Liz Cambage had gathered her friends for a going-away party in Australia.
There was only one problem: The W.N.B.A. superstar didn’t know if she was actually leaving. At the time, in early May, Cambage’s rights still belonged to the Dallas Wings, a team she’d said she would no longer play for. But with training camp underway, the Wings hadn’t completed a deal to send Cambage elsewhere.
“I literally went into my going-away dinner like, I could still be here next week,” Cambage said. “If I am, cool, but let’s just act like I’m leaving.”
The day after the dinner, the Wings completed a trade with the Las Vegas Aces that changed the balance of power in the league. Cambage, 27, arrived in Las Vegas 48 hours later as a member of the W.N.B.A.’s newest championship contender. But she was wary: She had clashed with Aces Coach Bill Laimbeer last season. (She said she cursed at him as she shot a free throw.) And after working hard to give up alcohol and live a healthier, less party-centric life, she worried about moving to so-called Sin City.
“I still think the reason I did hurt my Achilles’ before the world championships,” Cambage said, referring to her ruptured Achilles’ tendon before the 2014 tournament, “is because I was drinking so much, and partying so much, and I wasn’t sleeping enough. I had a whole lot of life dramas going on. I was just using alcohol as an escape. But I’ve learned from it, and I know that it won’t suck me in.”
Her professional life dates to the 2011 W.N.B.A. draft, which sent her to the Tulsa Shock as a 19-year-old trying to navigate a new country and career. But, she said, it has been a career of improper fits, even as a 6-foot-8 center who has presented impossible matchup problems for any opponent. She noted that flying from Melbourne, where she is from, to Tulsa, required a connecting flight in Oklahoma City. A trip to Dallas, where the Shock moved while retaining her rights, also required multiple plane changes.
Rumors swirled in the off-season that she wanted to be traded to the Los Angeles Sparks for a simple reason: There’s a direct flight there from Melbourne, easing the burden for family and friends to visit her.
“I don’t want my family traveling 30 hours to come see me,” Cambage said, adding that her grandmother, who is ill, would not be up to the task.
CreditChase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal, via Associated Press
It’s all a lot for someone who never planned to become a basketball player. Cambage’s mother, Julia Cambage, is a dancer-turned-architect and now chief executive of the Australian Institute of Architects. Cambage grew up playing piano and violin, and planned to study design and architecture, only to turn to basketball when she reached 6 feet tall at age 10, and 6-foot-5 by age 14.
Watching Cambage effortlessly grab rebounds or sink shots from anywhere on the court now, it’s hard to imagine her anywhere else — but she has never seen herself foremost as a basketball player.
Unlike many of her peers, whose lives revolve around basketball, Cambage has walked away from the game before, and plans to do so again, this time after the 2020 W.N.B.A. season. She spoke of taking a trip to the Amazon, indulging her interest in design and giving herself over to her time as a D.J. (She is scheduled to be the D.J. at a party featuring Snoop Dogg during All-Star weekend in Las Vegas later this month.) That time, she said, drains all the stress from her body that comes with fighting on-court opponents who try to stop her using any physical means necessary.
“Right now I’m just paving the way to the Tokyo Olympics” in 2020, Cambage said. “And I’m giving this career everything I can for the next two years, and then I will be stepping away and re-evaluating everything.”
Everything she has may be enough to lift the Aces to a championship in just their second year after moving from San Antonio. Cambage had Skylar Diggins-Smith and mostly role players alongside her on the Dallas Wings, but now she’s playing on a starting five that is the envy of the league. Cambage is the center; A’ja Wilson, the 2018 rookie of the year, plays power forward; Kayla McBride, a two-time All-Star, is at small forward; Kelsey Plum, the 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick 2017, is the shooting guard; and this year’s No. 1 draft pick, Jackie Young, is handling point guard duties.
“Our starting five is ridiculous,” Cambage said. “Our bench is great as well. And it’s just a hardworking team and just a bunch of women that just want to work hard and win, and do whatever it takes. We’re young, and I find myself growing into the leadership role here a bit. Especially on court.”
That takes its form in several ways. There’s the statistical side, where Cambage, always a gifted passer, is finding her teammates at an elevated clip — a 17.9 assist percentage. Opposing teams quickly discovered that double-teaming Cambage was not a recipe for success with so many other scorers alongside her on the court.
Accordingly, the Aces are 19.1 points per 100 possessions better with Cambage on the floor than with her off it. Not that this level of play is anything new. Cambage made the All-Star team in 2011 at 19 years old; and through her first 98 games in the W.N.B.A., her player efficiency rating of 27.4 ranks fourth in league history, behind only Cynthia Cooper, Elena Delle Donne and Lauren Jackson.
The Aces were 9-5 entering Wednesday’s game against the Indiana Fever, first in the Western Conference and third in the W.N.B.A., behind Cambage and Wilson, who are neck-and-neck for top ranking on the team in rebounds, assists and blocks per game. This level of performance has the Aces trending for what Cambage told her friends in Australia would have her busy through September: the W.N.B.A. finals.
Cambage told friends that she planned to see them again in October. It’s part of her new plan to speak things into existence, something she said she picked up from religiously listening to Oprah’s SuperSoul Sessions podcasts.
Julia Cambage is also planning to fly to Las Vegas for the finals. Business took her to town to speak at a conference earlier this season, something Liz Cambage wryly added didn’t happen in her Tulsa days. Cambage’s contract runs through 2019, but she said she planned to re-sign for 2020. She has begun looking at real estate in the city.
“I was so scared of living in Vegas, but it’s so chill. It’s so dope,” Cambage said, adding: “I go out and have delicious meals, and I’ve been to a couple of shows already. Took my mom to Celine Dion. I’m having a very wholesome and humble time living in Vegas so far, and it’s going to stay that way.”