Liz Cambage’s WNBA Downfall Was Full of Drama. It’s Not All Her Fault.

The player's story is one of alleged slurs, on-court tussles, Vegas binges, an OnlyFans account...and a league that wasn't equipped to help her.

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Liz Cambage’s WNBA Downfall Was Full of Drama. It’s Not All Her Fault.
Photo:Leon Bennett/Getty Images (Getty Images)

In April, star center and WNBA free agent Liz Cambage appeared at the Los Angeles Sparks’ media day ahead of the upcoming 2022 season—her first with the team. She glowed as she chummed it up with teammates and reporters, fueled by the hype and renewed hope for a Sparks championship that had accompanied her highly anticipated arrival. “Crowd’s gonna be lit, building’s gonna be lit…it’s gonna be the most wild summer. That’s how I think this season’s gonna go,” the Australian native told reporters that day. “And we’re gonna have a ring at the end of it.”

That summer did, indeed, turn out to be quite wild—though maybe not in the way Cambage had envisioned. Last week, the WNBA’s self-proclaimed “black sheep” suddenly exited the Sparks amid rumors that she had “quit.” Cambage had played just 25 games with the organization when, according to Yahoo! Sports, she stormed out of the Sparks locker room, announcing, “I can’t do this anymore. Best of luck to you guys.” The Sparks later revealed Tuesday that they had agreed to a “contract divorce” with the four-time All-Star and two-time All-WNBA player.

“It is with support that we share Liz Cambage’s decision to terminate her contract with the organization,” Sparks managing partner Eric Holoman said in a statement. “We want what’s best for Liz and have agreed to part ways amicably. The Sparks remain excited about our core group and are focused on our run towards a 2022 playoff berth.”

Having been likened to the heel or “ring villain” of the WNBA, a “combustible” outsider, and a frequent source of both petty and serious drama, Cambage’s dramatic exit from the WNBA, on the outside, looks to be an unavoidable crash-and-burn. With a complicated career marked by drama fit for a long-winded season of a Bravo reality series, the story of Liz Cambage is one of alleged slurs, on-court tussles, Las Vegas binges, shifting loyalties, an OnlyFans account, and a reputation as a player no one wanted to play with.

But, in reality, that crash followed a turbulent, decade-long journey in a league Cambage had little respect for—something she’s made known on multiple occasions. And while her legacy has all the trappings of a modern-day Dennis Rodman character—minus the rings and the Michael Jordan duet—Cambage might never get another shot to be great, though she probably doesn’t need one. Rather, her legacy is one that paints the WNBA as an institution incapable of taking care of its players—one that has never allowed Black women athletes to show up exactly as they are.

Cambage’s fraught relationship with the WNBA began almost the instant it started. In 2011, the center was drafted second overall by the Tulsa Shock—a franchise she immediately confessed she did not want to play for, adding that she’d never even heard of Tulsa, according to the Los Angeles Times. A star rookie and Australian native, she didn’t understand why, as a player in high demand, she couldn’t choose the team she’d begin her league career with—a significant departure from the expectation that athletes should shake hands and thank God and their families for blessing them with the opportunity to play basketball. After the Shock won just three games that season, Cambage left to play basketball for China, where she reportedly earned $400,000 or 10 times what she’d made with the Shock. In 2018, after several years of playing abroad, Cambage returned to the Dallas Wings. She lasted one year before requesting to be traded in the midst of an unfulfilled, multi-year contract.

Despite bumps and bruises, Cambage went on to make her mark in the league and currently holds the WNBA single-game scoring record for her 53-point game against the New York Liberty in 2018. And in 2022, when she landed in Los Angeles, where she’d always dreamt of playing, the 6-foot-8 player finally seemed content (she didn’t like playing for the Las Vegas Aces because it was too hot there). She reportedly negotiated her one-year, $170,000 deal with the franchise herself.

“It was L.A. or out for me,” Cambage told the L.A. Times ahead of her move to the Sparks, admitting she always wanted to play like Kobe Bryant. “There was nowhere else I wanted to be…I wanted to play at Staples. I wanted to play here. I wanted to be a star, Hollywood and the lights.”

