The 6 a.m. flight from Vegas to New York is brutal. But Liz Cambage is trying to make light of it. The 6’8’’ All-Star center from Australia is seated window-side, in emergency row 19, which offers a bit of a relief in terms of leg room. Elbow room is another story. It’s a three-seater. Her teammate JiSu Park, a 6’5’’ center from South Korea, sits two seats over, sticking her white Fila sneakers out into the aisle. A woman with blond hair is sandwiched between the two. When the flight attendant asks if they are comfortable performing emergency-exit duties, Cambage belts out an enthusiastic, “Yasssssss.”
It’s the beginning of a four-game road trip. The beginning of a surge that will land them atop the WNBA standings and among the favorites to win the title. That’s where everyone expects the Aces to be as the newest superteam. Head coach Bill Laimbeer, the former Detroit Pistons “Bad Boy” who coached the Detroit Shock to three WNBA titles, has given himself at least three years to lead the Aces to the title. (The team is now in the second year of its relocation from San Antonio.) As the flight takes off, Laimbeer is seated in first class—at 6’11”, still a tight fit—in a plaid blue shirt and black pants, trying to rest his eyes.
The Aces are brimming with talent, but as the flight progresses it is clear that they’re also drained. Disoriented. Last night, a 7.1 earthquake shook Mandalay Bay Events Center, causing the Jumbotron to sway for nearly 15 Mississippi’s. WNBA officials declared the game postponed at halftime. Most players didn’t sleep; instead, they stayed up to load the team bus around 3:30 a.m. “It’s such a tough league,” says All-Star forward A’ja Wilson, clutching a hot pink neck pillow, “and there’s only 144 jobs.”
When they finally land in New York, Laimbeer heads toward baggage claim and stands near the front of the carousel, as if by leaning closer he can will all 31 team bags to come out sooner. And when they do, his assistant coaches stack them on a massive cart. A Gatorade ice chest teeters on the top. Disaster seems imminent, but the players aren’t bothered. They just want to win ballgames. Bring a championship to Las Vegas; a dream that seemed impossible after missing the playoffs a year ago.
The Aces are young and electric. Hard-nosed. Fun. Dominant. They like to play fast. Outlet and go. Sprint and shoot. Off the court, they dance, they celebrate, they pose; their personalities are bigger than the court itself. But when it’s game time? Any player can get hot.
Cambage has been leading the pack, drop-stepping, dropping in short jumpers, at will. Kayla McBride, another All-Star, can shoot from anywhere. (Her floater is as pretty as it gets.) She doesn’t take a play off. Kelsey Plum, the NCAA women’s all-time-leading scorer, is morphing into a defensive threat; and Jackie Young, the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, is deft at leading the break. Wilson, the backbone of the team, is long and agile. She can finesse or post up. The league hasn’t quite figured out how to guard all of them, not all at once.
Laimbeer yearns to give his team that bite he had as a player. That I’m going to kick your ass, I know I’m good attitude. He also wants consistency. The Aces don’t have that yet; they’re consistent only when they want to be. When they defend hard, they look like they can beat anyone, like when they recently fought back from a 15-point first-quarter deficit to defeat the Mystics, a team much older, much more experienced. When they don’t defend hard, they beat themselves.
They’ve also had unfortunate luck. Last weekend, Wilson suffered an ankle injury that will likely keep her out for several weeks and cause her to miss the All-Star Game. Still, the Aces are inching toward an identity. They’re a superteam still figuring out how to be a superteam. Figuring out how to translate their magnificent talent on paper to the hardwood.
“Shit’s not gonna happen overnight,” Cambage says. “If it was easy everyone would do it. Everyone would have a championship.”
Cambage is shivering in a cryotherapy chamber at a local UFC gym on a recent day in July. Freezing cold, dry air—between minus 166 to minus 220 degrees Fahrenheit—hits her naked body. Every muscle seizes—from her neck down to her feet, which are nestled in white, size 14 booties. She needs to escape. Somewhere. Anywhere. She closes her eyes. Stomps her feet. “God damn!” she exclaims.
Three minutes to see what she’s made of.
“I hope my nipples don’t get frostbite!”
She does this recovery therapy twice a week to reduce inflammation, often leaving games battered, bruised. She’s willed her body to perform at the highest level for 15 years. She owns the WNBA record for most points scored in a single game with 53. She says what she wants when she wants. And when she is in attack mode, there is nobody more terrifying to face.
“If it was easy everyone would do it. Everyone would have a championship.”
