Unapologetically Liz

Once dragged down by doubt and depression, Liz Cambage is now setting records, leading the WNBA in scoring and dancing like no one's watching.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorAugust 17, 2018

Liz Cambage is in a hurry. The center for the WNBA's Dallas Wings quickly steps out of the elevator, on the ninth floor, arriving at one of her favorite local restaurants, Mercury Chophouse. She struts to her customary table, the third one on the right, the one with the pea-green cushions.          

The 6'8" MVP candidate from Australia has just 40 minutes. She has to leave for a medical appointment to tend to what happened the night before.

Cambage was pulled to the ground as Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones' arm smacked her in the neck. She hit her head on the hardwood and was forced to exit the game.

An offensive foul was called on Jones but not a flagrant one, surprising even the broadcasters.

"A lot of people are worried, but I'm fine," Cambage says. "Just a bit of whiplash."

All her life, she has been battered and bruised on the court and told she was too tall, too loud, too much off it. Her critics advise her to keep quiet. Not to fight back. As a female athlete, she was taught to take her lumps and be grateful for each and every one of them, like they were Christmas gifts and not coal.

She won't do that. "She's unapologetic about how she plays," says Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks. When she rips down a rebound, pivots and spreads her elbows wide, breaking free of the double-, triple-teams that hack at her body, she unleashes her fire.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Fire that has caused her to draw six technicals this season. If Cambage gets one more, she will receive a fine and a one-game suspension—something the Wings can't afford. At 14-18, they're tied with the Las Vegas Aces for the final playoff spot. The Wings and Aces play each other Friday night before closing the regular season against Seattle and Atlanta, respectively, on Sunday.

Cambage can't afford it personally either—not playing in the WNBA, where salaries range from a minimum of $41,202 to maximum of $115,500. "[A suspension] would be four grand out of my pocket," she says. "And I'm not getting paid enough for four-grand fines."

As she speaks, she stretches her legs, her Gucci slides peeking out from underneath the table. "When I'm down and out, some days I really don't understand why I was given this vessel, this body, that is so different and has been treated so differently my whole life," she says.

Cambage has been bullied since she was a young girl. Nowadays, she is accosted at least three times a day by strangers asking how tall she is. She says the heads of the WNBA, the WNBL (Australia) and FIBA have told her privately that they don't know how to referee someone of her size.

"If they can't get it together now, how is the game meant to progress and evolve?" Cambage says. "I'm evolution right now."


Cambage is everywhere.

The 26-year-old dropped a WNBA-record 53 points against the Liberty in July. She cleared everyone out to hammer home a one-handed dunk in the final seconds of the All-Star Game later that month. Drake even mentioned her on Travis Scott's Astroworld: "See the shots that I took/ wet like I'm Book/ wet like I'm Lizzie." "He messaged me, and he was like, 'Did you hear it?' I said, 'Hear what?' He was like, 'That was your shoutout.'" She smiles. "He's always been a fan of basketball, women's basketball as well. He's a supporter."

And the attention is warranted.

No other player in the women's game has her size, skill, mobility and outsized personality.

Cambage leads the league in scoring (22.8 points per game) and is second in rebounding (9.7 per game) in her first season back in the United States after playing for the Tulsa Shock in 2011 and 2013 (she was drafted No. 2 overall in '11). She attacks the rim and can stop and pop for the elbow jumper. Sometimes even a three.

BRISTOL, CT - APRIL 11:  The number two overall pick Elizabeth Cambage of the Tulsa Shock talks to the media during the 2011 WNBA Draft Presented By Adidas on April 11, 2011 at ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and a
Jennifer Pottheiser/Getty Images

"When we get in between those lines, it's like the Beauty and the Beast turns on," says Wings point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. "She has a tenacity about her. She believes that she can score on anybody."

Cambage is a DJ and a fashion designer, too, currently working on a clothing line for taller women. But people want her to put a lid on herself. They do not want her to keep speaking out against sexism or racism or to challenge NBA players like Andrew Bogut or pursue passions outside of hoop.

