In a sport that (for now) doesn’t offer much suspense about who will take home gold at the Olympics and hasn’t for a while, the news that Liz Cambage won’t compete in Tokyo with the Australian national team might present the provincial American basketball fan with the biggest surprise of the summer.
On Friday, the Aces center said in a statement posted to Twitter that she’d withdrawn from the Olympics. She cited regular panic attacks and difficulty sleeping and eating in the last month. “I know I can’t be the Liz everyone deserves to see compete for the Opals,” she wrote. Her announcement came a few hours after ESPN reported that Basketball Australia, the country’s governing body for basketball, was investigating “an incident that occurred” in a pre-Olympic, closed-door scrimmage against the Nigerian team earlier in the week, one apparently severe enough to jeopardize her status with the Opals. Cambage would have been the team’s best player.
The facts of the incident remain vague. ESPN’s Olgun Uluc initially reported that “Cambage was involved in a physical altercation, as well as a charged verbal exchange.” (Altercations! Verbal exchanges! Basketball reporters love those!) A follow-up report from The Athletic offered some more specifics: “The altercation with a Nigerian player, which took place 15 minutes into the game, forced the scrimmage to be stopped.” In the Australian tabloid press, which ought to be taken with a grain of salt for reasons we’ll get to soon, the scrimmage fight was framed a “last straw” of sorts in her relationship with Basketball Australia. ESPN added later that she’d violated the team’s COVID-19 protocols; true Liz heads will recall the time the team suspended her for skipping training camp to go to a music festival in 2015.
Some of this may sound familiar to the WNBA fan, who knows Cambage to be a brilliant, mercurial basketball player prone to beefing with referees, coaches and other players. But her career stateside is only a sliver—probably the least interesting sliver—of her story, and Cambage would be the first to admit that. (She’s left the WNBA twice before.) More importantly, she has a fraught relationship with Australia and Australian sport, where she’s been vocal about racism. Cambage’s candor has won her considerable scorn, the face of which is fellow Australian basketball star and generally unpleasant guy Andrew Bogut.
And then there are the whispers rolling in, from the likes of retired WNBA player Crystal Langhorne, who wrote that she was “disgusted but not surprised” by whatever Cambage did, and from the Chicago Sky’s Diamond DeShields, whose cryptic tweet implied that Cambage’s withdrawal on her own terms was the “opposite” of accountability. My own read of Cambage is that she’s pretty disagreeable, reverent of the Australian players (Sandy Brondello, Michele Timms, Penny Taylor and Lauren Jackson, to name a few) who came before her and, though she’s known to laugh off the criticism she gets, more than a little hurt by the way she’s treated in the Australian press, which is unamused at best and racist at worst. That she leads a team that’s become less competitive in international play since the Jackson and Taylor days may only add to the pressure. Cambage was asked about Jackson after the All-Star Game and got choked up while answering. “I honestly hope I can go and get a gold medal just for her, just to bring it back home to Australia,” she said. “That’s my dream. I feel like if I can do that, I’m doing that for Lauren, Penny and all the women who didn’t get to do it, because they did so much for us Opals.” Jackson is the head of women’s basketball for Basketball Australia; presumably she was involved in the investigation and in Cambage’s decision. On Friday, Timms wrote a Facebook post and some comments suggesting that Cambage was damaging to the culture of the team.
So that’s the situation: already-rocky terms with Basketball Australia; an incident whose hazy sketch doesn’t seem totally out of character for Cambage; WNBA players popping up to say they’d known all along; Cambage’s history with depression and anxiety; a former Boomer saying she’s “unbearable to be around as a teammate;” another report that her Opals teammate Ezi Magbegor, who is Nigerian, was extremely angry with Cambage after the incident; and also, again, nobody knows what to believe or what’s going on. Everything clear?