words: drew lawrence
photography: trevor paulhus
Before she was the Dallas Wings’ indomitable center and the comeback story of the 2018 WNBA season, Liz Cambage, 27, was the teenage Aussie hoops phenom picked second overall in the 2011 draft. Better than good, Cambage was a can’t-miss prospect that any team could hitch its championship dreams to—even the woebegone Tulsa Shock franchise that would select her. Out-of-the-box Cambage, at just 19 years old, proved every bit as awesome as advertised. Then, two and a half years in, she thought, “I don’t wanna be here,” took her ball, and left.
Not even WNBA supporters could relate to Cambage, who seemed to be throwing away a promising career before it had begun in earnest. One representative tweet, from April 2014, read: “What I hate about the @WNBA? Elizabeth Cambage Drama! Hope the @TulsaShock improve & have lots of success without her. #WastedPick #Sad.” It hardly mattered that she felt a big black girl—Cambage is 6’ 8”, a skyscraper by WNBA standards—could apply her abundant strength and fierceness toward so much more than getting buckets.
But there are layers to Cambage beyond her standout physique and adroitness in the post: Here is a woman who tattoos her butterscotch skin in Romeo and Juliet quotes and Greek iconography, who tarries in art museums and DJs to packed crowds. Still, she tells me over lunch at an Arlington, Texas, chophouse, “I’ve been told how much hard work I am, that I’m a bit of a diva.”
Born in London to Nigerian father and white Australian mother, Cambage moved to Melbourne with her mom when she was three months old. Growing up in such a homogenous place “was hard,” she says. “Especially being raised by a white mom who… She didn’t know what to do with my hair. I always grew up thinking, Why don’t I look like these pretty white girls with blue eyes? I really spent my years, especially in high school, trying to be a white girl—wearing blue contacts, dyeing my hair blond and straightening it every day.”
Music provided some measure of identity. Cambage played the piano and the violin and sang and danced. But those interests would prove a touch antisocial when she and her mother moved again. “She was around nine, ten years old,” reckons Julia Cambage. “I came home one day and saw that she was really upset. She just said, ‘I have no friends, Mummy.’”
When Julia happened upon a small newspaper ad for a girls’ basketball team tryout, it seemed a good fit for her six-foot tall daughter. “Until that point I don’t even think she’d ever held a ball,” Julia says. “She was a very arty girl.” Liz couldn’t catch, dribble, or shoot. But that didn’t seem to bother her teammates, who’d break into cheers as she came loping through the gym door. Their encouragement, and the attentive coaching Cambage received, was all the motivation she needed to work on her game.
Julia began taking Liz to their neighborhood court to shoot baskets. But after getting knocked on her ass during a game of one-on-one, Julia figured that paying her daughter to improve on her own would be best for everyone’s health going forward. “I don’t know if it was $10 or $50 or that she would take me to the movies for my first two points in a game,” says Liz. “That’s when I got hooked. I was like, I can make money doing this?”
Liz was 12, excelling at the lowest levels of club ball. A season later, she blossomed into a woman among girls at the highest club level for a team that wouldn’t drop a game for the next three years. At 16 she turned pro with Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) but refused compensation initially to preserve her college eligibility. By 17 she was playing for the Australian “Opals” national team. In her fifth WNBL season, Cambage, 19, was surfacing among the league in points (22.3 per game), rebounds (8.2), and blocks (2.8) while leading the Melbourne Boomers to their one and only championship.
“All of a sudden I was being flown over for the draft here in America,” she says. “I thought I’d be making millions and flying around on private jets.” Then she found out what the world’s most competitive professional women’s basketball league would be paying for her services—less than 1/100th of an NBA rookie’s take-home.
Worse, she’d be playing for Tulsa Shock, formerly of Detroit. The Detroit Shock was a three-time WNBA championship–winning powerhouse. The Tulsa Shock made the mistake of relinquishing their expansion draft rights on their way out of Motown. That complicated their ability to stanch the bleeding when many key contributors decided they weren’t about that prairie life. When Cambage walked into the Shock’s locker room for the first time, she found a team led by Nolan Richardson, the 1994 NCAA national championship coach at Arkansas who had never worked with women before; Sheryl Swoopes, a WNBA legend in her final season; and Marion Jones, the disgraced former Olympic sprinter 14 years removed from her last organized basketball game.
On one hand, it was nice to be in a predominantly black environment. “It wasn’t really until I moved here, to America, where I started to really understand who I am,” says Cambage, who sees race relations in Australia with fresher eyes. “We advertise ourselves as this multicultural country. But Australia is a very whitewashed country for a country that has a black history.” It’s an ugly history, one that too often puts her on the defensive. When Opals guard Alice Kunek tweeted out a photo of herself as Kanye West in blackface at a 2016 team party, it fell to Cambage to issue the public rebuke.
