Liz Cambage embracing Tulsa
TULSA, Okla. -- Twenty-five hundred bobbleheads were passed out in Minnesota last week immortalizing Maya Moore, the No. 1 draft pick who, in one summer swoop, has turned a franchise's fortunes. Half a world away, a life-sized cardboard cutout of No. 2 sat in a lonely concourse in Tulsa. Dozens of people gravitated to the likeness of Liz Cambage, snapping pictures on their cellphones while a game was going on because hey, when your team has the worst record in the WNBA, what else is there to do? One man kissed the cutout, which was to be given away to a lucky Oklahoman in a raffle.
Cambage, a 6-foot-8 Australian who sticks out in these parts like Manolos at a rodeo, has a good sense of humor, which is almost mandatory in this rookie season with the Tulsa Shock. She arrives for breakfast on a Monday morning just after 9 o'clock, which is dreadfully early for her, especially since it's just hours after her team set a WNBA record with its 18th straight loss.
But Cambage is on, as always. She is asked what a Tulsan might do with a 6-8 cardboard cutout of her, and barely pauses.
"I dunno," she says. "Maybe if someone is trying to break in, they can just leave it somewhere and they're going to be like, 'God, Liz Cambage is in this house,' and run away."
For the next hour, in between blueberry pancakes, oatmeal with bananas and a latte, Cambage goes on about everything from kids -- she wants to have five of them -- to processed food to toilets (she says American toilets have a more aggressive flush). And by the end of the conversation, it is clear why the WNBA would salivate over the uber-personable Cambage becoming a face of the league.
If only this face weren't so young.
She came to the United States four months ago, at the age of 19, saddled with the hopes of reviving one of the league's worst teams, hyped by one of its most well-known coaches, former Arkansas legend Nolan Richardson. Four months later, Richardson is gone, Cambage is out of the starting lineup and Tulsa is 3-25 after having won two straight this past weekend.
From a PR standpoint, Cambage is perfect for this oil town that sits on the edge of the Great Plains and the foot of the Ozarks. She's a celebrity here, not just because she towers over everyone, but because people in these parts appreciate someone who's seemingly authentic and personable. Who means well. Tulsa lost its 19th straight game last week, a squeaker to Minnesota, and when the team walked off the court, the fans here stood and cheered. They liked the way their team hung with the WNBA's top team. Attendance for the game was listed at 8,997, which is stunning considering the Shock, at the time, hadn't won since June 17.
But deep inside the BOK Center, baby steps don't get you very far. Cambage isn't where she hoped to be. Maybe the franchise expected too much too soon from a kid with no college experience, interim coach Teresa Edwards concedes now. Maybe Cambage just needs a personality tweak. She's too nice. The interactions at practice between Edwards and the rookie might be more entertaining than the team's games.
On one end is a coach who was so scary-intense as a player that she still makes a few media members a little nervous; on the other end is Cambage, a smiling, walking sound bite who'll lament about the end of the Harry Potter series to a complete stranger. A kid.
"I think you can build a team around her," Edwards says. "But she has to have that personality to want to carry the load.
"No one said she doesn't want it. But you can't play soft and not competitive and have someone look at you and say she wants it. How are you going to be a finesse 6-8 player and not be competitive and have people say, 'Wow, she wants it?' It doesn't work. I didn't say she didn't want it. But hell, I want a million dollars. Are you going to give it to me because I want it? You've got to go get it."
The early years
She has no sad backstory. She grew up on the beach, learned how to surf and dreamed of being on TV. Lizzie Cambage was raised by her mum, a high-powered CEO, and never wanted for anything. The only real childhood angst she experienced came when her classmates teased her, predictably, about her size.
They called her Big Bird.
"I feel like a lot of people in sports come from not bad backgrounds, but they have a real story," Cambage says. "They've come from some of the hardest times, and they're out there playing for their family and the first thing they want to do is buy their parents a house and everything.
"I've never had to deal with anything bad. I've never been through anything."
Her father is Nigerian; her mother Australian. They split up when Liz was a baby, and Julia Cambage took her daughter to Australia, eventually settling in Melbourne. The elder Cambage, who is occasionally called "Jules" by her daughter, is tough -- she has to be, Liz says, because she's competing against men. Julia came to the U.S. recently to watch her daughter play. She nearly got kicked out of the arena for arguing with the refs.
"No one can touch her baby," Liz says. "She's not one to mess with."
On Australian basketball courts, neither was Liz. She dominated in the small, packed gyms, overwhelming the opposition with her size and finesse. She wasn't used to losing, says Los Angeles Sparks guard Jenna O'Hea, a teammate in Australia. She certainly wasn't used to being pushed around. In the 2010-11 season, Cambage led the Bulleen Boomers to the Women's National Basketball League championship and was named league MVP. WNBA scouts traveled long distances to watch her play.
But despite her size -- Cambage would be the tallest player in the WNBA -- their analysis was sort of a crap shoot. The style of play is different in Australia, and Cambage knew, long before she stepped foot in America, that she was about to embark upon a much more physical league.