“How much longer?!” she screams. “Two minutes,” says Alissa Schenk, Aces athletic trainer. Cambage turns in circles, shimmies her shoulders, tries to keep blood flowing. “Shit!!! How much longer?”
More circles. “I’M ABOUT TO DUNK ON A BITCH!!!”
Since being traded from the Dallas Wings to the Aces in May, Cambage has been trying to adjust. She wasn’t sure how Vegas would go: The first time she and Laimbeer “met” was during a free throw; Cambage was on the line for the Wings, and he was protesting the call that landed her there. She told him to “shut the fuck up.” The two have since found common ground. “I’m so happy here,” she says, “but it’s been an adjustment for me.”
Cambage is learning to not be the focal player for the first time in her career. Not having to drop 20 and 10 anymore is nice, but to make it work she has had to learn how to play with Wilson, a woman just as dominant as her. She likes her young teammate, enjoys playing with her. But injuries make chemistry-building difficult. Cambage is still dealing with pain from a previous Achilles injury. She has shed 20 pounds. “My body’s been going through it,” she says.
Cambage came close to quitting. At one point she contemplated taking her own life. She’s already looking beyond her career—DJing (she did Coachella this year), business ventures (she is sponsored by Adidas). At the end of next year, after the 2020 Tokyo Games, she doesn’t see herself playing basketball anymore.
“Right now I’m doing it. I’m loving it, but there’s so much more to life. And life is for living. I’m trying to have babies. I’m trying to focus on my other businesses. I want to live.”
For Cambage, the incentive to win might be as high as it has been in her career.
Earlier in the day, Cambage and her teammates are in the locker room for a film session to prepare for a home game against the Chicago Sky. Laimbeer leans back in a black chair at the front of the room, clicker in hand. He stops film every half second to dissect plays with the focus of a surgeon.
“Jackie, you gotta make that,” he says, showing starting guard Jackie Young missing an easy layup.
On the next play, Wilson sets a screen for Cambage, who flashes high to score. “Nice screen A’ja,” Laimbeer says, as Wilson sits across from him at the first locker, a towel draped over her knees. “You’re screening the shit out of people lately!”
Then he shows Plum fighting to get over screens on defense, despite going 1-of-7 on the other end. Plum’s goal this year is to not be a defensive liability, as she’s been most of her career. “Plum didn’t make a lot of shots,” Laimbeer says, “but she’s competing her ass off. Look at her.”
Laimbeer is blunt. Intense. Driven. Nothing matters but outhustling, outsmarting everyone. And talking trash. “I always joke that he’s the only coach who I know who is more of an asshole after a win than a loss,” says Dan Padover, Aces general manager. At 6’11”, Laimbeer is big, bulky, intimidating. His voice is deep, booming. He’s still in many ways the bad boy of yesteryear, though he’s clearly far removed from the brawls and bravado of the Bad Boy era. “I probably am not as intense as I was in the past,” Laimbeer says, “but public persona is not necessarily who people are.”
When Laimbeer isn’t coaching he likes to sit on the patio of his home overlooking the mountains of the strip, thinking. He’s always doing that—always thinking about basketball. “He literally never stops,” says his daughter Keri, who works for the Aces and lives with him and her mother, Chris. Laimbeer has a toy Goldendoodle, Breezy. He can joke and be dead serious at the same time, like the time before the Fever game, back in June, when he deadpanned to his team, “We need 30 turnovers this game!”
At film study, Plum has her arms crossed tightly against her chest. This isn’t the first time Laimbeer has singled her out. Last season, he told Plum after a poor performance: “Plum, I got people calling me! I WILL trade your ass for a bag of chips!” The trade deadline was quickly approaching. (“Well, damn,” Plum responded, “can I at least get barbecue chips?”)
Plum’s teammates call her the White Cloud; she’s known to suffocate opponents and she doesn’t back down. “Even though she’s a PG, she’s a big dog deep down inside,” Cambage says.
Lately, Plum has been trying to find new ways to affect the game besides scoring. Since being the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, she’s battled perceptions that she’s a bust. She’s often asked what’s wrong, as if she’s ill, given her recent shooting struggles.
“I’m learning to accept this and embrace this but it’s really hard,” she says. She recently deleted Instagram and Twitter from her phone to escape the comments. “Every day I hear, ‘Why aren’t you the way you were at Washington?’ And I promise you, I’m such a better basketball player. It’s the WNBA. It’s a different league.”
In the locker room, Plum’s knees are sprawled out and she looks ready for anyone, anything. Assistant coach Kelly Raimon asks her how she plans to guard Courtney Vandersloot, the Sky’s floor general. “Try to make her life hell,” Plum responds.
