Cambage will rest, head to China
Australian center isn't sure she will return to play in the WNBA for the 2013 season
Liz Cambage said she thought she could pull it off. Play in the Olympics in London, go home to Australia for a quick rest, then hop on a plane for Tulsa and help the Shock finish out their WNBA schedule. And then head to China for another season, which starts in October.
But when it came time this week to leave for the United States, she couldn't do it. After two weeks of trumpeting Cambage's expected return for Thursday's game against Los Angeles, the Shock announced Tuesday that she actually wouldn't be coming back for the remainder of the 2012 season.
"The Olympics was a lot more than I expected. I didn't really expect to feel this low, and have no energy after it," Cambage said by phone from Australia on Wednesday. "My friends warned me that a lot of people suffer from what they call the post-Olympic depression. You're just training so hard for so long, and then it's over. I'm just energy-less, and it's been a struggle for me in the past couple of weeks."
Some WNBA fans won't buy this. They'll say the youthful Cambage -- she just turned 21 on Aug. 18 -- should have plenty of gas in her tank. They'll say she should have fulfilled her obligation to come to Tulsa whether she really "felt" like it or not.
But perhaps Cambage has learned from this experience to not commit to something if she isn't absolutely certain she'll do it. To that end, she isn't ready to say -- at least not now -- that she will play in the WNBA in 2013, either.
"You know, I'm only 21. I've got all the time in the world to come play in the WNBA," Cambage said. "It's the best league in the world. But I'm just taking it day-by-day. Now I'm focusing on China, and I could head back to the WNBA after that.
"It just depends what direction everything goes. I really want to go back to studying, too, and I'm pretty sure I can do a lot of it online. So hopefully, it all works out."
Just to make sure, I asked if that meant she won't make a decision on the 2013 WNBA season until after playing in China.
"Yeah, definitely," Cambage said. "Definitely."
This will sound alarm bells among Tulsa fans. Some will call even louder for the Shock -- to whom she's under contract until 2014 -- to look into trading Cambage. However, she also did say that if/when she returns to the WNBA, she believes she can be happy in Tulsa, where she admittedly had ups and downs during her 2011 rookie season.
"I think Tulsa is a great city," Cambage said. "When I was there, I met a lot of lovely people and made a lot of friends. It's quiet, but it helps you focus on basketball more. It's a smaller town, and everyone supports you there. That's why I loved the community there.
"They are still a young franchise, learning and growing. And I'd like to learn and grow with them."
It's just very mental at the moment. I feel like I've had so much on my plate the last couple of years, that I really need this three-week break before I head off to China.” -- Liz Cambage, who says she's exhausted after the Olympics
So what to make of all this? First, credit Cambage for answering honestly about her current uncertainty about 2013. Whether you empathize or not, she does clearly sound emotionally weary. She readily admits this isn't really about physical fatigue.
"It's just very mental at the moment," she said. "I feel like I've had so much on my plate the last couple of years, that I really need this three-week break before I head off to China."
And preparing to play well in China is understandably her priority now. That's not an emotional decision, but a bottom-line one. Cambage signed earlier this summer with the Zhejiang Chouzhou club, which plays in Hangzhou. The deal reportedly is worth about $400,000 for this season.
The Chinese club sees the personable, outgoing, extroverted Cambage as a draw not just for her basketball ability. At 6 feet, 8 inches, she's noticeable anywhere, and she really will stand out in Hangzhou.
"I love China; I've played there a few times on Australian team trips," Cambage said. "And I know [Chicago's] Swin Cash has played in China, and she's talked to me about it. I know [Minnesota's] Maya Moore is headed there as well. So it's going to be a fun season. It will be a pretty big culture shock, but I've got to get ready for it."
'You have to go where the money is'
Of course, Tulsa last year was a culture shock for Cambage, too -- albeit one that didn't pay as well.
Which brings us to the economic realities of global women's professional basketball that are well-known to most WNBA followers, but might still puzzle the casual observers of the sport.
As Cambage said, there is no argument that the WNBA is the top league in terms of the concentration of talent, the majority of it American-born. The WNBA has the backing of the NBA -- although less than half of the 12 franchises are owned by NBA teams -- and a television deal with ESPN.
But it also has a salary-cap structure with the goal of building toward a completely solvent league and encouraging competitive parity among the franchises. The WNBA doesn't have owners who want to -- or are allowed to -- spend exorbitantly on select players.
Nor are WNBA owners motivated by the same sense of regional/city rivalries as might be the case in various places overseas. And WNBA teams aren't looked at as ego-boosting "indulgences" like some women's club programs are internationally.
Not to say WNBA owners don't have egos, just that they're in this business definitely hoping to make a profit in a sports-saturated American landscape. The end result is that while the summertime-based WNBA is the "best" league, it's certainly not the best-paying for elite players.
"I can make the same amount here in Australia if I wanted to," said Cambage, whose WNBA rookie salary in 2011 was about $46,756. "Some girls are making crazy amounts over in Europe. So it's hard. I think it's easier for Americans, because it's home for them, and the WNBA is their league. Coming over for me for three weeks when I'm in this situation is more of a tough gig."