Australian basketball officials said she was cut from the Opals, the national team, for missing training camp to attend a music festival in 2015. Cambage denies being cut. "They told lies and threw dirt on my name to the media," she says. She was still recovering from an Achilles injury and told the team she wasn't ready to play. But it told a different story.

"A lot of people have tried to dull my light," she says.

But she keeps on dancing. Whenever and wherever she wants, like to Ciara's "Level Up" during All-Star Weekend. Nobody could disrupt her mood. She bent lower and lower to the beat, without a care as to who was watching. Maybe it's because she's a true Leo (her birthday is on Saturday, and she has a lion tattooed on her left arm, inspired by the work of Melbourne street artist Sunfigo).

"People hate Beyonce. People probably had shit to say about Mother Teresa, you know? You can't please everyone," Cambage says, as her Cartier Love Ring, which she bought recently as a reminder that she must love herself, glitters in the light. "You're not an avocado. Not everyone's going to love you."

Some say she's in "Liz Mode" when she's drop-stepping and spinning and terrorizing defenses. But Liz Mode was in full effect on the bench, back in July, as she watched her team's lead over the Phoenix Mercury balloon to nearly 30. She noticed one of her nails was chipped. She couldn't bear it. She whipped out her nail file and went to work. Legs neatly crossed, she looked absolutely unbothered.

But the truth is, Cambage is very, very bothered.


She reaches for a bottle of Pellegrino at lunch. "I'm still in a place where I don't even know if I can be myself on the court," she says. "I feel like my game has always been compressed and lowered because I'm taller, more passionate." She says change may not come until there are more women who look like her, who dominate like her. Only then will she be able to be herself.

What would that look like, feel like?

"Freedom," she says.

That seems a ways off. WNBA players still fly commercial and still have to play back-to-back games. They are mocked on Twitter with endless kitchen memes. There is no offseason. Cambage's bank account depends on her maintaining enough stamina to spend four, five months on one continent to score points before traveling to another to score more points. (Female players are compensated much, much better overseas.)

She enjoys playing in Dallas, though, especially with Diggins-Smith, her "Leo sister," and for her fellow Aussies, center Cayla George and assistant coach Erin Phillips. And for all the young girls at Wings games who feed off her confidence.

Cambage and Diggins-Smith
Cambage and Diggins-SmithDavid Sherman/Getty Images

           

But Dallas has dropped nine straight games. And her coach, Fred Williams, whom she felt a bond with after he emailed and texted her for five years to lure her to the organization, was fired Sunday.

Cambage is already looking ahead, as she signed to play in China. But sometimes it can all feel so exhausting, being a female athlete.

"Do I come back to the WNBA and get my pocket change for the year? And get constantly beaten up every game?" Cambage says. "We've had one game on ESPN this season. We need more. We need to be marketed better. ... It's hard. Do I live my life, or do I chase hotel rooms and basketball courts and petty pay?"

Few know this Cambage: the Cambage who has battled doubts and experienced depression. The Cambage who took a year off in 2016-17 when basketball threatened to destroy her. The Cambage who has fears.

"[People] are so scared of judgment. We are so scared of failure. We are so scared of going after what we want and falling short. There's so many things in life that I put off doing because I was scared," she says.

Like becoming a DJ. She wanted to begin more than 10 years ago, as a 15-year-old, but was afraid of what people would say about her and of being terrible at it. So she didn't pursue it until she was 24, until her manager forced her to try and gave her three months to learn before her first performance. She has since opened for Mary J. Blige.

Jack Thomas/Getty Images

What other fears have you had?

She pauses. "I think being myself."


Blue eyes. Why can't I just have blue eyes? Nine-year-old Cambage wondered. A black girl in a blond world, she didn't fit in anywhere in Australia.

She was raised there by two white women: her mother, Julia, and grandmother, Aileen. (Her father, who is Nigerian, was not present.) Flipping through the channels on TV, she hoped to find a person of color flash across the screen. Each time, she'd end up putting down the remote, disappointed.

