Liz Cambage Is Done ‘Living Someone Else’s Dream’

LOS ANGELES — Liz Cambage strutted through the Sparks practice facility like it was her own home. There was a grin on her face. Her arms swayed back and forth with each step.

After a recent practice there, Cambage, the team’s new star center, lounged in a black folding chair in a back corner of the basketball court, waving at teammates who passed by on their way out. One teammate offered to cook her a meal sometime soon, an invitation Cambage happily accepted.

“I think I’m the most sound and relaxed that I’ve been in a long time,” Cambage said, her legs crossed comfortably. “I’m where I want to be. I’m surrounded by the people I want to be surrounded with, and we’re working hard.”

During practice, she was focused, yelling “Execute!” during team drills, and chiming in when Sparks Coach Derek Fisher addressed the team afterward.

Cambage’s fire on and off the court has defined her unique career. Few W.N.B.A. players have her size, mobility, unapologetic confidence and candor, though with time, Cambage said, she’s becoming less vocal and reactive.

That drive allows her to pull down rebounds and score easy baskets in the post against double and triple teams. It carried her through a dark rookie year and stressful Olympics stints, and through a difficult mental health journey on which, on her bad days, she struggled to get out of bed or take a shower.

Entering her sixth W.N.B.A. season, Cambage will begin the final leg of her playing career, which has included four All-Star selections, a runner-up finish in Most Valuable Player Award voting and a single-game scoring record, but never a championship.

Cambage, 30, signed with the Sparks in the off-season, after Los Angeles missed the W.N.B.A. playoffs last year for the first time since 2011. Adding Cambage to a frontcourt that has Nneka Ogwumike, who is a former M.V.P., and Chiney Ogwumike, a former No. 1 overall pick and rookie of the year, could lift Los Angeles back into championship contention.

“We don’t necessarily feel like it’s going to happen overnight,” Fisher said at Cambage’s introductory news conference in February. “Greatness does take time. But we do feel like we’re farther ahead than where we were last year when we started overhauling our team.”

Her one-year deal is worth $170,000, well below the super-maximum salary she earned in her last stop, as a member of the Las Vegas Aces. To Cambage, relocating was worth the pay cut.

“I’m at a point where I’m too old to be in places I don’t want to be,” Cambage said, adding, “I’ve got into a place where I make so much money off the floor that I can take a pay cut to wherever I want to be here in the league.”

In the 2019 Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine, Cambage posed with a long, sleek dark ponytail, a silver basketball and only her tattoos covering her body.

“I love my whole body,” Cambage said during the shoot. “I’m proud of my whole body, every inch. My soft, soft skin. My big lips. My crazy hair. I just love me.”

Signed to the talent agency IMG, Cambage has modeled sportswear for Adidas and is a brand ambassador for Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty lingerie line.

“You wouldn’t necessarily see a 6’8” woman model lingerie — they don’t show that,” said Kaila Charles, a guard/forward who recently played for the Connecticut Sun. She added that seeing Cambage so comfortable in her skin gave her the confidence to love her own body after being picked on as a young girl.

Cambage’s love for fashion and modeling come through on game days, when she typically wears suits because that’s what she saw her mother wear to work every day when she was younger.

“It’s just powerful to me,” she said. “I’m not trying to impress anyone. I dress for me. My fashion is for me.”

Cambage’s confidence in herself and her body are as much of a calling card as her moves in the post. But it took a while for her to feel that way.

Born in London to a Nigerian father and a white Australian mother, Cambage grew up in the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne after her parents split up. There, she was bullied for not fitting in at all in the majority-white environment. She was too tall. Her feet were too big. Her eyes weren’t blue.

“I was made to feel like a freakish monster for being tall and a person of color,” Cambage said.

When she was 10 years old, Cambage came home from school one day and told her mother, Julia Cambage, that she didn’t want to live anymore. The bullying and isolation were too much.

“It hurts me to still speak on that because I know how much pain that put my mother through,” she said. “No mother wants to hear that.”

She added, “But just having the notion of the idea, the motive, that I wanted to wake up and not be here since 10 years old, that’s a lot.”

Searching for options that could help her daughter make friends, Julia forced Liz to go to a basketball practice one Sunday.

Cambage had never been interested in sports. She had played the violin and piano, but her mother had to sell her piano when they moved to Melbourne, effectively ending her musical exploration. She fell in love with basketball, though she couldn’t even run or dribble properly at first.

“I was just surrounded by really lovely girls,” Cambage said. “I was just supported and loved and I really grew to love the game from that.”

As she became serious about basketball, she accelerated quickly and by age 17, she was a member of the Australian junior women’s national team. Two years later, in 2011, she was drafted second overall by the W.N.B.A.’s Tulsa Shock, a struggling franchise that hoped to build its roster and future success around the 19-year-old Cambage.

“I think it wasn’t until I moved to America when I was 19 that I really loved who I am,” she said. “And as a woman of color, as a bigger woman, those two things are really embraced here in America.”

