday. I used to try to get her to play with me more but then I started to see things from her point of view. She likes to quilt, but if she said, "Todd will you come quilt with me?", I'd have to say no. I don't take it personally any more if she turns me down for some silverball.

TPB: Who that you met through basketball was the most influential to you and the same question for pinball?

TM: The most influential person I have met through basketball was an assistant coach of mine in college. His name is Ray Giacoletti. He helped me realized how good I could be and helped me believe it. He pushed when he had to, complimented when I needed it and gave me a kick in the pants when necessary. He helped prepare me for the next level of competition.

The most influential person I have met through pinball is Bowen Kerins. There are a lot of similarities between he and Coach Giacoletti. Bowen has always believed I could be a good pinball player and has helped me improve my game drastically. The nice thing about pinball is that it is recreational so the kick in the pants is neither necessary or appreciated. It's hard not to listen to and respect someone who has been the best in the world at something. Can you imagine a kid at basketball camp telling Michael Jordan, "you don't know what you are talking about" or "you only won six NBA championships, what could i possibly learn from you."

TPB: You've played in front of thousands of fans and on TV in front of millions. At a pinball tournament there's probably a handful of people watching but is the pressure similar?

TM: The pressure of competition is very similar at a pinball tournament; Even if there are only a handful of people watching, at some point, the number of spectators becomes irrelevant. You have a job to do and there is something on the line, be it a city's pride, a lot of money or a plastic pinball trophy. Your mind makes the situation difficult. The best players, whether in basketball or in pinball, are able to block out the natural response to an important moment and play as if it is routine. Like you were shooting hoops in your backyard or playing pinball in your basement. This is easier said then done and experience makes it easier to do this.

I felt some pinball pressure this past weekend. I had qualified for head to head competition in an electro mechanical tournament. Very little, if any money was on the line, yet I found myself feeling nervous even though my match wasn't for another 15 minutes. I performed poorly, which was not aided by the fact that I let the pressure get the best of me. Logically, there was no reason to get even the least bit worked up. A nice thing about basketball is that it is a team game and the calmness of your teammates and team leaders can have a positive effect of refocusing you during a big basketball game or possession. In pinball, (unless you are playing doubles) it is up to you to overcome the tendency to tighten up and place unneeded pressure on yourself.

TPB: I think the people enjoying pinball today are generally more 'cool' than they were say 5 or 10 years ago, do you think pinball has historically given out the wrong image?

TM: I would agree, although since I was a pinball player both 5 and 10 years ago, I must have been one of the uncool guys playing and I was probably helping bring down the cool factor. That's one of the great things about pinball, is that you can't really generalize the type of person who is drawn to the game. it appeals to kids, grandparents, athletes, couch potatoes and everybody in between. The only real commonality I see running throughout the pinball population is that the vast majority of players are great people who are more than happy to open their game rooms for the enjoyment of a fellow pinballer.

I am not sure what image pinball itself has given out over time. I think it definitely has been misunderstood at times. I think at a time it had a negative image when it was unjustly thought of as a gambling machine. Even today, people are always surprised to find out that pinball can have strategy and that there is more to the game than luck and just trying to keep the ball above the flippers. I really think if more people knew how great the game is and everything that they encompass, that the market would be much stronger.

TPB: A little birdie told me you have a nice car collection, are some of these eye-candy as I guess you're a big guy to be driving some of them everyday?

TM: I have three cars from the sixties. A 1964 1/2 Mustang Coupe, a 1968 Mustang Fastback and a 1969 Chevy Camaro convertible. I thought I was going to collect more cars but I started collecting pinball machines instead. More people get more use out of them and you can fit more of them in the space you could put one car. All of a sudden, the plans for a classic car garage started to change to become gameroom plans. I have no regrets about this.

The old cars are more than eye candy. I really enjoy driving them on nice sunny days, especially the convertible. I have had them all modified by having the driver's seats unbolted and slid back as far as possible and rebolted firmly in place. I was once pulled over while in the 68 mustang. He pulled up next to me and said, "you look a little cramped in there!" I started wondering if he was going to give me a citation for operating a vehicle that I was too big for, possibly making it unsafe. I was relieved to find out he was a car fan and once traffic cleared, he instructed me to, "open her up and show me what she has got!" I wasn't sure if he would just pull me over again after but I followed directions and squealed my tires and peeled out.

TPB: You're currently the 4th best pinball player from Canada, I didn't even know there were 4 pinball people in Canada! Do you compete because you enjoy it or are you out to win every time?

TM: There aren't that many of us so I guess is isn't that great of an accomplishment. I will be proud to be representing Canada with one of the two Canadian exemption spots at the IFPA tournament in England this summer. I hope to do my country proud.

I compete because I enjoy it. I would love to win every time but that's not why I play or compete. I've had plenty of meaningful sporting competition over the years so I don't mind some competitions for the fun of it. I like to be challenged and with all the great pinball players out there, it is always a challenge to try and stay with them as long as I can.

TPB: You have a large collection of pinball machines, how do you maintain them all? Are you happy to pull the glass off, dive in and get your hands dirty?

TM: I don't mind getting my hands dirty, when it comes to donuts with icing or eating chocolate cake with my hands. As far as pinball repairs are concerned, I leave that to the pros. I have two friends at Classic Amusement in the Seattle area who do a great job keeping my pins in order and working on my EM arcade collection. I used to tinker a little bit but I started melting innocent bystander wires with my soldering iron. I tended to make things worse rather than better so I decided to call in the experts. I enjoy picking their brain about what the problem areas were but it is more for my curiosity than for future application on my part. Some guys like to fix 'em, I like to play them. I'll take the glass off for stuck balls etc. but nothing too major.

TPB: Finally I always ask our Pinball Heroes to sum up pinball in one word or sentence....

TM: "Perfect", as in the game of pinball is a perfect game. Everything you need to keep you coming back for more!

Many Thanks to Todd for answering the questions, no one gets paid for being interviewed, although I did offer to buy Todd's dinner at the UK Pinball Show banquet - he accepted - d'oh! He's one of a number of great guys I'm looking forward to meet in the summer and he certainly comes across as a very cool guy!

It's the Pinballers Anonymous Monster Meet here in the UK next weekend so no promises I'll have a Pinball Heroes interview done, but I'll try!


The Pinball Blog

Photos & Pictures:
Todd MacCulloch
Pinball News
Allen Saby ("Hobbs" on RGP)
Jimmy Rosen @ Sledworks
IFPA Pinball
Gary Flower
Internet Pinball Database


Pinball Tim said...

Great interview and pinball pics.

John certainly sounds like he earned feeling like a king for a day because he's paid his dues- not that that's always a hard thing if one enjoys the game!

RT AUTO said...

Hey Todd how are you? This is Frank from Toronto Canada I was the one that sold you the 68 Mustang hope you are doing well. I assume you still have the car as seen in the pic.Best of luck with your pinball tournaments,if you're ever in the area drop by.

PS If you decide to sell the car later on down the road let me know.