Cambage starting wearing blue contacts and straightening her hair every day, dying it blond, hoping to look like the girls in her classes. "We can't sit with you," they'd tell her. "You have dirty skin."

Kids taunted her for her height too. She was also chubby. "I was still cute, though," Cambage says, trying to laugh. She struggled to make friends with "girly girls," she says, because she's an "alpha female with a lot of masculine personality."

Her mother, her rock, whom she honors with a tattoo of a Julia Child rose on her right arm, taught her not to cower. "Julia taught her to be true to herself, to not to take shit from anyone, to be a boss in her own way," says Jenna O'Hea, a longtime friend and teammate on the Australian national team.

But Cambage would still come home crying every day. She felt so alone, so weighed down at age nine, that she felt like she couldn't go on. "I want to kill myself," she told her mom.

Julia put her daughter on the basketball court in hopes things would get better. They did. She was lanky. Far from a natural. She couldn't catch the ball at first. But she had spunk. Drive. And she sparkled. Soon she began to hit turnaround shots and attack the rim.

But coaches didn't know how to care for her rapidly growing body. They'd call her lazy and accuse her of faking injuries because the hip and back issues that came with her changing frame intensified.

Cambage drowned out the hurt by cranking up the music. When she moved her hips, her legs, her arms, magic happened. She could try to make peace with her body; enjoy it, even. Especially when listening to Kelis.

"'Milkshake' was my theme song as soon as it came out. I think I was 13," she says. "I just love Kelis. Full stop."

"Bossy" over "Milkshake"?

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JULY 28:  Liz Cambage #8 of Team Parker high-fives teammates before the Verizon WNBA All-Star Game 2018 on July 28, 2018 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
David Sherman/Getty Images

"No, definitely 'Milkshake.'" She smiles, shimmying her shoulders, rapping "Bossy": "I'm bosssayyy! I'm the bitch y'all love to hate! I'm the chick that's raising stakes!"

For a moment, Cambage is locked in her own world, free from expectations, free from pain.


Cambage sunk deeper into her depression. It was December 2016. The Opals were upset in the quarterfinals by Serbia several months prior in Rio, ending a run of five straight Olympic medals. Cambage shone, scoring 37 against Japan for the highest women's single-game output in 28 years. But some blamed her for the Opals' devastating finish. Her love for basketball was nearly gone.

So she partied. And self-medicated. And drank. And didn't sleep. A vicious cycle of two-stepping around reality: She was incredibly sad, and her body took too many beatings (she had an Achilles injury in 2014 and was burnt out from playing overseas season after season).

"I don't want to live anymore," Cambage told her mother over the phone one morning that December. "I need you to come here."

She was placed on suicide watch for two days by an Australian crisis assessment service that provided her with immediate care. "I had to really hit rock bottom," Cambage says. "I had an existential crisis."

Her troubles did not begin that year, though. They started in Tulsa as a rookie in 2011. Drafted No. 2 behind Maya Moore, Cambage was anointed the savior of the struggling Shock. But she was a 19-year-old kid, thousands of miles from home.

In a city not even a quarter of the size of Melbourne, it felt like there was hardly anything in town (thank goodness for a Saks Fifth Avenue in Utica Square Shopping Center).

The pressure was high, and the team went 3-31. Cambage says her teammates blamed the losses on her and told her she should pack her bags. She really wished she could. One day, teammate and friend Tiffany Jackson walked into the locker room and caught Cambage, head crumpled between her knees, bawling.

Cambage cried every night that season. Coach Teresa Edwards, a Hall of Fame former guard, pushed Cambage hard, according to Jackson (Edwards declined to comment).

"Sometimes Liz would respond, and sometimes she would rebel," Jackson says. Like not running back on defense or pouting or putting her hand on her hip. Sometimes she grew frustrated at herself, wanting badly to live up to expectations. "She had huge upside," Jackson says. "She didn't even know the potential that she had."

