Liz Cambage - the evolution of a champion
With the Australian women powering through to the quarter-finals at the 2018 FIBA World Cup in Spain, the plaudits continue to roll in for towering centre Liz Cambage. In career-best form, the 27-year-old is delivering spectacularly on predictions made more than a decade ago.
Former Opals Head Coach Carrie Graf still remembers watching a young Liz Cambage at the National Junior Championships.
"She was a wonderfully athletic specimen who could move and jump, everyone that saw her knew she'd be something special but at that point she was just a really big kid, trying to come to terms with what her body was capable of" recalls Graf.
Unusually tall and one of only 2 non-caucasian children at her school, Cambage struggled to fit in and it was her mother's suggestion to go to the local basketball tryouts when she was 10 in a bid to make friends. Cambage had no particular passion for the sport but basketball fell in love with Liz.
By the age of 16 she was 6'8" tall, on scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport and on track for her senior national team debut just two years later.
Australian basketball legend Lauren Jackson was in her prime when she first met Cambage on the court.
"It would have been the 2009/10 WNBL season, she was only 18 or 19 and already a force to be reckoned with" she says.
"There were tall girls playing, but she was different - strong, agile and her body a weapon on the court. Her skills needed some refining but it was still a bit overwhelming, I didn't expect her to be so strong, she was super-talented and has been from the word go".
Announcing herself on the international stage at the 2010 FIBA World Championships, Cambage was selected in the 2011 WNBA draft by Tulsa Shock, the team's moniker matching the reaction of their newest recruit. Far from home in a city she had never heard of, she had a tough introduction to life in the WNBA. Used to the community spirit back home, her struggles in Oklahoma are well documented but despite her first season in the WNBA being deemed a disappointment, she still earned a rookie spot in the All-Star team.
The 2012 London Olympic Games offered some respite. The Opals finished with a Bronze medal and Cambage made history as the first woman to dunk in Olympic competition.
It's a moment still crystal clear in the memory of her (then) coach and the culmination of a plan that started back at the AIS.
"I remember thinking that if Liz had been an 18 year-old boy she would have been dunking all over the shop, so one day I said to her 'can you grab the rim'? She said 'I think so' and just jumped and did it, no wind up, just an easy jump".
"Then I asked if she could hang off it and she looked at me and said 'Graffy, I'm scared of heights', so I said 'okay, how about the monkey bars at school, were you scared of them?' and she told me that she never had to hang off them, she could already touch the ground" Graf recalls with a laugh, adding that at 5'9" she hadn't considered that.
Realising that Cambage had a limited sense of what she was truly capable of, Graf used a bit of lateral thinking and decided to call on a few AIS boys who were training on the adjacent court to show Liz what was possible. Soon Cambage was exhibiting the dunking skills that would finally be realised in competition in London.
"It was the most incredible moment, she wasn't dribbling down the court with no-one around her, it was in a 5-on-5 half court contest, that's a whole other level - I don't think even she realised how monumental that was" Graf told ESPN.
Cambage returned to Tulsa in 2013 but the feeling of exclusion persisted. She departed with no intention of returning and stints in Asia paid more than 10 times what was on offer in the WNBA.
A ruptured Achilles tendon in 2014 required lengthy rehab and by 2016, she felt suffocated by the pressure of the basketball world, the international commitments and the time away from home. Depression, partying and a foray into her other interests (mainly fashion and music) ensued.
It took a lot of soul-searching to drag herself out of what she described as a 'pretty dark place'.
Re-embracing her love of music (she is in hot demand as a DJ) she also dabbled in design and slowly but surely returned to the court.
Lured back to the WNBA by the Dallas Wings including Fred Williams who took over as head coach in Tulsa in 2014 and stayed with the franchise during it's change to the Dallas Wings along with former Opals teammate Erin Phillips, Cambage returned to the US and lifted her game to another level.
Accolades for 2018 include the Peak performance award for scoring, and selection in the All-WNBA First Team, the first non-American player to be selected since Lauren Jackson's seventh appearance in 2010.
The highlight of the season was a 53-point, 10 rebound game in a win over the New York Liberty in July shooting at 77% with scribes quick to note that the last NBA player with those sort of stats was Michael Jordan for the Bulls in 1996.
Cambage's refusal to conform to public expectation has made for a rocky road to the top.
She continues to be passionate and outspoken about many things including systemic racism, gender pay inequality and disparity in player conditions and as a result is never far from the headlines.
Her critics have also questioned her drive and motivation in the past (particularly when she chose a music festival over a national team training camp) but the Cambage on court now is focused, formidable and refreshingly unapologetic.
Lauren Jackson has long been considered the greatest basketball export Australia has ever produced and follows Cambage's progress with interest and delight believing that Liz at her best will prove impossible for anyone to deal with at this World Cup.
"The USA have Brittney Griner, she's got the height and the athletic ability to come the closest to sticking with Liz, but if Liz decides she can dominate, no-one will be able to stop her. She's a big body but also a finisher, she can shoot, she can read the game and don't ever underestimate how she can take over".
When asked if her former Opals teammate had now reached her peak, Jackson paused before offering a ringing endorsement.
"I don't think so" she mused.
"It sounds bizarre when we are seeing her in her element, happy, loving life, grown up and knowing what she wants. But being in that headspace is making her unstoppable, she could have at least 2 or 3 more years at the very very top and could do anything. That's the really exciting part, she has the world at her feet...whether she takes that, it's all up to her.