I grew up in an era where female professional sports were marginalised, didn’t attract media attention or money. The athletes competed for passion and love, more than the pay check or any fame that may come with it. Although we haven’t reached anything close to parity, times are changing. I’m raising my daughter in a world where female professional sports are high level, organised and funded. As such, players like the WNBA’s Liz Cambage are important to how my daughter is going to see her own place in the sporting world.
Liz Cambage is a Basketball player. Born 1991, in London, UK to a Nigerian father and raised in her mother’s native Australia. She is 6ft8 tall, weighs 220 lbs and plays Basketball with speed, power and grace. In her 4 WNBA seasons she has averaged 16.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.5 blocks. She shoots 55% on 12 attempts per game. She has also spent seasons playing in China for Zhejiang, Shanghai and Beijing, as well as representing Australia on the international stage. She is widely known off the court for being outspoken about issues that affect her and other female athletes.
Liz Cambage is a phenomenon. She is one of the current Vanguard of WNBA player, pushing the game forward both on and off the court. Her career is anything but standard. She has achieved so much and given so much to the game of Basketball. Only just hitting her peak now. Let’s take a deeper look at her career.
Liz Cambage – before turning professional
Unlike many successful WNBA players Cambage did not attend a college in the United States and play in the NCAA. In 2007 at the age of 16 she accepted a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) based in Canberra. She played for them in the Australian Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) for two seasons. In 2009 she moved back to Melbourne, joining the Bulleen Boomers, making her first WNBL All Star Five and leading the league in field goal percentage with 59.6%. During her time playing for the Boomers she began her international career, first as a junior and then moving up to the
senior squad and becoming one of their dominant players with eyes fixed on defeating the USA and winning gold at the 2012 Olympics in London.
The WNBA Draft and early career with Tulsa Shock
In 2011 Cambage entered the WNBA draft. She was drafted second by the Tulsa Shock and immediately expressed discontent. Cambage who was 20 at the time explained that she did not want to be seen as a Franchise player, carrying the heaviest load night tonight. She wanted to join the WNBA to develop her game and elevate her play. She thought that the Shock, who had finished the previous season with a 6 – 28 record and had missed the playoffs was not the place to do that. Later in her career it would emerge that she also thought it important to be on a single flight route from her family’s home in Melbourne so she could stay connected. The many flight changes between Tulsa and Melbourne did not make this practical.
She played 33 games for Tulsa in her Rookie season, starting 11 of them. Finishing with 11 points, 5 rebounds a block and a steal per game averages. Earning her place in the All-Star Game. However, the Shock got worse, falling to a 3 – 31 record and again missing the Playoffs.
As the 2012 Olympics approached, Cambage would miss the first half of the 2012 season to prepare with the Australian National side. After helping them power to a Bronze Medal where they lost in the Semi Finals by 13 points to the United States, before defeating Russia in the bronze playoff. Cambage would not return to Tulsa for the remainder of the 2012 season. She said she was physically exhausted and would not be recovered in time to join the team. It would emerge later that she had felt mentally and physically unable to get back on the plane from Melbourne after a layover. Feeling she needed to return back home to recover. She announced she had signed a contract to play in China, a season that started later and better suited her recovery time. This was a blow for Tulsa who had been promoting her return, especially after the became the first woman to dunk during an Olympic Basketball match.
She would return again to play 20 games for Tulsa in the 2013 season, partnered by Rookie sensation Skylar Diggins they would drag the Shock to an improved 11-23 record It was clear that the organisation wasn’t set up for success. Losing was hard for a player with Cambage’s drive. A 22-game losing streak that year pushed her to breaking point, with partying her main escape. Like many WNBA players she featured in the highest profile Women’s Basketball League in the world part time, In between Chinese seasons. She like many others are able to earn significantly more playing in China, Turkey and Russia than in the WNBA. She missed the entire 2014/15 season due to an Achilles injury. Playing her final season in China in 2015/16 for Shanghai.
At the 2016 Olympics Australia would this time top their group winning all 5 games in the opening round. This set up a potential final vs the USA where Cambage would get to show the world how dominant she was. However despite her team leading 29 points and 11 rebounds Australia crashed out to Serbia in the next round. Losing by 2 points. Cambage wouldn’t play basketball
anywhere for the rest of 2016 or 2017, choosing to pursue her own off court interests.
WNBA Return – Dallas Wings
In 2018 at the age of 27, after a year out of the game. Cambage announced she would be returning to the WNBA. The franchise formerly known as the Tulsa Shock had moved to Dallas and rebranded as the Wings. She would take the league by storm averaging 23 points, 10 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Once again teaming up with point guard Skylar Diggins. She set scoring records and led the league in efficiency. Cambage once again made the Allstar game establishing herself as a star. They would finish with a 15 and 19 record. Losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Phoenix Mercury, this time a first-round defeat wasn’t seen as a black hole pulling her in, rather than a goal achieved as she made the WNBA Playoffs for the first time. She credits a lot of her recovery to coach Fred Williams who had been in charge at the end of her Tulsa Shock days and kept in touch with her during the darkest time in her left where she felt basketball wasn’t the future she wanted. He eventually convinced her to come back to Dallas and enabled her to develop her game away from simply being a low post scorer dependent on other’s for service.
A New Chapter – The Las Vegas Aces
Despite her seeming recovery and happiness in Dallas, Cambage wouldn’t stay for a second season. Pushing for a trade to the Las Vegas Aces, she has made clear that her mental health is something she needs support with. Vegas having direct flights in from Melbourne means she doesn’t feel she is putting undue pressure on her family for the frequent visits she needs in order to stay stable.
After one season in Vegas she seems to have found her place. Looking set to finish with her first ever winning record in the WNBA, Cambage is in the form of her life. Surrounded by talent that matches her own. The 2019 season will surely see her win her first WNBA Playoff round and after that the Sky’s the limit.
Liz Cambage DNP Mental Health
So far, we have focused on what she has done on the court, where she has played. But pro athletes are people like all of us. She has been revolutionary in this regard. Always being outspoken, in particular about her mental health.
This has clearly been something that has defined her Basketball career. She lays it out beautifully and honestly in this Players Tribune article from August 2019. Please take the time to read it.