WNBA star Liz Cambage is finding her center

Behind the scenes of Liz Cambage's Body Issue shoot (3:35)

WNBA All-Star Liz Cambage discusses her journey toward embracing her body and her philosophy toward those who criticize her. (3:35)

Chris Paul, Liz Cambage, Brooks Koepka and NFL stars such as Myles Garrett and the Eagles offensive line are featured in ESPN's 2019 Body Issue. To see interviews, pictures, videos and more, visit our full 2019 gallery.

THE IDEA WAS a good one. Spend WNBA All-Star weekend in Las Vegas with one of the biggest personalities in town, Aces center Liz Cambage. Write an access piece to accompany the fierce photos that the 6-foot-8 Australian star had shot for the Body Issue back in April.

As we walked through the Park MGM casino in late July, Cambage laughing and shouting all the way, onlookers gawked to see what the ruckus was about. Most smiled. A few pointed. One man even asked, "Are you Griner?" (Fortunately for him, Cambage was on the phone and didn't notice. "My mom used to call me Bliv," she said with a shrug. "As in oblivious.")

It was all great scene. Exactly what you look for when you're trying to tell a story about a woman whose physical presence can be both her greatest gift and her greatest challenge.

Cambage had been living and playing in Las Vegas for about two and a half months, and she was basically a local at this point-one of the city's artists-in-residence, the basketball version of Celine Dion. At All-Star weekend, she was an unofficial host, her name displayed alongside Snoop Dogg and Iggy Azalea as the DJ at the WNBA's party at Mandalay Bay.

When Cambage was traded to the Aces back in May, she hadn't been sure about playing in Vegas. She has been open about her history with anxiety and substance abuse, and the idea of facing those demons while living in Sin City terrified her. "Twenty-two-year-old me, you would have never seen me again," she told me that weekend.

But she is 28 now, and after a few weeks in town, she came to feel the opposite was true: that the very act of conquering the demons while starring for the Aces had given her more strength, had better grounded her.

Even before the trade, she'd grown religious about maintaining her lifestyle and routine. Plant-based food. A normal sleep schedule. Regular workouts in the morning. Limited alcohol and partying. Just basketball, deejaying and whatever social life she could fit in around those boundaries.

It seemed to be working. When we shot her for the Body Issue, Cambage said she was in "such a good place at the moment. ... I'm the happiest I've ever been, that I can ever remember."

She even mentioned that she'd stopped taking the medication she used to take for her anxiety and depression. "I've just got into a place where I don't want any pharmaceuticals in my life anymore," she said.

At the time, it was an honest, proud statement. Cambage was certain that she'd gotten her issues under control with the healthy lifestyle she'd been committed to.

But a breakdown doesn't happen all at once. It's like a ball of yarn unspooling. And during All-Star weekend, that's what happened. Cambage was booked solid with interviews, photo shoots and sponsor commitments, which left little time for rest and hanging out with her friends from Australia who'd flown into town. They didn't have the right equipment for her at the party she was supposed to DJ, a party for which she'd been preparing for weeks, so she couldn't perform -- which she found out while onstage. She didn't get enough sleep. She drank, trying to keep up with her friends who wanted to enjoy their vacation. She felt bad about falling back into those unhealthy patterns, but -- on six hours of sleep the entire weekend -- didn't have the emotional bandwidth to deal with it.

Cambage told ESPN's Holly Rowe during her halftime interview that that's literally how little she slept during All-Star weekend. She mentioned it to me too, the day before -- then added: "I probably shouldn't have told you that."

But she did tell me that. I think she knew she was close to the edge. She was watching the ball of yarn unspooling in front of her eyes.

LESS THAN TWO weeks after my trip to Vegas, Cambage published a first-person account in The Players' Tribune detailing recent struggles with her mental health, including an anxiety attack in the days after All-Star weekend, one that led her to sit out two games.

"I wanted to let everyone know that my mental health ... it got caught up in the rip last week," she wrote. "And it wasn't pretty. It was actually pretty ugly. But I also wanted to let everyone know that I didn't drown. I'm still here, and still fighting this battle on a daily basis."

When I read the piece, I thought back to our second meeting, in Los Angeles a week before, when Cambage suggested catching up while she worked with her osteopath, Fabrice Gautier, at his studio in Beverly Hills.

