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The WNBA Needs Liz Cambage, but She May Not Need It

The outspoken Australian center may be the best player—and biggest personality—in women’s basketball. But she’s left the WNBA twice before, and she may leave again after the Wings’ playoff run.

Cody Pearson

Liz Cambage cannot wait for her 30th birthday party. To top her 25th birthday party—which was held at a warehouse and included an all-white dress code, black lights, a bouncy castle, a DJ, and 200 of her closest friends—she is planning to rent out a ranch outside of Melbourne for an entire weekend in October. The 6-foot-8 Australian center for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings is already looking at a short list of properties, and she already knows who the surprise DJ will be. (Cambage is picky. She’s a DJ herself and has opened up for the likes of Mary J. Blige.)

The only problem? This party is three years away. Cambage turned 27 this weekend. But, well, 27 is not a sexy age. And don’t get her started on 28 or 29. But 30? “Watch out,” she said with a laugh.

Just a couple of hours before I met with Cambage on a Sunday in mid-August, the Wings lost to the Washington Mystics—their eighth straight loss with two games left to play in the regular season. The Wings were a team in free fall, holding on to the eighth and final seed in the WNBA playoffs by a thread. Cambage missed the game because of a neck injury she suffered two games prior against the Connecticut Sun. Immediately after the loss, her head coach, Fred Williams, and Wings CEO Greg Bibb got into an obscenity-laden argument outside of the locker room. Assistant coaches had to restrain them to keep it from getting physical. Despite all of it, Cambage is chatty, animated, and warm. Her opponents would tell you the same.

“She’s a great person, full of energy, full of life,” said two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker, who started alongside Cambage at last month’s All-Star Game. “My daughter’s going to be really, really tall, and if I could say anything, I want my daughter to carry herself—maybe with less technicals, less technicals—but I want my daughter to carry herself with that confidence, because when [Cambage] walks into a room, everybody knows it.”

This is Cambage’s first season in the WNBA in five years. She ruptured her Achilles in 2014, was overwhelmed by international commitments in 2016, and considered exploring her other interests, such as fashion and music. There were also phone calls home, sobbing. The deep depression, the hard partying. The pressure.

Losing slump and sore neck aside, Cambage’s return to the WNBA has been a rousing success. She finished the regular season first in scoring average (23.0 points) and second in rebounds (9.65). In a July win over the New York Liberty, she scored a record 53 points on 22 shots and 10 rebounds. Two nights later, she scored 35 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, cementing the best two-game scoring stretch in league history.

“Girl, I was tired after that,” she said.

But it’s more than just her play that’s drawn attention. It’s her dance moves, her over-the-top celebrations, her in-game nail filing, her controversial ejections. Her outspoken criticism of everything from players’ salaries to officiating to travel inequities to systemic racism. In a league that sometimes struggles to generate headlines, she’s a walking, talking breaking-news alert. Now that we’ve had another full season of Cambage, it’s hard to fathom the WNBA without her.

And yet, there’s no guarantee that she will ever return.

“I’m really going to evaluate how I’m feeling mentally and physically,” Cambage said. “Because at the end of the day, I don’t make that much money here. This doesn’t pay my mortgage.”

Cambage didn’t grow up dreaming of playing professional basketball. For most of her teenage years, she figured she’d marry an Australian football player and become a housewife.

“Growing up, my favorite movie was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And so I always wanted to be Marilyn Monroe and get a sugar daddy,” she said. “But then I realized I can do that for myself. I really don’t need that.”

By the time she was 16, Cambage was a 6-foot-8 phenom living at the Australian Institute of Sport. The WNBA became a real option at the age of 18 after she helped lead the Australian national team to a fifth-place finish at the 2010 FIBA World Championships. She was excited about the possibility of moving to Los Angeles and playing with Parker, whom she had long admired. She didn’t hide her disappointment when she was selected second overall in the 2011 draft by the Tulsa Shock, right behind Maya Moore, who went first to the Minnesota Lynx.

Reluctantly, Cambage moved across the world to a city that she had never heard of. It did not go well. The Shock went 3-31, and things were even worse for Cambage off the court. Cambage was used to friendship and community on her teams back home, but she said she found competition and cruelty on a team with legends such as a 40-year-old Sheryl Swoopes, fresh off of a two-year hiatus, and Marion Jones (yes, that Marion Jones). Eleven games into the season, head coach Nolan Richardson resigned.

Cambage made the All-Star team as a rookie, but she said the accomplishment felt hollow. She would call her mom and her agent in tears, telling them, “I don’t want to be here. I want to leave.” She felt that she was being blamed for the team’s failures. It was a nightmare.

“We had something like 22 losses in a row, and that stuff really brings out the evil side, the darkness,” she said. “It shows you who a person really is. I was shown a lot of everything I never wanted to be.”

