SOUTH BEND — Brian Cardinal became known during a black-and-blue-collar NBA career as “The Custodian” thanks to his willingness to take on the dirty work.
When he retired in 2012 after 12 years in the league — a career length he’s quick to admit he never could’ve imagined — he probably at least thought the dirty work was over.
Uh, clean-up on aisle four, Brian, clean-up on aisle four.
In his new position as assistant director with the John Purdue Club, which serves as the fundraising wing of the Purdue University athletic department, it seems Cardinal was called upon in January to disarm some of the backlash from upset Boiler financial backers following the team’s 37-point men’s basketball loss to Indiana, a defeat that marked Purdue’s worst-ever at home to its in-state rival.
“Yeah, people called and wanted to vent,” Cardinal said, confirming the story, “and I was more than happy to listen to them, because a lot of times I probably agreed with them. It wasn’t fun to watch.”
It also wasn’t something Cardinal was accustomed to being a part of during his own playing days with the Boilermakers.
Purdue made NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearances in 1998 and 1999, his sophomore and junior seasons, then made the program’s last Elite Eight trip his senior season, with the ever-rugged Cardinal, a fourth-year starter, being tabbed second-team All-Big Ten.
Conversely, this past season’s 16-18 record was Purdue’s first losing mark since 2005-06.
Cardinal, though, is encouraged, as coach Matt Painter heads into his ninth season.
“It’s never easy to get beat, let alone by IU,” Cardinal said Thursday, April 25, shortly before a South Bend speaking appearance in front of the Purdue Club of St. Joseph Valley, “but I think Coach Painter does a great job. He’ll do great for Purdue as a whole leading the basketball program. We struggled this year, (but) I think we’ll be better next year. We got some better guys coming in.”
Indeed, part of Cardinal’s job now — along with fundraising, mentoring current Boiler athletes and participating in West Lafayette community projects, as he describes his duties — is spinning positives, which does sort of fly in the face of that custodial playing style that often inspired negativity from the opposition.
“That was the only way I was able to survive,” said Cardinal, who boasted size at 6-foot-8, 230 pounds, but not much quickness or smoothness. “I think we all try to find our niche, and for me it was that loosey-goosey kind of style, diving all over the place. Trying to find (their) way in the NBA, so many players worry about the things they can’t do, but I tried to focus on the things I could do.”
Cardinal’s proud that he lasted those dozen seasons, an end product that emerged piece by piece, rather than by formal script, while journey-manning his way through six clubs primarily as a backup.
“A lot of those years were just fingers-crossed, hoping it works out,” Cardinal said, “but I think you need to have that mentality, that mindset that you’re happy to be there, thankful to be there. At least for me, that’s what continued to motivate, continued to keep me working as hard as I could, because you never knew when it was going to be over. I think the average (NBA) career is three to four years, and to be able to play 12 was pretty special.”
Cardinal says he was able to leave at least in part on his own terms, and as a bonus, just one year removed from winning an NBA title in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks.
“Everybody who loves what they do, whether it’s sports or the business profession, to stop cold turkey, it’s difficult,” Cardinal said. “A lot of people aren’t able to transition out of a job. (Counting high school and a red-shirt first year at Purdue) I played for 21 years, and then all of a sudden to have to stop and figure out what the next phase is, it’s hard.”
Sometimes initially impossible.
“I think that’s why you see a lot of pro athletes coming out of retirement to try to continue to play,” Cardinal said. “I’d love to play for another 20 years, but the reality is, I can’t. I was going to be faced with this decision at some time. It’s just the right time for my family, me, my children. To be able to walk away and still feel relatively healthy is nice.”
Cardinal, who turns 36 next week, and wife Danielle (Bird), a former Boilermaker women’s walk-on he met during their Boiler playing days, have three children ages 2 to 6 and are residing in Westfield.