Unfortunately, Cambage’s tenure with the Sparks never lived up to the romanticized sports movie she’d concocted in her head. She’d long been known as a player most teammates struggled to get along with. In 2019, the Chicago Sky’s Allie Quigley accused Cambage of calling a player a “fat ass,” though Cambage denies this incident. And in 2021, leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, Cambage reportedly called players on the Nigerian national team “monkeys” during training, ultimately withdrawing from the tournament for mental health concerns. But Cambage says the slur never happened, as she’s half Nigerian (her father is Nigerian, and her mother is white Australian) herself. Some outlets also speculated that the remark may have elicited frustration from her Sparks teammates and compromised the entire team’s chemistry—Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, sisters who are both Sparks players, are Nigerian American. (Cambage has insisted she is close friends with the sisters).

Before the season, according to Yahoo! Sports, Cambage had insisted on wearing No. 8, a number that had been retired. When that option was exhausted, Cambage decided on No. 1, the jersey number of her teammate, Amanda Zahui B., who reportedly declined to give up her number but later found out via social media that the number had been given to Cambage anyway. Sources also told Yahoo! that Cambage frequently and publicly accused her teammates of mistakes while studying game film. And, despite the glittering depiction of Angeleno culture, tensions between teammates were exacerbated by the Sparks’ practice location, which was regarded as the “worst practice facility in the league.”

During Cambage’s last game, Yahoo! reported, she was “leisurely running up the court complaining” that her teammates hadn’t given her enough “post touches” (opportunities to score close to the net). So they began “force-feeding” her the ball “out of annoyance,” ignoring the called plays. Cambage finished the game with just 11 points.

While the end of Cambage’s WNBA career always appeared destined for a fiery explosion, the All-Star player has never shied away from her bouts of depression and substance abuse, and the league’s unsatisfactory mental health support. But even as the WNBA failed to keep up with the NBA’s mental health strides, the narrative of Cambage’s suffering was often overshadowed by her aggression and inability to get along with other players. In 2019, Cambage wrote an essay about her mental health struggles in the Player’s Tribune, in which she detailed getting blackout drunk as a 15-year-old, that she had first attempted sobriety at 18, how she spent her rookie season alone in tears every night, the time she was put on suicide watch in 2016, and a yoyo-ing dependency on antidepressants:

“Have you all in the States ever heard of a rip? Or I think it’s riptide for long. But it’s this thing where, one moment you might be having a normal sunny day at the beach, no big deal. You’re chilling, you’re swimming around with your friends. And then the next moment — what you don’t even realize, is that slowly but surely the current has been dragging you out into the ocean. And now the water is getting deeper and deeper….. and your friends have all disappeared….. and it doesn’t feel so sunny anymore….. and you can’t move….. and you can’t breathe….. until suddenly it’s just you, alone, under these enormous, dark waves…..And you drown.”

For all the brilliant asshole typecasting (and without excusing unacceptable behavior), perhaps Cambage was an asshole because she was suffering, which she told us on many occasions. Perhaps other players were simply caught in the path of her riptide—something she had little to no control over. Instead, as is the case with many Black women expected to mold themselves amicably within a white institution, she became a difficult player—one perhaps not suited for the pageantry of the WNBA. Too loud, too aggressive, too nude, too stubborn, too demanding: someone with “a somewhat maddening willingness to walk away from professional situations that don’t immediately gratify her,” according to The Times. Setting the behavioral blunders aside, however, many of Cambage’s demands don’t seem so…demanding.

By the end of her 2018 season with the Wings, Cambage had played for five coaches in three WNBA seasons far from home and was making pennies in comparison to her overseas play. She dunked on the commissioner for paying coaches more than the entire rosters of players and was chided for “tearing down” other women by ESPN. She refused to accept the WNBA’s commercial flight policy, as she was forced to pay for her own upgrades to accommodate her nearly 7-foot-tall frame. And she was heckled for being “unfocused” on her basketball career because she had also pursued online sex work, DJing at Red Rocks, and modeling—as if laboring to compensate for her pitiful WNBA salary was a shortcoming. Actually, it seems that all Liz Cambage ever wanted was to be treated with decency by an institution that disproportionately celebrates its white players, while holding its Black players to a harsher standard (something it has done since its inception). And in many cases, she just wanted her family to be able to watch her play.

Looking back at photos from that media day, one of Cambage’s tattoos is visible, peeking out from beneath her jersey. On her right shoulder, a Shakespeare quote from Romeo and Juliet reads: “These violent delights have violent ends. And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, Which as they kiss consume.”

Cambage showed us exactly who she was; the league just wasn’t equipped for a player—equal parts star and controversy—like her.

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