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

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LOS ANGELES — Liz Cambage strutted through the Sparks practice facility prefer it was her own residence. There was a smile on her face. Her arms swayed forwards and backwards with each step.

After a recent practice there, Cambage, the team’s recent 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 invite Cambage happily accepted.

“I feel I’m essentially the most sound and relaxed that I’ve been in a protracted time,” Cambage said, her legs crossed comfortably. “I’m where I would like to be. I’m surrounded by the people I would like 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 profession. 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 drag down rebounds and rating easy baskets within the post against double and triple teams. It carried her through a dark rookie yr and stressful Olympics stints, and thru a difficult mental health journey on which, on her bad days, she struggled to get off the bed or take a shower.

Entering her sixth W.N.B.A. season, Cambage will begin the ultimate leg of her playing profession, which has included 4 All-Star selections, a runner-up finish in Most Invaluable Player Award voting and a single-game scoring record, but never a championship.

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

“We don’t necessarily feel prefer it’s going to occur 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 yr once we began overhauling our team.”

Her one-year deal is price $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 well worth the pay cut.

“I’m at some extent where I’m too old to be in places I don’t need to be,” Cambage said, adding, “I’ve got right into a place where I make a lot money off the ground that I can take a pay cut to wherever I would like to be here within the league.”

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

“I like my whole body,” Cambage said through the shoot. “I’m pleased with 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 boldness to like 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 day-after-day when she was younger.

“It’s just powerful to me,” she said. “I’m not attempting 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 within the post. Nevertheless it took some time for her to feel that way.

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

“I used to be made to feel like a freakish monster for being tall and an individual of color,” Cambage said.

When she was 10 years old, Cambage got here home from school at some point and told her mother, Julia Cambage, that she didn’t need to live anymore. The bullying and isolation were an excessive amount of.

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

She added, “But just having the notion of the concept, the motive, that I desired to get up and never be here since 10 years old, that’s so much.”

Trying to find options that might help her daughter make friends, Julia forced Liz to go to a basketball practice one Sunday.

Cambage had never been fascinated by sports. She had played the violin and piano, but her mother needed to sell her piano after 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 used to be just surrounded by really lovely girls,” Cambage said. “I used to be just supported and loved and I actually grew to like the sport 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 construct its roster and future success across the 19-year-old Cambage.

“I feel it wasn’t until I moved to America after I was 19 that I actually loved who I’m,” she said. “And as a girl of color, as a much bigger woman, those two things are really embraced here in America.”

As big of an impact because 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 he or she struggled to regulate in a recent place that felt like an alternate universe. In Melbourne, she was in a position to vote, drive and party as freely as she desired to. In Tulsa, she was considered underage, and felt like she was treated like a toddler.

Foundering on and off the court, and 1000’s 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 need to be there. Her agent on the time told her to suck it up and stay.

“I cried day-after-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 within 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 in every of the best-known athletes in Australia playing for the lauded women’s national team, but privately, Cambage was able to walk away from basketball. Her team didn’t medal for the primary time in six Olympics.

Cambage needed a sports psychologist simply to make it through the games. More often than not, she coped by partying, drinking and self-medicating.

“It’s a vicious cycle that you just 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 coping with just feeling an excessive amount of.”

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

“If I didn’t have Coach Fred reminding me who I’m and the way great I’m every other day and attempting 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 essentially the most ever scored in a W.N.B.A. game.

By the point Cambage joined the Las Vegas Aces in 2019 after demanding a trade out of Dallas, she was one of the crucial dynamic and outspoken players in women’s basketball. She wore her 6-foot-8 height proudly, although she said referees struggled to officiate someone her size. Last season, the top 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 steer 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 through the Sparks’ media day last month. She added: “I feel numerous people don’t understand how much she desires to win and dominate and be great.”

On Recent Yr’s Eve, Las Vegas announced it had hired as head coach Becky Hammon, the previous W.N.B.A. star and a longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant who many assumed would eventually develop into the N.B.A.’s first female head coach. Hammon’s contract was reportedly price around $1 million dollars a yr 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 receives a commission 4X the best paid players super max contract,” Cambage wrote in a Twitter post.

Player salaries within 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’ve got a C.B.A. for teams and a salary cap that’s $1.4 million, but a coach can get tens of 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 plenty of other women play within the off-season since the contracts are far more lucrative than stateside.

Last yr, the league fined the Liberty $500,000 for secretly chartering flights to games through the 2021 season; the collective bargaining agreement only permits teams to fly commercially in premium economy. The nice 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 skilled male athletes.

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

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

After the recent Sparks practice ended, Cambage stayed afterward to stand 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, near the water. Sparks fans have already used the term Liz Angeles to term this recent chapter, which begins Friday against the Chicago Sky, the defending champions.

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

It has been a protracted journey for Cambage to get so far: She loves what she sees when she looks within the mirror. She’s excited to get up and are available to work day-after-day, to chase a championship with the Sparks.

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

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