Some might call Cambage spoiled or diva-ish for thinking this way, which I don't think is fair or pragmatic. This is how she earns a living, and she's hardly the first non-American player to have a less-than-concrete commitment to the WNBA. All the teams know this is a contractual possibility with any player, no matter where she's from: She might just opt to skip her WNBA season and paycheck.
(I fully admit I have higher expectations of WNBA loyalty for American players for the very reason Cambage mentioned: It is their league.)
If you had a much larger paycheck waiting elsewhere, what would you do? Add in two more very long flights, 10 more games in a different country, and then head to your better-paying job? Or just rest before that job? People are going to answer that different ways, theoretically. But in real life, most folks might very well do what Cambage is doing.
However, she made a mistake in not deciding much earlier that she would not return to finish this season in Tulsa. Because now it appears she let down the Shock and their fans more at the "last minute" than was necessary, considering her China deal came through before the Olympics.
Yet Cambage said she did think until very late in the process that she'd still go to Tulsa. She even tweeted about it not long before she was supposed to make the trip.
And she has been paying attention to the Shock's season, its third in Tulsa.
"They've been doing very well lately; they just beat Atlanta and Chicago," Cambage said of the 5-19 Shock. "I've watched the stats this season, but it's been hard to actually watch games with the time difference. But I've kept my eye on the girls; I know they're doing better."
Cambage says she stays in fairly regular contact with Shock assistant Kathy McConnell-Miller, and also talked a few times with first-year head coach Gary Kloppenburg.
"He seems great, and I've only heard great things about him," said Cambage, who played for Nolan Richardson and then Teresa Edwards during a 2011 season in which Tulsa won just three games. "I was really excited to head over and work with [Kloppenburg].
"But I feel that it's wrong for me to go take someone's spot now when they're playing well. Because mentally, I'm not 100 percent. I felt like it wasn't fair to the Shock family for me to go back and not give 100 percent."
OK, you might be thinking this sounds like the basketball version of the infamous break-up line, "It's not you, it's me." Cambage isn't "dumping" Tulsa but well, she kinda did, at least for this summer.
Would Tulsa gladly have taken her at less than 100 percent? Absolutely. The Shock and their fans were eager to see Cambage, who had one of the individual highlights of the Olympic women's hoops tournament when she became the first woman to dunk in the Summer Games.
She wasn't overly jazzed about that -- she says she is "shy" about dunking -- but understood that her teammates, coaches and even opponents were excited. But ultimately, what loomed larger for her was the disappointment of not making it to the gold-medal game in London.
Australia was upset by France in pool play, which meant the Opals had to face the heavily favored United States in the semifinals. Cambage looked unstoppable in the first half against the Americans, scoring 19 points. But she was shut down in the second half, Team USA won 86-73, and the Aussies went to the bronze-medal game, where they defeated Russia.
The way Cambage played in the first half against the United States was a display of why the Shock, and WNBA fans, are so bullish on her future. But everything that has happened has to leave Tulsa wondering how much of that future will be with the Shock.
Some might say this puts the Shock in a terrible position, with much uncertainty. But actually, Tulsa is going to have a lot of information to work with as the franchise makes decisions for 2013 and beyond.
The Shock won their first road game of the season Tuesday night at troubled Atlanta. But unless things turn incredibly bizarre in the closing weeks of the regular season, Tulsa can't play its way out of the lottery.
So the Shock will know later this year their position in the 2013 draft, and whether they get the grand prize of 6-foot-8 Baylor center Brittney Griner. Or if they'll be second or third, and thus potentially deciding between Delaware's Elena Delle Donne or Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins. (If the Shock end up drafting fourth again, we will officially pronounce the franchise cursed and call for an exorcism.)
Tulsa surely will be in some contact over the winter with Cambage and her agent, Allison Tranquilli, and at least have a better feel for how thing are going in China. Then when it comes time to pursue free agents, possibly gauge Cambage's potential trade value, and otherwise plan for 2013, the Shock can make some important decisions.
Even if Tulsa wins the Griner sweepstakes, that doesn't necessarily mean Cambage is expendable. Asked what she thought of the potential of playing in the WNBA alongside another 6-8 tower, Cambage deadpanned, "That would be so unfair for the rest of the league."
Then she laughed and said, "But it would be a lot of fun. I've seen clips of her playing in a few games, and she seems cool."
Griner will also be a sought-after commodity overseas when she turns pro, but we likely can expect that she'll balance that with a firm commitment to the WNBA. Most American players do feel they have a lot at stake in the WNBA. It gives them the chance to play professionally in their home country, which has considerable value.
That said, Cambage is aware that, reputation and legacy-wise, proving yourself in the WNBA long-term is critical for everyone. She knows that's a big part of why -- in spite of it not always being the most comfortable or even salary-maximizing thing for them -- fellow Aussies Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor have played so many seasons in the WNBA.
"That's the hardest thing about being an athlete: You travel the world and you have to go where the money is," Cambage said. "You do have to make sacrifices, but that's why Lauren and Penny are the best. Because they've made sacrifices to be the best."
Will Cambage do the same thing? She doesn't seem quite ready to say that now. That will frustrate some observers who are tantalized by her talent. Jackson has said she feels sure Cambage is on the road to greatness. But right now, Cambage is really only looking at her next stop.
"These next couple of weeks, just having no commitments, I'll be working on my fitness," she said. "And having some peace of mind that I'm recuperating and getting refreshed in preparation for China."