"It might seem like I'm up here," Cambage said, describing how high her mood had been in recent weeks, freed from the "numbing" effect she hated from her medication. "But I'm still going through it. It's been since February that I've been off all my medication, and it's hard feeling emotions again.

"I feel everything."

Cambage has made a point of being open about her journey, hoping it will help others. But talking about it also serves to remind herself that self-care is something she must always work at and tend to.

"Whenever you're dealing with mental health issues, you have to know what your triggers are," says Cambage's close friend from Australia, Arrionne Simmons. "And you have to adapt to make sure you are keeping yourself the healthiest that you can be.

"You can't learn these things unless you go through it. So from the past and everything she has gone through, everything she's dealt with, she's now learning, 'What can I do to better myself when these situations arise again?'"

But the anxiety and depression are always there, lurking. The key is for Cambage to recognize what she's feeling and how to work through it. "Back in the day, I used to really question, 'Why me? Why me?'" she told me in LA. "But now I'm in a place where I really do know that God gives his hardest battles to his strongest warriors. Everything you're going through is just a test, and it's going to make you stronger.

"If I didn't go through all that darkness, I wouldn't be able to appreciate the light now."

WHEN WE TALKED in Vegas, Cambage said our conversations about the Body Issue and standards of beauty had gotten her thinking about identity as a mixed-race woman. She went searching for a photo of herself as a teenager, with Simmons, in which they're both wearing colored contact lenses.

"My hair is blond and I've got blue contacts in," Cambage said, shaking her head. "As a teenager I was really self-conscious because I was so much taller than everyone else. And in Australia there weren't many black girls around -- there definitely weren't any dark girls on TV -- so I didn't really have anyone to look up to."

Simmons and Cambage met as teenagers in Australia. They were essentially each other's only black friend; Simmons and her cousins helped teach Cambage how to style her hair (Cambage's mother is white). "Obviously there was probably a deeper issue going on there," says Simmons, who now lives in Los Angeles, of the photo Cambage dug up. "We thought we looked prettier if we had these colored eyes."

Cambage and Simmons met playing basketball, and that's what brought a 10-year-old Cambage to the sport in the first place. She and her mother had just moved to a new city, where she didn't have many friends, so her mother took her to basketball practice. She fell in love after she scored her first basket (especially since her mom promised her $10 after the bucket) and was instantly destined for stardom.

"She scored and she stopped in the middle of the court and did a little dance, and there was a woman sitting next to me who said, 'Oh my god, I'm so happy I was here to see that,'" says her mother, Julia Cambage. "I said, 'Why's that?' and she said, 'Because that kid's going to be a star.'

"I didn't know what she could see in her, but it was quite interesting, I think, for someone to say that the first time she'd ever scored a basket in her life."

At 6 feet by age 14, Cambage dominated almost every opponent with her size and her talents, and her star grew quickly. But so did the expectations put on her. As she made her way through Australia's youth basketball system, she quickly found that the sport could have its downside.

"I love the sport, I love everything it's given me," she says now. "It taught me a lot about myself. It showed me a lot about the world. But it's been very love-hate, me and the game."

CAMBAGE WAS NOT yet 16 when she first left home to live and train at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. "That's probably the worst time to isolate kids," Cambage says. "It was literally like a mini jail that we lived in. Like high security. We weren't allowed to leave our rooms at night. We still snuck out and went out all the time. Just the teenagers and hormones and living with football boys and basketball players. It was just a mess living in that place."

She was desperately lonely and homesick.

"She would ring me and she'd say, 'Mummy, were you going to come up this weekend?'" Julia says. "Of course, I wouldn't have been, but naturally I did. So I'd say, 'Of course, darling, yes, I'm coming. Yeah, absolutely.'

"And then I'd be on a plane and off to Canberra. [The airline] Qantas has a status, you know, levels: bronze, gold, platinum. I think I made platinum in one year traveling between Melbourne and Canberra."

Just two years later, an 18-year-old Cambage went pro full time, moving back to Melbourne to play in the Women's Professional Basketball League. In her second season, she was MVP, and she began planning to make the move to the WNBA before her 20th birthday. The only problem: The No. 2 pick in the 2011 WNBA draft belonged to the Tulsa Shock, a team in a city in which she had said openly she did not want to live or play.

