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Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2003 12:00 am

There will be one more sad retirement in the National Basketball Association this year.

Philadelphia 76ers center Todd MacCulloch is expected to call it quits this week after learning he has a degenerative bone condition. It has not been front page news, but it’s unfortunate for one of the few players who makes watching basketball enjoyable.

The buzz in the NBA this year has been about the 7’5” Chinese center Yao Ming, who has a combination of fundamentals and size not typical of your average American center.

Yao has footwork, ballhandling, and passing skills that domestic coaches don’t teach anymore. So does Todd MacCulloch, the gangly 7’0” Canadian center who played for the New Jersey Nets last year before being traded to Philadelphia in the offseason.

The 27-year-old MacCulloch learned this week he will have to retire because he has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a rare hereditary disease which causes leg soreness and loss of balance and makes playing basketball nightmarish. It is also a progressive disease, meaning it won’t get better.

MacCulloch played a key role in the Nets’ run to the NBA Finals last year, thanks to his developed skills. He was never the best player on the court, but he was always in control, which cannot be said of most NBA centers.

Herb Turetzky, of Bayside, is the Nets’ official scorer and attends every home game. He called MacCulloch the best-coached player he had ever seen.

“I felt terrible when I heard,” he said. “I saw him last week and he’s lost 50 pounds. It’s causing him problems like tingling and numbness. Hopefully he’ll overcome it and live a good life.”

Turetzky has worked practically every Nets game in their history, going back 36 years. He has never seen a player do so much with so little.

“When he catches the ball, he doesn’t bring it below his head before he passes it or shoots it. That’s rare for a big man. That puts him ahead of every American big man. Guys in the states always bring it down.”

MacCulloch had the best season of his career for the Nets last year, averaging 9.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game in 24 minutes. This year, MacCulloch’s minutes have sharply fallen off, to 19.3 per game. His points (7.1) and rebounds (4.7) are also lower.

MacCulloch started to feel the effects of the disease toward the end of last season, which was a storybook ride for the Nets, as they vaulted past the competition to become Eastern Conference champions.

But the dream ended for MacCulloch this week. Fighting back tears at a press conference, he said it has been “really difficult” for him to play in pain this season, but he tried to remain positive about his experience.

“I feel I’ve had a charmed life, a blessed life. I was just kind of wondering when things weren’t going so well,” he said.

Hopefully, MacCulloch will be able to walk and live normally for the rest of his life. He’s not Shaquille O’Neal or Michael Jordan, but he’s an example of everything good about the game of basketball.

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