Cambage spent the start of what would’ve been her second WNBA season at the London Olympics, where she became the first woman to ever dunk in Olympic competition. But Australia managed to win only bronze. Cambage was supposed to rejoin the Shock for the remainder of the 2012 season immediately after. She had a plane ticket for Tulsa and even boarded a flight in Melbourne. But when the plane landed in Sydney for a connecting flight, she said she had a breakdown. She called her mom and her boyfriend from the Sydney airport and told them she was coming back home.

“We drove home in silence,” she said. “They knew. Everyone knew I wasn’t mentally OK.”

Cambage did go to China that fall to play for the Zhejiang Chouzhou of the Chinese Basketball Association. For the 2012-13 season, she reportedly earned $400,000—more than 10 times what she was making in the WNBA. Her contract for her rookie season in 2011 totaled $47,756.

WNBA salaries have seen only modest gains in the 22 years of the league’s existence. In 2003, the average WNBA player made approximately $50,000. These days, it’s more than $75,000. According to the WNBA Salary Database run by High Post Hoops, Cambage made $113,000 with the Wings during the 2018 season, which is close to the league maximum. The WNBA season runs from May until September; most players go overseas in the fall and winter to play in leagues in Turkey, China, Russia, and elsewhere, where they earn significantly more money.

Still, in 2013, Cambage decided to return to Tulsa once more. By that time, point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith had arrived to help shoulder the weight of expectations. But the team’s improvements were still moderate, at best, and Cambage said she still didn’t feel like she fit in socially. The Shock went 11-23 and finished last in their division, and head coach Gary Kloppenburg was fired. When she left Tulsa after the season, she had no intentions of returning to the league.

“The organization was still a mess. It was a mess. I didn’t really want to get involved,” she said. “I didn’t want to give my efforts to a league that wasn’t—I didn’t feel like I was being looked after.”

Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith
Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith
NBAE/Getty Images

Cambage’s time in Tulsa was a toxic experience. But it taught her one important thing: “I didn’t understand racism until Tulsa,” she said. “Growing up, I’d always wondered why I would be excluded from things; why kids would say, ‘We don’t want to play with you because you look dirty.’ I didn’t understand that.”

Cambage’s father is Nigerian and black; her mother is British and white. She moved from London to Australia with her mother when she was young. Her father was not in her life growing up. Cambage stuck out in Australia, a majority-white country. But she said she didn’t truly understand discrimination, or what it meant to be black, until she lived in the U.S.

She fondly recalls her Tulsa teammates Jennifer Lacy and Tiffany Jackson-Jones teaching her about hair weaves and “black hair magic.”

“I finally knew what Beyoncé and RiRi were doing with their hair,” she said. “Life-changing stuff.”

Cambage relentlessly speaks out against racism in Australia. She’s called out the racist treatment of an indigenous AFL star and taught her Australian teammates about the whitewashing of Australian history and why blackface is unacceptable. She said she’d been told by people in the advertising industry that this is why she doesn’t have any major sponsors in Australia.

“They’re scared about what I’m going to say,” she said. “I’ve never said anything crazy. I’ve just spoken the truth.”

Ironically enough, if Cambage does end up spending more time in the United States, or perhaps even establishing a base here, she said it would likely be because racism in the country is much more out in the open than in Australia. Here, and particularly in the WNBA, she’s part of a larger movement of athlete activism. In Australia, she feels shunned and isolated for speaking out.

The Wings’ August 12 game against the Mystics took place less than a mile from the site of a scheduled white supremacist rally. On the court before the game, Mystics guard Kristi Toliver gave a speech condemning the rally, addressing the lack of political leadership in the United States, and denouncing bigotry of all kinds.

“It was perfect; it was so fitting,” she said. “It was empowering, especially growing up a black child in a very whitewashed country. I have a lot of views, and a lot of thoughts that I want to talk about for kids that are still growing up in Australia and still not seeing anyone who looks like them on TV. It’s gotten better, but we still have a better way to go in Australia.”

Liz Cambage in a team huddle
Liz Cambage

Eighteen months ago, Cambage was in the midst of an existential crisis. She said she didn’t know what her purpose was—or whether she even had a purpose. She spent her days partying to numb the pain. Her friends would come over on Sundays to make sure she’d eaten and slept. It was, she said, pretty dark.

“It’s not nice being in a place where you don’t even feel like there’s a point of you being alive,” she said.

Cambage had planned on retiring from basketball altogether after the 2016 Rio Olympics. She would help lead Australia to another medal and then say goodbye to the sport. But there was no happy ending to be found in Rio. Just devastation and disappointment. The Opals were upset by Serbia in the quarterfinals, marking their worst showing at the Olympics since 1992.

When she returned to Melbourne, Cambage ghosted almost everyone in her life and retreated into a world of depression and anxiety. She said she heavily self-medicated with prescription pills and alcohol. She said that she isn’t surprised by her on-court success this season. But back then, she never would’ve dreamed of hearing ”MVP” chants from the Dallas crowd.