The Aces still don’t yet have a vocal, emotional leader. Someone who can rally everyone when stuff gets tough. A player who will curse, yell in a teammate’s face when she’s slacking. “They’re almost too nice sometimes,” Rushia Brown, player programs and franchise development manager, says of the team as a whole.
Carolyn Swords and Tamera Young, the team’s spark plug, provide wisdom as the most experienced on the team, but not necessarily in that fiery, rallying way. McBride is learning to take fewer shots, trading ego for what really matters: winning. “As an athlete, as a competitor, you always have this ego,” McBride says. “It’s natural. It’s human nature. So, when you have that, you have to adjust accordingly. It comes down to winning. It comes down to sacrifice.”
On a normal team, she could average what other stars do. But she can’t on this team. “I know who I am,” she says. “I’m confident in whatever role he gives me and I know I can excel at it, but it’s just not easy. Sometimes it’s not about me, and that’s something I had to learn.”
Wilson, the 2018 No. 1 pick, was expected to be a leader in just her second season, but her leadership style is more about being the example than vocalizing it. “Some people have been in this game 10, 12 years,” Wilson says, “and I’m a second-year player trying to find my way as if I’m a vet. It’s tough.”
Plum is known as Spicy Plum, but she is more of a role player. She has been known to give her teammates pick-me-ups. At a game against the Fever in June, she walked up to Cambage and screamed something along the lines of: “I NEED YOU TO GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD AND FUCKING BE LIZ CAMBAGE! GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER! WE NEED YOU RIGHT NOW!”
Cambage then scored 12 points in overtime to lift the Aces to victory. She could have ignored Plum and said, who are YOU, 0-for-whatever, to give ME advice. But she didn’t. She’d never. Because the two respect each other. Plum did something that doesn’t show up in box scores or tweets. “She pulled me out of the hole that I put myself in,” Cambage says.
It was a turning point. A moment that taught the team how resilient it is, when it wants to be.
If the Aces aren’t playing, they’re dancing. Whether it’s Cambage, Wilson and McBride dancing to Poison during a shot-clock malfunction against the Mystics, or guard Sydney Colson, instant offense off the bench, leading the team to dance, stomp and clap in their classic “Lady Aces” chant before the game, the Aces always have fun.
Sometimes, they shoot half-court shots for money after practice. (The winner’s purse comes out of Laimbeer’s pocket, of course.) After a recent shooting session, four players took turns sinking baskets—each had a fan section cheering. Wilson rejoiced as Cambage danced after banking one in: “Give ‘em points, sis!!!” Wilson yelled. When Cambage made a half-court shot, Colson, her best friend on the team, squealed: “We did it! We did it!” The Aces celebrate the smallest things. Like when Park showed up to a film session recently with eyelash extensions. “Come on, lashes!!!” Cambage screamed, praising her.
“The love and respect all of these women have for each other, it’s really a sisterhood,” assistant coach Vickie Johnson says. “Most teams can’t say that.”
Plum is a prankster. Once, she taped a Fathead of her face to the dashboard of Laimbeer’s white Mercedes truck. “What the fuck?” Laimbeer said.
Laimbeer jokes and has a sarcastic streak. (He kept the Fathead; it hangs in his home’s laundry room.) Dearica Hamby, a forward who is making a case for Sixth Woman of the Year, thinks of Laimbeer as a “teddy bear.” Liberty coach Katie Smith, his former player, feels a deep bond with Laimbeer, despite the F-You’s they’ve exchanged over the years. “He’s a softy for the people that are a part of his world,” Smith says.
He wants his team to play tough, but, sometimes on the white board before games, he writes a single message in marker: “Have fun.”
In a pivotal game against the Mystics, the Aces begin sluggishly. They aren’t defending hard. They look unfocused. Plum air-balls a shot. Young turns the ball over. Washington is more physical, energized. Kristi Toliver is getting to the cup whenever she wants. Sugar Rodgers attempts a post-entry pass to Wilson but puts too much heat on it and the ball flies over Wilson’s head.
Laimbeer calls a timeout with three minutes left in the first quarter, his team down 21-7. “WHO ARE YOU?!” he screams.
“WHO ARE YOU?!”
He waits for a sign of life. Someone needs to yell or scream or clap. Do something. Say something.
“IS THIS WHO YOU WANT TO BE?!”
