The Tulsa Shock announced Thursday that Liz Cambage has reversed course and now will play this WNBA season after all. While we hold our breath waiting to see if she really sets foot in Oklahoma next week as the Shock now expect, we must say it's an exciting twist to a WNBA season that already has so much to anticipate. But …
The relationship between Cambage and the Shock reminds me a little of that game that my nephews always begged me to give them money to play. You know, the one with all the cool-looking prizes in the big glass box, and all you have to do is pick one up with this claw-thing and then drop it off into the open space. Yeah, that's all you have to do.
"You're not wasting 50 cents on that," I'd say. They would plead, "But I could get the iPod! I just know I could get it this time!"
I'd say, "Yeah, right. You KNOW the clamp will open before you drop in the prize. It ALWAYS does. You KNOW like one in a million people -- if that -- actually gets the iPod."
The inevitable comeback: "Nuh-uh! My friend at school said his cousin got it once!"
Cambage, the 6-foot-8 Australian who was the WNBA's No. 2 draft pick in 2011, has been the prize that the Shock haven't ever quite had a grip on.
She's still just 21 years old, almost a year younger than the current No. 1 draft pick, Brittney Griner of Phoenix. Cambage didn't go the American college route, so she was just a teenager when she was drafted into the WNBA.
The month before the 2011 draft, she was quoted in Australia as saying she didn't want to go to Tulsa and have to carry the weight of being a franchise-changing player. Once she got to the draft, though, she said there was a misunderstanding, and that she actually was fine with Tulsa.
Her rookie season, Cambage played for Nolan Richardson first. As a WNBA coach, he was somewhat like a motorist who'd gotten off at the wrong exit, drove a long ways down the road, and then couldn't find his way back to the interstate. Then Teresa Edwards took over, and she's not known for being very patient with young players who might not cut the mustard in her eyes.
Cambage's rookie year had flashes of great potential, but she started just 11 of 33 games while averaging 11.5 points and 4.7 rebounds for a 3-31 team. I could understand why her first season in the WNBA might have been miserable for Cambage.
But her countrywoman Lauren Jackson had experienced a lot of the same things -- struggling team, homesickness -- when she was a Seattle rookie in 2001. And LJ persevered to become one of the WNBA's very best. (OK, no wisecracks about being miserable in Seattle as opposed to being miserable in Tulsa.)
Last year, Cambage was supposed to return to the Shock for the end of the season after the Summer Olympics. The team advertised her comeback, hoping it would be a reward for loyal fans and would give Cambage a taste of the new direction the team was headed under coach Gary Kloppenburg.
Cambage apparently started the trip to Tulsa, but then couldn't bring herself to finish it. She called off her return. The Shock were publicly stood up. It was like the claw-thing had opened at the last second, and the prize slipped away again.
And at that point, a lot of WNBA followers started to ask, even more than they previously had, "Should Tulsa just trade her?"
Cambage spent the winter months playing very well in China, where she averaged 36.2 points and 11.1 rebounds for Zhejiang. Her team lost in the finals to Minnesota star Maya Moore's squad. I talked to Moore last week about her, although the belief then was that Cambage would not be playing in the WNBA this season. The Shock had announced that in April.
Still, I wondered what Moore thought of Cambage's game at this stage of her development, since the last most of us saw the Aussie play was in the 2012 Olympics.
"She really is a pretty good passer, and she's good at finding those shooters out of the double team," Moore said. "Once she gets the ball in the position she wants, you really can't do much to stop her. She's got really good hands around the rim, finishing high.
"She's very physical. And she can block shots as well. She does a good job of making you think twice when you get in the paint. I think she's just overall more confident; that's the biggest change."
Moore was rookie of the year for Minnesota in 2011, an MVP candidate last year, and likely will be in the running for that honor this year, too. She has been all that the Lynx could hope for, and already has one title.
Cambage, the woman who went right behind No. 1 Moore in the draft, is an enigma, at least to WNBA followers. A friendly enigma. A smiling enigma. A charm-you-almost-against-your-will enigma. But still, someone we don't know if we can count on yet to give her all to this league.
In the wake of Thursday's announcement, the speculation was rampant. Would Cambage really show up? Was Tulsa going to get a pie in the face again? Was her decision impacted at all by new Australian national team coach Brendan Joyce's endorsement of WNBA play for Opals? (A refreshingly different attitude, by the way, than that of his predecessors.)
Will Cambage stay for the whole summer? Is she close to 100 percent health-wise? Cambage said in the Shock's release that she suffered a wrist injury this winter. Which seemed to be news to most of us Thursday.
Cambage was quoted as saying, "I wasn't sure that I would be able to return to Tulsa this season, as I sustained a broken wrist while playing in China this past season. I have been given the all-clear by my doctors, and I am excited to return to Tulsa and the team for a great season."
The speculation when Tulsa announced last month that Cambage wouldn't return was that her Chinese team didn't want her to play in the WNBA. But whether that's actually true is still not completely clear. Which tends to be the case with a lot of things involving Cambage.
Kloppenburg did get Tulsa in better shape last year, and the Shock drafted Notre Dame star point guard Skylar Diggins. Even before Cambage's announced return, we could at least say "Tulsa" and "2013 playoffs" in the same sentence. Cambage isn't coming back to the same dreadful Shock she left in 2011.
Like a lot of marquee players, Cambage can make more overseas than she can in the WNBA. But the WNBA offers a caliber of competition and a credibility that adds value to the players when they seek contracts in other countries.
Perhaps she has figured this all out, and that's her motivation to return. Or … who knows? Considering everything that has happened, we'd all be rubes if we didn't keep a wait-and-see attitude and need convincing.
But maybe for Tulsa, Cambage really is the prize well worth the past frustration and disappointment. If nothing else, at least there's probably more chance that's true than the fable that my nephew's friend's cousin successfully snared that iPod.