In mid-January, just before practice, senior guard LyDell Cardwell was approached by his coaches who told him to look at an email. Unsure of what they were showing him, Cardwell just wanted to return to shooting. He skimmed the email, paid it little mind and attempted to return to the court.
“You get to go to the Final Four,” head coach Justin Leslie told him.
Cardwell had earned a spot as a member of the 2016 Allstate NABC Good Works Team. He was one of 10 men’s college players selected for the honor.
“I didn’t know what it was! I was like ‘Allstate, you’re in good hands?’” Cardwell joked.
Cardwell didn’t even know he was nominated. The award is given to “athletes for their remarkable community service achievements and commitment to bettering the lives of others” according to the award website. The winners were recognized with a halftime ceremony at the NCAA men’s semifinals on April 2.
“These are the things we’re about as a program, regardless of whether awards come,” Leslie said. “It’s nice to have that external validation, in terms [of it being] such a distinguished award. It means a lot.”
Cardwell was recognized for serving as mentor at the Live in Peace program in his hometown of East Palo Alto, Calif. as well as a service trip with APU’s basketball team to Costa Rica and a similar trip with an outside program to Thailand, where he led clinics and visited orphanages.
“[With] basketball [players] in particular, it’s a very entitled culture. So any time they have the opportunity to be exposed to how blessed they are, it really allows us to develop a sense of humility and…responsibility for investing in the lives of others and thinking beyond themselves,” Leslie said about the program’s trip to Costa Rica.
The experience in Costa Rica in the summer of 2014 inspired Cardwell to join teammate Robert Sandoval on a similar trip to Thailand in the summer of 2015.
“When you go see something that’s different, and you see how they struggle, and the things that they go through and what they have to do every day just to get by….You come back, and it’s almost like, ‘Why am I even complaining?’” Cardwell said. “That was crazy to me.”
The other part of Cardwell’s community service was mentorship at Live in Peace, an “organization committed to advancing the cultural, educational, and economic empowerment of youth in communities of color,” according to its website.
It was a program that Cardwell grew up in and has shaped much of who he is.
“They take care of us; they make sure that we’re doing the things were supposed to do,” Cardwell said. “It kept me away from the negative and [the] stuff I wasn’t supposed to be around.”
At the insistence of his single mother, Cardwell attended the small, private Mid-Peninsula High School in order to prioritize his education.
“[In] my junior year, things got real serious,” Cardwell said. “I was one of the No. 1 scorers in California. It was a big deal, but I was at a Division 5 high school, so people were like ‘Okay, but he doesn’t play anyone.’ So my whole career, I struggled trying to prove that I could play.”
Cardwell came to APU not to be a star, but to be a member of the program.
“I went from having the ball in my hands 24/7 to not playing at all,” Cardwell said. “I got so mad at myself and the coaches. Nobody understood me.”
It is a struggle for many basketball players as they transition into college play. They can go from lighting up scoreboards to riding the bench, all while trying to earn their keep at the higher level. Cardwell carried a chip on his shoulder, once again trying to prove that he could play.
Despite his frustration over his lack of playing time, Cardwell was determined to grind things out as a Cougar. He didn’t want to bounce from college to college trying to find playing time and hoping to get a degree along the way. His mother insisted that he get his education.
Cardwell improved from 2.8 minutes per game his freshman year, to 14.0 his sophomore, back down to 9.4 his junior year, to finally 20.4 his senior year, earning 21 starts.
Along that road, Cardwell experienced a change of attitude. He began to invest back into his teammates who experienced the same transition from star to role player.
“He was known as a member of our program,” Leslie said. “I know that he had a mindset shift [while he was] here, where he began to realize that it’s not about ‘me’ only.”
Cardwell and fellow seniors Jared Zoller and Bruce English led the team to back-to-back PacWest titles after losing all five starters from last season and being picked to finish fifth in the conference.
“We stuck together—me, LyDell and JZ. We understood what it took last year, being part of that team,” English said. “We understood what it would take this year in order to accomplish our goal and to exceed the expectations that were placed on us before the season, which were pretty low.”
Cardwell’s experience as a mentor and leader to younger players, the mentorship he himself received and his experiences overseas have changed his career goals.
“When I came back [from Thailand], I just viewed everything totally different,” Cardwell said. “And I thought, ‘I just want to change people’s lives, man. I just want to make the world a better place.’
“When I pass away, I want stories about how I impacted other people’s lives,” Cardwell added. “Yeah, I played college basketball. I graduated. But what did I do for other people? That’s kind of the goal.”
Cardwell will graduate in December with his teaching credential, having received his undergraduate degree in physical education last May. He is exploring opportunities to play professionally overseas but also wants to be a middle school physical education teacher.
“He does a great job being personal with people, allowing them the opportunity to vent and listen. That’s who LyDell is,” English said.
However, the senior has future goals more reflective of his experiences. Cardwell wants to found a nonprofit that teaches kids concepts like financial literacy, mortgages, interests rates—things that aren’t taught in school. He wants to incorporate sports and mentorship into the program.
The Cougars finished 23-9 and lost in the NCAA West Region semifinals to Western Oregon.