“That’s the craziest thing to me,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s crazy. That’s crazy. The higher power works in mysterious ways, and he or she or whoever it may be, maybe they give their hardest journeys to the toughest soldiers.”

She didn’t climb out of the fog all at once. Her journey back began with honesty, both with herself and with those around her. For the first time, she told her mother about the anxiety and darkness she’d experienced the past five years. She went on medication for insomnia and depression. She started reengaging with old interests, such as piano lessons, singing, DJing, and designing. She rediscovered herself, her spirit.

She said that as she became happier with her life, she realized that she wanted to play basketball again—that she didn’t want Rio to be the end of her story. She started to put in the work to become a more versatile player so she wouldn’t have to be stuck under the basket. She focused on improving her jump shot, shots off the bounce, corner 3s, and trail 3s. She felt free, on and off the court.

Fred Williams, who took over as head coach in Tulsa in 2014, stayed in touch with Cambage during her time away. The franchise, which became the Dallas Wings in the 2016 season, maintained her WNBA rights. He thought he could convince her to come back.

In 2017, she really started listening.

“We really didn’t talk about basketball at all. It was more connecting musically. And sharing songs, or sharing things she does with her turntables, or spinning in clubs,” said Williams, a prolific jazz musician. ”That created a bond. And it helped, it helped get her back. The whole organization really pitched in to get her here, and she just found her heart to get back to this and to give me her trust.”

Cambage joined Williams in Dallas this season and has flourished. She’s made lasting friendships. She’s become the mentor she never had, especially to rookie Azura Stevens. She’s hit 3-pointers during games, dunked during the All-Star Game, and connected with fans in arenas across the country. She led the league in player efficiency and usage percentage during the regular season. She’s having fun, and it’s contagious. Diggins-Smith, whom Cambage called her “Leo sister,” has loved watching her flourish.

“I don’t know many people who have come into this league as a teenager, having that pressure on her to be the one to turn around that organization,” Diggins-Smith said. “I think this time around, her game has evolved so much, and just how she plays, how she feels when she plays the game.

“She looks happy.”

Liz Cambage with headphones around her neck, pointing up at red flowers in her hair
Liz Cambage
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Last Friday was the Wings’ final home game of the season, and their second-to-last game of the regular season. The Las Vegas Aces, the only other team in contention for the final playoff spot, were in town. The Wings had lost nine straight games, and Williams was fired an hour after Cambage and I finished up dinner in Washington, D.C., last Sunday. (Cambage has now had five different coaches in three WNBA seasons. That night, she tweeted out, simply, “the Cambage curse.” )

Dallas was a team in free fall. Then, Cambage’s next-level talent and tenacity took over. She scored 43 points on 20 shots, grabbed 13 rebounds, and went 2-for-2 from beyond the arc. The Wings won, 107-102, and Cambage reenergized her MVP campaign. After the game, Cambage sobbed in happiness. Diggins-Smith lept into her arms. For the first time in her career, Cambage is going to the WNBA playoffs. She turned 27 the next day.

Still, even as she celebrated one of her greatest WNBA accomplishments to date, she wasn’t ready to commit to a future in the league past the playoffs.

“I love being here. I love the league, I love this team, and I love this city,” she told reporters after the win over Vegas. “But I put my body, mind, and spirit first. … It’s days like this, on my birthday, that I miss my family a lot. I miss my mom a lot.”

For the most part, the WNBA has been able to draw the biggest stars in the world despite its meager compensation. American players are incredibly invested in growing the league in their home country and feel a sense of obligation to the players who paved the way. Cambage doesn’t feel the same connection. Her loyalty lies with the Opals. So when she finds out that NBA officials make more than WNBA players, it makes it much more difficult to justify spending four months of the year so far away from home, getting beaten up in the post and risking injury.

As much fun as Cambage has had this season, it’s still been incredibly grueling. Because of the world championships in September, the WNBA season included the same number of games it typically does but in 19 fewer days. That means fewer rest days and little to no time to practice, train, and improve. Keeping her 6-foot-8 body in elite shape is difficult under the best of circumstances, let alone while playing back-to-backs across different time zones, fresh off of flights where her legs are crammed into non-exit-row commercial seats. After the world championships, Cambage will go back to China to play for the first time since 2016. At some point, she’s going to have to take a break.

Maybe this, more than anything, explains Cambage’s greatness. She has the audacity to be selfish—an oft-maligned trait in women and in athletes. But it comes from her perspective and in the pursuit of joy. She cares about basketball, but it doesn’t define her. She has seen rock bottom, and she has no intentions of going back.

“Coming back from that, finding my purpose, finding my light, having belief in myself again, has made me the person I am today,” she said. “A stronger person.”

That’s something worth celebrating, now and every day until her 30th birthday.

A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Kristi Toliver plays for the Dallas Wings. She plays for the Washington Mystics.

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