America’s track record on race is just as bad, particularly in Tulsa, an oil town infamous for the 1921 bombing of Black Wall Street—a white-supremacist terror attack that saw 300 blacks killed, 9,000 rendered homeless, and scores of their thriving businesses looted and burned down. “I remember getting to town and having the girls tell me, ‘This is the white side of town, this is the black side of town,’” says Cambage. “I was like, Girl, what?! I felt like being in Tulsa, I was literally in the heart of racism in America.”
The sense of alienation followed her on the court. Richardson’s famous “40 Minutes of Hell” pressure defense didn’t fit Cambage’s skill set, or keep up with the WNBA’s quickening pace of play. The deeper the Shock sank, the more their franchise player heard about it. “I had teammates telling me I’m the reason we’re losing and I should pack my bags and leave,” she says. “It gets to a point where I’m already down. You don’t need to break me anymore. We’ve lost twenty games in a row.”
Deeply homesick, Cambage began mulling exit plans. She found her opening in the summer of 2012, while leading the Opals to a bronze-medal finish at the London Games. After missing the first half of the WNBA season to honor her Opals commitment, she decided to forgo the second half too, citing exhaustion. The following season she returned to Tulsa, compiled the second-most efficient season in the 20 games she played, and left again, this time for good.
For five years, Cambage kept her distance. She continued playing at a high level with the Boomers. She played in China for three seasons and started out making about $300,000, compensation that lifted her into women’s basketball’s 1 percent. She kept playing for the Opals, whose bronze medal in London put them in the hot seat after having taken silver behind Team USA for the past three Olympiads.
In between she turned a recreational interest in DJing into a full-blown side hustle that had her spinning house and techno records for an audience of 8,000 and opening for Mary J. Blige. “Basketball just really wasn’t for me at that time,” she says. “I was really struggling… waking up hating it, waking up not wanting to go to training. I spent a lot of time playing basketball in China to make money. I knew you shouldn’t be in something just to make money. You should be in it because you love it.”
A week before the 2014 FIBA World Cup, she ruptured her Achilles tendon in a Paris exhibition game against the United States. After intensive rehab she came back stronger, but not strong enough to save the Opals from a group-stage loss to Serbia in the 2016 Rio Games.
The defeat plunged Cambage to her lowest point. She partied, she drank; she spiraled into a depression so deep an Australian crisis assessment service placed her on two-day suicide watch. But with the benefit of hindsight, and therapy, Cambage can appreciate that Olympic letdown for what it truly was: a blessing in disguise. “My goal was just to get through to Rio so I could a) retire, or b) just have a break,” she says. “But when we didn’t medal, it made me hungrier to keep playing.”
Meanwhile, the Tulsa Shock were also discovering a renewed sense of purpose after relaunching as the Dallas Wings in the fall of 2015. There was now a credible roster built around another bona fide superstar (guard Skylar Diggins-Smith), a veteran coach (Fred Williams, a pro-women’s-hoops lifer), and a general manager (Greg Bibb) determined to bring Cambage back. The Wings still retained her rights, and Bibb and Williams left no stone unturned in wooing her. In the spring of 2017 they coaxed her back to the Dallas–Fort Worth area for a VIP tour that included a trip to AT&T Stadium (where her highlights played on the massive screen overhead) and a visit to the recording studio of gospel music superstar Kirk Franklin. Eight months later they went to Melbourne to spend time with Cambage and her family and bear witness to her triumphant WNBL return. In February 2018, after a 27-month-long courtship, she recommitted to the Wings.
Cambage’s return exploded every expectation. She led the WNBA in scoring (23.0 points per game) and efficiency (30.73 PER) while finishing second in rebounding (9.7 per game)—stats that made her a shoo-in for her second All-Star laurel and a leading MVP vote-getter. “When Liz first came over,” says Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the Wings’ assistant whom Bibb promoted to interim head coach after he and Williams had a late-season falling out, “it wasn’t really a center’s game back then—like a true center. I’m six-two, and I was a center. Lauren Jackson’s six-six and she was a forward. So for Liz being six-eight in a league that didn’t really have six-eights, it was difficult for her to find her footing because the game was basically stretch-fours, stretch-fives shooting from outside. Nobody was playing with their back to the basket.”
You can make yourself dizzy trying to find Cambage’s ceiling. And yet: She could still take or leave the WNBA. “I might do that,” she says when I ask her if she’d bail again. “If I’m tired after that early next year I might not wanna come back. It’s hard on my body being here. You don’t get paid that much… At the end of the day if you want more girls playing you need to pay them more. I’ve got a mortgage back home. I’ve got a body to look after. I’ve got a future to think of.”