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PAXTON — When Brian Cardinal comes to Lakeview Country Club to speak to the Paxton Area Chamber of Commerce on March 4, he will be showcasing a skill often overlooked due to his basketball-playing abilities — the ability to speak.
In his college basketball career at Purdue University and his 12-year NBA career, Cardinal earned the nicknames “Citizen Pain” and “The Custodian” due to his hard-nosed style of play. But according to his family, he can also add the nickname “Mr. Personality.”
That personality has been on display on a few occasions during visits to the Paxton-Buckley-Loda Eastlawn School classroom of his sister, Lisa Niewold. Following his speech to the chamber, Niewold said, Cardinal hopes to return to the school one more time to speak to the kids in her fourth-grade class.
“He’s got a really good personality,” said Niewold, a Loda resident who has taught at Eastlawn since 2006. “He’s really fun. He’s pretty bashful, but you’d never know it once he gets talking.”
According to Cardinal’s mother, Mary, he has a good message to send to the kids — and to communities.
“Brian’s just a really good role model for some of the younger students like people that Lisa teaches,” Mary Cardinal said. “They all look up to someone who has been in the NBA that has good values, good family structure and stuff. ... It’s a big draw to have Brian come because he’s just got some fun stories.”
Thanks to his abilities as a public speaker, Cardinal found a job after his retirement from professional basketball in 2012 with the John Purdue Club at his alma mater. Through his new job, he helps raise funds for Purdue’s athletic programs, mentors student-athletes and tries to make a difference with the communities of Lafayette and West Lafayette in Indiana.
“He’s working as a fundraiser, trying to build up the awareness that the alumni need to pitch in to help Purdue,” said Mary Cardinal, who has lived with her husband, Rod, a former University of Illinois athletic trainer, at Bayles Lake since moving from Tolono 10 years ago.
“Just like at Illinois, you count on the alumni to help support your scholarships and fundraising and stuff, so that’s what Brian’s involved in now.”
Fame in the family
Although Brian Cardinal’s fame has died down a bit since his days with Purdue — as well as at Tolono Unity High School, where Cardinal first made a name for himself — Niewold said she still gets some interested reactions when people find out she is the sister of “The Custodian.”
“When Brian was fresh out of college or even high school or early on in his NBA career, there would be a lot of people who would be like, ‘Oh, wow,’” Niewold said. “It’s kind of faded out a little bit, but they’re still excited once they find out, especially the kids. They think it’s pretty cool.”
Even Rod Cardinal, who was the head athletic trainer for about 30 years at the University of Illinois, is known as much for being Brian Cardinal’s father as he is for his role at the UI, if not more so.
“A lot of people ask about his NBA career. A lot of them ask about his time at Purdue – things of that nature. Most of it is basketball-related,” Rod Cardinal said. “Having worked there for more than 30 years and being involved with primarily basketball and football, there are a lot of people that ultimately recognize me and associate me with Brian and with basketball and that type of thing.”
Between Brian and Rod, there is a laundry list of famous athletes with whom — according to Niewold — the Cardinals are associated.
“Once you’ve been associated with that, they want to know if you’ve ever met some of the previous players like Kendall Gill,” Niewold said. “They think it’s cool just that you know that person. It’s kind of neat to be associated like that.”
“I know a lot of great players and a lot of great coaches,” Rod Cardinal added.
Rivalry in the family
While he may know a few famous NBA and college players, one thing Brian does not know is what it feels like to lose to the Illini.
“He reminds me from time to time that’s he never lost to Illinois,” Rod Cardinal said. “He’s got a perfect record against us. From time to time, that comes up. There’s a little bit of trash talking, particularly when (Purdue and Illinois) play each other in basketball.
“They beat Illinois earlier in the year over at Purdue, so we had a chance to get back at them (last) Wednesday. Above and beyond the Purdue-Illinois rivalry, just having an opportunity to follow him throughout the Big Ten playing against schools that Illinois plays and watch him beating a lot of people that we know at different institutions has always been enjoyable.”
Cardinal’s parents said Brian has a little more free time since retiring from hoops.
“He’s been tied up all these years. He hasn’t had any free time,” Mary Cardinal said. “This year being the first year that he’s had more time on his hands, he has come back (home) a few times. He was at the U of I game last (week) because they played Purdue. He came over early and saw a bunch of friends that he’s kept up with in Tolono. He talked to his old basketball coach last night.”
When Brian Cardinal comes over to his parents’ home, Mary will — according to Niewold — have the Chex Mix and banana bread ready.
“There are always special requests,” Niewold said. “Every time Brian comes back, she makes Chex Mix and banana bread, and he always goes to a Monical’s (Pizza) when he’s in town. Those are big supporters. If he can go to the original (Monical’s) in Tolono, he would, but otherwise, he definitely hits it up in Paxton every time he comes back.”
The Chex Mix and banana bread are just an example of how Mary Cardinal has worked behind the scenes to glue the famous family together.
“I’m the glue that keeps everybody together and keeps everybody ticking,” Mary Cardinal said. “I work behind the scenes — I’m a behind-the-scenes person.”
The job was the most difficult, Niewold said, when Rod was still at the University of Illinois and he and Mary had to take care of Niewold and Brian as well as their son Troy, who lives in Minnesota.
“She had all three of us kids and had to take care of us for different things,” Niewold said. “There were times that he was still a trainer when my brother was playing at Purdue, so there were times where my mom and I would drive to Purdue together sometimes. Like she said, she just kind of pieces it all together. That’s really nice for her to do.”
Family involvement — 2011 NBA Finals
As Brian Cardinal comes to Bayles Lake to speak to the chamber, Mary Cardinal said there is one piece of jewelry he should remember to bring with him.
“We ought to remind him to be sure he brings his ring with him that night,” Mary Cardinal said. “He’s got a ginormous championship ring.”
Rod and Mary Cardinal, along with Lisa Niewold, did not see Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals — the one where Cardinal’s Dallas Mavericks clinched the championship — in person.
Instead, they watched the game on television. However, they made the trip from Bayles Lake to Dallas for each of the playoff games that year.
“It was exciting,” Rod Cardinal said. “It was powerful. It was very enjoyable to watch him go through that and see him and see his teammates and everybody go through that whole process.”
Mary Cardinal said she was glad her son had a chance to play in the NBA, rather than serving as a benchwarmer.
“The nice thing is he actually had a significant role in several of those games,” Mary Cardinal said. “It wasn’t that he didn’t even participate. He actually participated and played quite well, so that was a feather in his cap to have done that.”
Niewold said she would like to think she had a role in helping Brian Cardinal and the Mavericks win the title, as well.
“As you watch the game, you just kind of picture yourself helping him,” Niewold said. “If you move in your seat, you know he’s going to go that way. You just try to move in your seat as you watch. If he’s shooting a free throw, you’re just kind of squaring up. You’re helping him out as much as you can mentally.
“When he makes a foul or draws a charge, you just get tense for him and say, ‘Be still.’ You just really go through it with him emotionally. It’s pretty fun.”