In the days leading up to the April draft, a local paper in Australia quoted Cambage as saying she didn't want to play for Tulsa, which was coming off a 6-28 season and was obviously a much different town than Melbourne. But Cambage says the article made her sound like a "complete brat," and that her quotes were taken out of context. She says her only hesitation about Tulsa was that she didn't want the pressure of being a franchise player, which is what the Shock desperately needed.
"I wanted to just learn and grow behind the scenes and not be such a big thing," Cambage says. "It would've been nice to go to a big city, but maybe coming to Tulsa for my first few seasons was a good idea.
"Maybe it was good that I was thrown into the deep end first."
The first sign that Cambage might not be ready for the rigors of American basketball came on the opening day of practice. The team dropped to the floor to do pushups, and the rookie didn't exactly know what to do.
"She knew what a pushup was," Edwards says. "It's just that she couldn't do it. She was doing it off her knees and still struggling. I actually made fun of her. I said, 'You're kidding me, right?'
"I think I was the only one who really made a big deal out of it. I just realized how much work we had to do."
Cambage faced double-teams every night. She's a marked woman, veteran forward Sheryl Swoopes says, because opponents take it as a challenge to go up against the league's tallest player, especially the No. 2 overall draft pick who happened to get plenty of hype in the preseason. It has been reported that after some games in the early part of the season, Cambage would come off the court in tears.
"I think a lot of people expected her to come in this year and immediately make a huge impact because of her size," Swoopes says, "not remembering that she is only 19 years old.
"Once she realizes what she has, she's going to be a beast."
Cambage has suffered two concussions this season. She has yet to realize, Edwards says, that the 6-foot-8 body that has drawn so many hits and elbows could also be used to inflict plenty of damage. Cambage used to look at an opponent who roughed her up and wonder why she was hitting her. She would get frustrated with the refs. She thought the no-calls were personal.
Perhaps this is where the experience of a five-time Olympian like Edwards would come in handy. Pop someone before you get popped, she'll say. Edwards used to do that. But unless you're 35, the luster of Edwards the player is sort of lost. This is a show-me generation of kids, Edwards says.
So she heaps plenty of tough love on Cambage, whose season has had a few seismic swings. There was the giddiness of playing in the All-Star Game, replacing an injured Candace Parker. There was the reality check when she came back to Tulsa and the skid clunked on.
"I think I've got a very tough skin," Cambage says.
"It was ugly to be on the court at the start, but I think I've gotten better."
Though her minutes have dwindled, and she's now coming off the bench, Cambage is still third on the team in scoring and second in rebounding. And she still puts people in the seats. She recently volunteered to auction of a pair of shoes for a Breast Health Awareness event, and the shoes netted $3,400 and the crowd stood up and cheered for her.
The auction was in San Antonio, for the rival Silver Stars.
Ready for it to end
A toddler in a pink-and-white dress has caught the eye of Cambage as she finishes breakfast, and she stares and gushes at the kid, who's fiddling with a cellphone at a nearby table. Cambage would rather talk about practically anything but this season. She knows this might sound bad, but she just wants these last few weeks to be over. She hates playing against teams that are going to the postseason. She wants to fast-forward to next year.
A Shock PR guy, who is seated at the table, is more concerned about Cambage's comments on the American diet than he is about Cambage uttering a statement that might be interpreted as giving up. She's not giving up. It's been that kind of season in Tulsa. Who doesn't want it to be over?
"Am I happy about being 1-23? It's horrible," she said prior to Tulsa's recent two-game winning streak. "But we're staying together off the court and on the court; we're trying to stick together and get another win. A few more wins. There are worse things happening in other places, so I can't complain. I've got a job and I've got a roof over my head. So what can you do? All you can do is smile."
Rumors have swirled about whether Cambage will be back in Tulsa next season. She'll play for Australia in the Olympics next summer, and some have speculated that she will then call it good for the year. Cambage scoffs at that and says if she's healthy, she'll come back and play the second half of the season.
Cambage turned 20 a couple of weeks ago, an event she called "sad." It's the end, really, of being a kid. Her land-locked teammates, well aware of how much she misses the ocean, took her to a lake that's roughly 30 minutes away. They ate cake and went out on a boat, and that's about the extent of what Cambage wants to explain about the day. But it made her feel at home.
Tulsa is a little more cosmopolitan than she expected. There's a Saks Fifth Avenue in Utica Square, near the Wild Fork restaurant she likes to frequent and is eating breakfast at on this particular morning. Wherever she goes, be it at a Walmart or a sidewalk cafe, she gets stopped.
They laugh at her stories. Like how she's freaked out by the Connecticut Sun mascot, Blaze, which she calls a "fuzzy, mutated muppet." Or how she'll never really stop being a kid.
"I just love magic," she says. "Is that weird? I just love imagination. Being an only child, I had to make my fun. And I still make my own fun."
Tulsa, in some ways, has been an indoctrination of sorts. The girl who says she never had anything bad happen to her finally has some hardship.
Finally, the girl who says she never had anything bad happen has her own hard-luck stories. Cambage has a tattoo that is covered by her jersey, and the ink reveals one of her favorite quotes.
This, too, shall pass.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.