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THROWBACKS: THE GRINDER
L. JON WERTHEIM
October 25, 2004
A basketball vagabond who considered a career change a year ago, Brian Cardinal now finds himself a wanted man
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October 25, 2004

Throwbacks: The Grinder

A basketball vagabond who considered a career change a year ago, Brian Cardinal now finds himself a wanted man

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Had you been driving through Naperville, Ill., on a Saturday evening in July and passed a red-brick church, you might have noticed a formally attired man, 6'8" with a diminishing ration of hair, jumping up and down in the parking lot. Minutes earlier Brian Cardinal had been about to enter the church for a friend's wedding when his cellphone rang. His agent, Mark Bartelstein, said, "Don't move, Brian. I think we might have a deal. Just sit tight." As the happy couple inside exchanged vows and Danielle Cardinal sat alone in a pew, her husband learned his fate.

Weeks earlier he had completed one of the more improbably successful seasons in recent memory for the Golden State Warriors. And on this night, in a parking lot, Cardinal was offered a six-year free-agent contract to play for the Memphis Grizzlies. Before Cardinal could accuse Bartelstein of joking, Grizzlies president Jerry West--Jerry Friggin' West--got on the line, thus consecrating the deal. With no one to hug, Cardinal did a one-man victory dance and then called his parents and his grandmother. After the wedding he explained his truancy to his wife. She was forgiving. As alibis go, he had a good one.

The money--up to $39 million--was sweet, particularly for a guy who'd made the league's third-year minimum of $663,679 the previous season. And the stability was welcome to a man who's been a basketball vagabond since graduating from Purdue in 2000. A 44th pick by Detroit in 2000, he played 23 minutes in two seasons there, five minutes for the Wizards in 2002-03, and was a reserve for a team in Spain before his breakout season last year. But the deal's underlying message was what almost reduced Cardinal to tears: You are wanted. "Having someone say, 'We think you can help us win,' meant so much," he says. "I still haven't come down from that high."

As Cardinal took a visitor on a barbecue tour of Memphis just before camp began, he could only marvel that one year ago he'd been contemplating a career change. He had waited in vain for an NBA team to extend a training camp invitation. Finally the Warriors called, but management explained that he would be No. 18 on an 18-man training-camp depth chart.

Still, opportunity knocked. And Cardinal didn't answer so much as he disengaged the door from the hinges. "From the first drill, the way he played had a huge impact on the whole camp," recalls Eric Musselman, Golden State's coach last season. "His energy level was notches higher than everyone else's."

Cardinal made the roster and the wheels were in motion. When incumbent forward Troy Murphy tore a plantar fascia tendon three weeks into the season, Cardinal played for significant stretches. Performing well, he joined the regular rotation when Murphy returned; then Musselman moved him into the starting lineup. The last man on the training camp roster was suddenly a principal offensive option, a player demanding the ball in the low post against Tim Duncan. Cardinal finished the season averaging 9.6 points and 4.2 rebounds, which sounds modest until you consider that he was supposed to be cut a week into the preseason.

Cardinal kept a poker face at the arena last season, but he was more awed than anyone by the chain of events. After he dropped 32 points on the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 11, he left the arena with his wife. When they were beyond the parking lot, he told her to stop the car. He whipped out the stat sheet and started screaming, "I just scored 32 points, Danielle! What the heck is going on here? Me! Brian! Thirty-two points. In the NBA!"

It wasn't merely false modesty. For all the bravado coursing through the league, Cardinal suffers delusions of inadequacy. As a freshman at Purdue he demanded to be redshirted, not because of any physical injury but because, as he tells it, "I was scared s---less that I wasn't good enough." After taking a year to adjust, he went on to start more games than any player in the school's history, but insecurities returned when Detroit drafted him. For two seasons he languished on the bench and often wondered, Maybe I'm just not good enough for the NBA.

He has always nourished his confidence by practicing. He would rise at dawn to go running, knowing he might not play that night. He arrived early to shootarounds and practices, stayed late and took few days off during the summer. " Brian is the hardest worker I've ever seen. I don't mean basketball-worker, I mean worker-worker," says Gary Wilsey, who coached Cardinal in high school and remains a close friend. "I tell him, 'How can you be surprised by everything when you've worked so dang hard for it?'"

Like his Opie Taylorish appearance, Cardinal's game is decidedly out of vogue. He plays as though his very salvation rests on the outcome of each possession. And he relishes all the exercises--rebounding, taking charges, risking organ damage in pursuit of loose balls--that are pass´┐Ż in today's NBA. But he's not merely a hustler, an "energy player," to use the NBA vernacular. Playing both forward positions, Cardinal finished last season third in the league in three-point percentage (.444) and sixth in free throw shooting (.878) while exhibiting some surprisingly deft moves around the basket. "He just doesn't make mistakes on the court," says West. "He does the things that can't be measured." That is not exactly true. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban uses a qualitative analysis called WinVal to rank players based on how the team fares when they're on the court--not unlike hockey's plus-minus ratings. Cardinal finished last season ranked 11th in the league.

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