As big of an impact as the culture made on her, transitioning to the W.N.B.A. was rocky early on. Tulsa won just three games during Cambage’s rookie season, and she struggled to adjust in a new place that felt like an alternate universe. In Melbourne, she was able to vote, drive and party as freely as she wanted to. In Tulsa, she was considered underage, and felt like she was treated like a child.

Foundering on and off the court, and thousands of miles from her support system, Cambage said the Shock’s veterans players told her she should pack her bags and leave if she didn’t want to be there. Her agent at the time told her to suck it up and stay.

“I cried every day,” Cambage said.

Things only got worse. She dominated playing in China and Australia, where she won the Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League’s M.V.P. Award in the 2010-11 season. But she still felt isolated as she missed birthdays, weddings and baby showers to play in games.

Cambage sank deeper into depression as her body and mind were battered. She sat out the Shock’s 2012 season, returned in 2013, then tore her Achilles’ tendon in 2014. By the 2016 Olympics, she was one of the best-known athletes in Australia playing for the lauded women’s national team, but privately, Cambage was ready to walk away from basketball. Her team did not medal for the first time in six Olympics.

Cambage needed a sports psychologist just to make it through the games. Most of the time, she coped by partying, drinking and self-medicating.

“It’s a vicious cycle that you don’t really realize you’re caught up in until you’re burned out from Valium or Xanax,” she said. “But that was my toxic way of dealing with just feeling too much.”

She leaned on her mother’s support and the encouragement of Fred Williams, then the Shock’s head coach, who persuaded her to come back to the Shock in 2018, after the team had relocated to Dallas and rebranded as the Wings.

“If I didn’t have Coach Fred reminding me who I am and how great I am every other day and trying to get me back to Dallas in 2018, I probably wouldn’t have come back,” she said.

Cambage averaged 23 points per game that season and finished second in M.V.P. voting behind the Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart. Her 53 points against the Liberty in July 2018 were the most ever scored in a W.N.B.A. game.

By the time Cambage joined the Las Vegas Aces in 2019 after demanding a trade out of Dallas, she was one of the most dynamic and outspoken players in women’s basketball. She wore her 6-foot-8 height proudly, even though she said referees struggled to officiate someone her size. Last season, the head coach of the Connecticut Sun, Curt Miller, was suspended for one game after he made a comment Cambage said was disrespectful about her weight as he tried to persuade referees to call a foul on her.

She has spoken loudly about racial and gender equity issues, even when people on social media told her to be quiet.

“Liz is a force on and off the court,” Chiney Ogwumike said during the Sparks’ media day last month. She added: “I think a lot of people don’t understand how much she wants to win and dominate and be great.”

On New Year’s Eve, Las Vegas announced it had hired as head coach Becky Hammon, the former W.N.B.A. star and a longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant who many assumed would eventually become the N.B.A.’s first female head coach. Hammon’s contract was reportedly worth around $1 million dollars a year in salary, about four-times the league’s 2022 maximum salary of around $230,000 for top veteran players, a number that rankled Cambage.

“Ahhh yes the @WNBA, where a head coach can get paid 4X the highest paid players super max contract,” Cambage wrote in a Twitter post.

Player salaries in the league are collectively bargained, unlike coaches’ salaries, and Cambage said her comment was meant to be a critique on the league’s pay disparities, not an attack on Hammon.

“I don’t understand how you have a C.B.A. for teams and a salary cap that’s $1.4 million, but a coach can get millions,” said Cambage, who had led the Aces to the W.N.B.A. semifinals in 2019 and 2021.

W.N.B.A. contracts have been a hot topic since February, when Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was detained on drug charges in Russia, where she and many other women play in the off-season because the contracts are much more lucrative than stateside.

Last year, the league fined the Liberty $500,000 for secretly chartering flights to games during the 2021 season; the collective bargaining agreement only permits teams to fly commercially in premium economy. The fine drew criticism from many players, including Cambage, who said she has to pay to upgrade her seats on team flights to have more leg room. Charter flights are common for professional male athletes.

Cambage has continued to be vocal about equity issues that persist in women’s sports because she wants to make it easier for the generation that follows her.

“I don’t think I’m going to get a million-dollar contract in the W.N.B.A. tomorrow,” she said, “but I speak on it because right now it’s like, I wouldn’t want my daughter to play in this if my daughter was in college right now.”

After the recent Sparks practice ended, Cambage stayed afterward to get up extra shots. Some from the corner or the wing, some closer to the basket.

She has been living in an apartment in West Los Angeles, close to the water. Sparks fans have already used the term Liz Angeles to term this new chapter, which begins Friday against the Chicago Sky, the defending champions.

“I think everyone knows who I am, the player I am,” she said. “I’m loud, I’m vocal, and that’s the energy I bring right from the jump.”

It has been a long journey for Cambage to get to this point: She loves what she sees when she looks in the mirror. She’s excited to wake up and come to work every day, to chase a championship with the Sparks.

“I had been living someone else’s dream, chasing that for a minute,” she said. “But now I’ve realized that this has always been my dream, being here in L.A. and playing here.”

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