As Cambage moved on to play in Zhejiang, China, her depression deepened. She couldn't relate to her teammates, given the language barrier. She had fallen in love with basketball as a teen because she cherishes teamwork, meeting new friends and having fun. But basketball started to feel like a business. She felt like she was just chasing money for teams that didn't much care about her personal health.

She felt like she was just a body to them.

She lost motivation to train, though she still shone in Beijing and Shanghai. Fans admired her bold play—the way she'd score over two, three defenders—but they did not know she was struggling inside. Few do, even today.

"I'm a Leo. We act like these big lions," she says, "but at the end of the day, we're little pussycats."


After 48 hours of being on suicide watch, back in December 2016, Cambage decided to move back home with her mom. She regularly saw a psychiatrist. She announced she was taking a year off from basketball. Locals criticized her decision, saying she'd never be able to come back and play at an elite level again.

But to Cambage, life was much bigger than that orange leather ball. She needed to heal. She didn't want to make the same choice as one of her high school best friends, who had killed herself.

So Cambage put down the ball and traveled and attended music festivals. She began to breathe.

She was inspired by DJs like Paula Temple, who she saw live in February 2017. Temple delivered some of the heaviest, dirtiest techno Cambage had ever heard. She realized women could be whatever they wanted to be: hard, cutthroat, loud, proud.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Cambage continued to work on her own DJ skills. Her friends told her she should smile while mixing, but Cambage didn't. She still doesn't. She's so focused it's almost like she's in a game, ready to swat anyone who dares enter the paint.

That Cambage, the one who dunks and defies, returned for the 2017-18 season with the Melbourne Boomers (WNBL). She hustled to get back in shape, motivated by the bond she felt with her teammates and coaches. She started to feel better, lighter. Her love for basketball was slowly coming back.

Naturally, she was still hit, bruised. She got technicals and was ejected too. She was suspended one game. Her frustration mounted. But her team embraced her competitive fire. "You can't have a toned-down version of Liz because then it's not Liz," says Guy Molloy, her coach in Australia for the Boomers.

"She wears her heart on her sleeve," says Maddie Garrick, a Boomers teammate. "She's her. She's not trying to be anything for anyone."

Cambage began to plot a return to the WNBA but had to improve her defense first. Molloy challenged her to run out farther on pick-and-rolls, to stop reaching, to get her hands higher.

"It was a personal mission," Molloy says. "I think she was ready to show people she reconnected with basketball and that, 'Hey, I'm amongst the world's best.'"

One game, she caught the ball at the elbow and charged toward the basket. Three defenders swarmed her, but she spun away from them as if completing a pirouette, twisting her body to lay in the finger roll. She was not going to be deterred by anyone anymore.


Just above the door inside the Dallas Wings locker room at College Park Center in Arlington is a Maya Angelou quote: "Nothing will work unless you do."

Cambage took that to heart all season, following up her 53-point historic night with a 35-point, 17-rebound and four-assist outburst against the Mystics. She is shooting a blistering 59.0 percent from the field and is blocking 1.5 shots a night.

"You gotta give your respect when you see somebody like Liz going hard, hard, hard, never backing down," says Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx, who is often matched up against Cambage.

Sometimes Cambage thinks about the fans on sidelines at road games in Minnesota and Phoenix screaming at her, "We hate that you're on the other team, but we love having you back!" The parts of her that are hard, that are rough, soften. "It means a lot to me," she says. "People want me here."

She has carved a niche for herself in Dallas. She devours peanut-butter acai bowls from Nekter Juice Bar before every game. She has become a mentor to forward Azura Stevens, jamming out with the rookie to Kaytranada's Remix of Rihanna's "Kiss it Better" in car rides. She's memorized all of her bank account details so she can online-shop more quickly ("My kryptonite"). And she's no longer wearing dresses and heels to the club, opting for sneakers instead ("I'm going to be putting in work.").

But she's here to chase a championship. And the Wings have a lot to prove, with little time left to prove it.

Cambage missed two games because of the neck injury she suffered against the Sun. The lion always bounces back, though. Whether the world is ready or not.

                              

Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and SLAM Magazine. Her work has been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.

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