Wilson shakes her head, comes out of the timeout, and drills a long two. When she believes in herself, when she’s in I am getting to the rim and I don’t care WHO is in my way mode, she looks like the most dominant player in the WNBA. “I don’t think there’s anybody like her in today’s game,” says Dawn Staley, her college coach at South Carolina.
She can take you off the dribble, she can shoot. And as dominant as she is, she may not have even tapped into her full potential. She remembered feeling the pressure last season as a rookie. “Everybody expected me to be this savior,” she says.
Laimbeer talks to her before every practice, every game, reassuring her that she’s capable. That she’s gonna get there. “That’s a side people don’t see of Bill and that’s what Bill wants. He doesn’t want people to see that,” Wilson says. “He believes in us and he’s gonna get exactly what he wants out of us.”
McBride learned that firsthand. He called her out for her sluggish demeanor in a loss to the Mystics earlier in the season; a departure from asking her to be the most mentally tough player on the floor at all times. “You can’t be what I asked you to be and do that,” he said. She knew he was right. “It was tough love, but it was a respect thing,” she says. “If somebody’s gonna hold me accountable, I hold it as respect. I hold it as love. I’d rather be held on my shit.”
At halftime, that’s what Laimbeer is doing—holding the Aces accountable. The Aces are down 15. And, to make matters worse, the team is a little on edge. An earthquake occurred just before halftime, causing the Mandalay Bay Events Center to sway, and everything seemed loopy. The crowd made noise. At first, the players looked confused. They heard the commotion but continued playing. Wilson couldn’t determine if a famous person walked in or if something bad had happened.
“I’m used to hurricanes and stuff,” she says after the game, referring to her South Carolina roots. “I can’t deal with the ground breaking.”
Laimbeer, usually a patient customer, doesn’t even mention the earthquake in his speech. “Jackie, you’re just walking the ball up! I said push the ball and you walk it up! Shit! We are sluggish! The turnovers we had. Just dumb! We’re not even close to them. You need to be on them! As soon as they catch the ball!”
“WHERE IS OUR…AHHHHHHHH!!” He can’t find the word. “I’m frustrated.” Another pause. “You give up right now, or you compete!”
But they can’t compete. The game is called. The Aces do not get the chance to prove who they are.
Hamstrings are heavy, feet are dragging as the Aces walk up three flights of stairs to get to their locker room at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York, where the Liberty play. There is no elevator. Schenk sets up a training “room”: two beds in a cramped area right outside the locker room. “You try to make it as homey as possible,” she says.
The Center looks like a high school auditorium. Worn, intimate. Just 2,300 seats. It looked even smaller two hours before the game, when Plum began shooting. She is always the first one on the floor. She shoots so much her fingers split and bleed and sometimes have to be dipped in Vaseline. She’s hard on herself. Shoots and shoots, applies more and more pressure. More Vaseline. She is the type of player who likes to be told, make a fucking shot. Tell her she can’t do it. Get her juiced, get her angry. But Laimbeer does not take that approach with her.
“Plum,” he says often, softly. “Go home.”
Laimbeer is just as pointed in his pregame speech in the locker room before the tipoff against the Liberty.
He tells the team it needs defensive energy from the tip. “We’re on the road now. It’s going to be very difficult to win games. Transition defense, turnovers, offensive rebounds and free throws. You win those four, you win the ballgame.”
The team heads out of the locker room. “Whew, these stairs,” McBride says. Raimon is extra careful, as she’s wearing six-inch Aces-red heels. The players nix their pregame Lady Aces chant because they’re afraid of slipping and falling. Cassidy and Mary J. Blige’s “I’m a Hustla Remix” blasts as they sprint to warm-ups. Cause we hustle, seven days a week, just to stay on our feet.
McBride has a smirk on her face. Always does when she’s on the court. Tonight, she has something extra. Against the Liberty, she scores 24 points in 28 minutes and the team cruises to a 90-58 blowout, which would provide momentum for the next two wins on the road.
A crowd of little girls await the team as it walks off the Liberty floor, as if at a concert, their tiny arms are outstretched. Security clears the way and allows the little girls to talk to their heroes. Cambage bends down to take a selfie with a girl who doesn’t come up to her kneecaps. Wilson claps and smiles as a girl hands her a poster to sign. She passes a Sharpie to Plum, who gets in on the fun. McBride signs a ball, a poster and a shirt. Then a girl wearing her jersey, clutching a Sharpie, comes up to her. McBride looks even more excited than the girl is. This is why she plays. Why they all play.
They head back to the locker room, back up the stairs, quickly. Restless. Superteams cannot rest. Somebody might snatch their spot.
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America and the Los Angeles Press Club. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.