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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — In recent weeks, fans of the NBA have debated whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the better basketball player of all time.
If anybody has a valid, non-biased opinion on that debate, it is 12-year NBA veteran — and former standout at Tolono Unity and Purdue — Brian Cardinal. He was
Jordan’s teammate during his 2002-03 season with the Washington Wizards and guarded LeBron during the 2011 NBA Finals as a member of the Dallas Mavericks.
Cardinal will speak at 6 p.m. Monday, March 4, to the Paxton Chamber of Commerce at Lakeview Country Club in Loda. However, anyone wanting to ask his opinion on the Jordan-LeBron debate can know his opinion right now — Jordan is better.
“Jordan was unbelievable, a tremendous athlete – just with the way he would take over a game on both ends of the floor,” Cardinal said. “When you put it all together, Jordan has a better resume than LeBron. But LeBron may someday have a more impressive resume by the time he’s done playing. Who knows?”
Thanks in part to his defense against LeBron in the 2011 NBA Finals, Cardinal and the Mavericks won the championship in six games, earning Cardinal a championship ring that he said he plans to bring with him to his speech to the Chamber.
“I’ll definitely bring it,” Cardinal said. “Even though it has my name, I view it as a big symbol of all the people who helped me grow through the years. From the way I look at it, everybody won. Everybody that has supported me and made me a basketball player and a better person won it. Purdue helped me win it. Unity helped me win it. I’m a firm believer that they played a big part in getting me to where I was and where I am now.”
Ring in hand, Cardinal said he is excited about speaking to the Chamber.
“I am excited to see everybody,” Cardinal said. “I hope there is a nice turnout. I look forward to sharing my experiences and answering some questions.”
Among the people Cardinal said he is looking forward to seeing is Andy Hudson, who owns Hudson Drug and Hallmark Shop in Paxton. Like Cardinal, Hudson went to Purdue — plus, Cardinal would know a thing or two about pharmacy having interned at the pharmaceutical company Scherring-Plough in the summer of 1998.
“We’re both Boilermakers,” Cardinal said. “He’s a good guy. I know my family raves about the Hudsons and the pharmacy they have in town. I’m looking forward to seeing him and getting over there.”
Of course, Cardinal said he knows many of the patrons at his speech to the Chamber will be fans of the University of Illinois.
“It’ll be good. I grew up a big Illinois fan, so we’ll have a lot in common,” Cardinal said. “I was always excited to play against Illinois. I always looked forward to getting back to Assembly Hall and being able to get some wins.”
During his career at Purdue, where he averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, Cardinal was undefeated against the Fighting Illini, a fact that he loves to share with his father, Rod Cardinal — who used to be the UI’s athletic trainer.
“He did a lot of the talking early on, but he didn’t talk a lot towards the end when I was always beating them,” Cardinal said. “We used to talk back and forth, poking at each other. It was friendly.”
After playing college ball at Purdue, Cardinal was picked in the second round of the 2000 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons.
It was during his rookie year that teammate Jerome Williams gave Cardinal a nickname for his scrappy play and ability to do all the little things — “The Custodian.”
“He said I needed a nickname,” Cardinal said. “I said, ‘I just need people to remember my first name,’ but he came up with ‘The Custodian,’ and it stuck.”
If there is any Illini player who had a similar style of play as Cardinal, it was Lucas Johnson. Entering college play a year after Cardinal, Johnson averaged five points and 3.1 rebounds per game.
Like Cardinal, Johnson was more known for his all-around hustle and enthusiasm, for which he was the first-ever winner of the Motto Award in 2002.
“Lucas is a nice guy,” Cardinal said. “I just think that’s how we both realized how we could play. He and I realized that in order to win, that was the style that we were going to have to play.”
Cardinal retired in 2012 and now works for the John Purdue Club, which 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.
Anyone hoping for a return to the NBA for the 35-year-old “Custodian” will be disappointed.
“I’m finished. It would be nice to keep playing, but I’m old,” Cardinal said. “I keep getting older, and those other guys kept getting younger.”
Anyone expecting Cardinal to make an appearance at the Paxton-Buckley-Loda Eastlawn Elementary School classroom of his sister, Lisa Niewold, will not be disappointed.
“I don’t know if it will be before or after (I speak to the Chamber),” Cardinal said. “I always enjoy seeing her class and speaking to the kids. I’m sure I’ll pop in and say hello.”