The Custodian Cleans UpBy Kevin Pelton
Jan. 27, 2004
The Golden State Warriors trail by double-digits in the fourth quarter of their game against the host Seattle SuperSonics, but you wouldn't be able to tell it from how Warriors forward Brian Cardinal is getting after it -- going to the ground to take a charge, cleaning the glass, drawing fouls and getting to the line. Cardinal finishes with 5 points, 3 rebounds, and all of his career-high 5 steals in the period, but the Warriors still lose 103-87.
Cardinal is not "padding his stats", he's just playing the only way he knows how -- all out, all the time. He is also doing everything he can to take advantage of whatever opportunity he gets. After all, when you play just 184 minutes in 28 games during your first three NBA seasons, every minute counts.
Based on that less-than-stellar track record, Cardinal was essentially ignored by the NBA this summer. When I ask him before the game in the Warriors locker room about the interest, he jokes, "I mean, my friends were interested in me.
"There wasn't a lot. There was a little bit. I decided to come to Golden State a couple of days before camp even started."
Golden State coach Eric Musselman admits his team didn't see something the others missed in Cardinal.
"I think when we brought him in to training camp, we were expecting to see a guy who could possibly come in and fight for the last roster spot," Musselman says. "That's basically all we expected from him."
They have gotten oh so much more. After Cardinal played his way onto the roster with a solid preseason campaign, injuries to forward Troy Murphy and center Erick Dampier forced Musselman to put Cardinal in his rotation. The results have surprised almost everyone. Cardinal made the most of this opportunity, reeling off six straight double-digit efforts off the bench during the early part of November.
I recall the first time I saw Cardinal play on television, a game against the Pistons in the middle of this stretch broadcast on ESPN. Cardinal had 13 points and five boards -- pretty impressive for a guy I didn't even include in my free agency series this summer. It was an eye-opening experience, not unlike seeing Earl Boykins for the first time last year with the Warriors, when he too came virtually out of nowhere. (It paid off for me on a personal level. I immediately picked up Cardinal for my fantasy-league team and have reaped the rewards.)
Even with Murphy briefly back and Foyle now working his way into the rotation, Cardinal has forced his way into regular playing time. He has been of the league's best shooters, canning 47.0% from the field, 40.4% of his threes, and 88.7% from the line, good for sixth in the NBA.
Cardinal has done everything Musselman has asked of him, including playing center despite going just 6-8, a generous 245 (before losing nearly ten pounds because of a recent bout with the flu). Against the Sonics, Cardinal briefly matches up with 7-1, 272 behemoth Jerome James.
"Depending on the matchups and that stuff, I do alright," Cardinal says. "When I'm going up against big monsters, sometimes it's difficult. It's just a matter of trying to keep yourself between the man and the basket and trying to contest his shot. I'm not an unbelievable shot blocker, especially against most fives in this league, but I think I can do a good job of contesting his shot and trying to pester him on defense."
With all due respect, I want to be conservative in declaring Cardinal for real. After all, Heat forward Udonis Haslem started to cool about the time I profiled him in November, and nobody's saying the Sonics are better off with Flip Murray than Ray Allen anymore. But even if Cardinal's jumper isn't falling like it is right now, he always has his hustle to fall back on.
Cardinal recalls when he first figured out he was going to have to outwork everyone else on the court if he wanted to be successful. It was the summer between his senior year of high school and his freshman year at Purdue, when he went from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a very big one.
"I realized early on, just playing open-gym ball that I was the best player in my high school, high school of 400 kids, then I go to Purdue and 35,000 kids and the best players in the country are on the team," Cardinal says. "Trying to compete with those guys, I realized early on that if I was going to be successful, I had to do something that other people didn't necessarily do, and that was get after it, take charges, dive for balls, do things that some people don't enjoy doing, aren't the glory things."
Fans and experts alike are very concerned with making sure these things are captured in the statistics. I tend to believe that, for the most part, they are. Taking good shots is reflected in a player's shooting percentage, while diving for balls produces steals. (Thanks in large part to his efficient scoring, Cardinal is rated as a fine player this season by my methods, and after his career performance against the Sonics, Cardinal's steals rate is amongst the power forward leaders.)
There is another way, however, to look for these things that quote, "aren't in the boxscore" -- plus-minus ratings. And, per 82games.com, Cardinal's plus-minus numbers are just ridiculous. With him on the court, the Warriors outscore their opposition by 7.5 points per 48 minutes. When he's sitting on the bench, they've been outscored by 6.5 points per 48 minutes. The difference between those two figures is what the site calls its "Roland Rating", and Cardinal would rank in the NBA's top ten if he had enough minutes to qualify.
That doesn't say that Cardinal is one of the NBA's ten best players, obviously. What it does say is he knows his role, and he's done it to perfection this season.
The other benefit to Cardinal's style has been popularity with fans throughout his career. At Purdue, he was nicknamed "Citizen Pain" for his willingness to get on the ground. In the NBA, he drew the nickname "The Custodian" from Detroit teammate Jerome Williams. The nickname, like Cardinal himself, is a throwback to an age where nicknames stood for something more than player's first initial and the first syllable of their last name (B-Card hasn't caught on). The Golden State crowd might not chant "Custodian", Reggie Jackson-style, but it certainly applauds Cardinal's efforts.
"I think a lot of the fans can relate, just from the standpoint of the blue-collar, hard-work type style I bring to the game of basketball and to the Warriors is something that I think people enjoy watching," Cardinal says. "I'm not the most gifted athlete out there, but I'm definitely somebody who's going to go out there and give you 110% and play every minute when I'm out there and get after it. I just think people enjoy watching that."
Can they relate? Of course they can. Take away the height and the uncanny shooting ability, and Cardinal could pass for a businessman giving it his all during his weekly pickup game at the YMCA.
Cardinal's popularity is global thanks to TheCustodian.net, a fan site devoted to Cardinal and complete with links to Cardinal articles, game-by-game evaluations of his and the team's performance, and links to purchase "Custodian" t-shirts. While he shushes me when I mention the site to a curious Clifford Robinson, not wanting to give his teammates more locker-room fodder, Cardinal is clearly appreciative.
"I've checked it out several times," says Cardinal, who has spoken to the proprietor of the site.
"Absolutely (I support it). It's been pretty good. Games I play well, he says good things, games I don't play so well, he tells the truth and says I didn't play as well as I can or as well as I have. I think that's nice, I think it's kind of a biased/unbiased opinion. I think it's pretty slick."
Maybe the pertinent question is not whether Cardinal can keep up his play, but how many other guys there are out there who could do something similar -- if only they got a chance. To Cardinal, opportunity defines the NBA, something that kept him going during his time on the Detroit and Washington benches.
"I think the league's made up of opportunities," notes Cardinal. "I think there are a lot of people on a variety of teams who have been successful and done well from taking advantage of an opportunity. I think that's the one thing that I looked upon when I was trying to make a dent into the rotation -- or on the team and then into the rotation -- just trying to make the most of my opportunity."
After this season, those same players could be looking up to him. What coach wouldn't want a player like Cardinal on his roster, especially when he's one of the NBA's leading bench scorers? That includes the one lucky enough to have him at the moment.
"I think he's proven himself around the NBA," says Musselman. "He's a guy who teams will covet in the off-season, due to the fact that he does all the dirty work and, I think, people are starting to see that he has an offensive game as well."
Yes, after this season, the Custodian certainly will be cleaning up.
Kevin Pelton is an intern for the Seattle SuperSonics and is responsible for original content on Supersonics.com. He writes "Page 23" for Hoopsworld.com on a semi-regular basis. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.