The Shock selected her anyway. After years in Australia's cities, she struggled in Tulsa. She felt an immediate pressure to perform for the team, which had gone 6-28 in 2010. Even with Cambage, the Shock lost 25 of their first 26 games in 2011.

"I would cry on the phone with my mom and my agent, begging to come home. Literally every day," she says. "I'm a 19-year-old girl. On a team where I wasn't supported, I wasn't nurtured."

After the 2012 Olympics, Cambage announced that she wouldn't return to Tulsa for the next WNBA season-the day that her flight was meant to take off for Tulsa. To make a living, she turned to the leagues overseas, which proved just as hard.

For the next four seasons, Cambage spent her winters in China. Her salary was exponentially higher, but Cambage found herself isolated culturally and personally, speaking English only with her team's translator.

"I kind of like it now, because I don't understand anyone and I don't have to listen to anything," she says. "When you're going nonstop all year round, it's kind of nice to just be lost in translation. But when I was in my early 20s it was hell."

Her mom came to visit her then too. Just not as often as before.

"It was quite complex," Julia says. "The first time we were in China, we were in the middle of nowhere, and literally nobody spoke English. She navigated it really well over a long period of time, but you're alone in a hotel room, living away from your team, and you're very isolated."

She didn't understand her daughter's foreign life, and she worried about her.

A huge part of Julia wanted to drag her daughter home to Australia.

"But then there's a part of me that goes, 'You're climbing up a hill. You're destined for bigger things,'" her mother says.

"And we've always known that. Since she was a little girl."

THAT BIG STAGE-and those big expectations-have both driven and haunted Cambage throughout her professional career.

The disappointment in herself when she doesn't play well can stoke all sorts of unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. The utter isolation she feels being far from home, many time zones away from family and friends. Her size, which makes her a target for extra-physical play from opponents.

She has tried to cope in different ways: self-medicating with prescription drugs and alcohol at 19, she says; on medications from doctors since 2016. But even on the medication, she "couldn't function."

"It just numbs everything," she told me in Vegas. "You don't really feel things properly. I didn't dream. I stopped dreaming for years. Because going to sleep would be like knocking myself out."

The 2016 Olympics brought on Cambage's lowest point. After tearing her Achilles in 2014, she missed several of Team Australia's 2015 qualifiers, and relations with the team and the federation were strained. It was a "hot mess," Cambage says. "But for some reason, I just wanted to go to another Olympics, so I just tried to push through."

Australia, a medal favorite, bombed out in the quarterfinals, losing to Serbia despite 29 points and 11 rebounds from Cambage. "It just tore me apart," she says. "I had to take time away from the sport just to really get back to me and find what I want to do and who I want to be."

She ignored messages from friends, coaches, fans. "I went missing from the basketball world, pretty much," she says. "I hated basketball, and I didn't want anything to do with those people at the time. A lot of my life is just-a lot of my life I've just felt like a piece of meat. No one actually really cares, they only care if you're playing."

Later that year, Cambage spiraled. "I just partied myself into the deepest and darkest hole," she says. "I got to a point where I'm like, 'Hmm, I literally have no will to live.'"

One morning, when Julia Cambage was on the way to work, she got a call from Liz. "Hi, Bubba," she said. "How are you? Are you OK?"

"No, I'm not," Julia remembers her saying. "I think I'm going to hurt myself."

Julia told her daughter that she'd be there as soon as she could. When she arrived, she found her in bed.

"She hadn't been to sleep for days. And she said, 'I can't cope. I can't do this anymore. I don't want to be here,'" her mother recalls. "And so I just sat with her for 12 hours and finally took her home. She literally cried for that entire time and then for the next few days as well. She was completely broken."

"That's the hardest thing I've ever done," Liz says, "was call my mum and say, 'I don't want to live anymore.'"

That was the first time Cambage went off her medications -- cold turkey, without tapering, she says. But then, as now, she called to ask for help. And eventually, she picked herself up and found her way back.

JULIA CAMBAGE CAME to visit her daughter in Las Vegas earlier this season. The flight from Melbourne was still long, but her daughter was in such a different place -- and, more important, seemed supported by her new team.

"You want your children to be happy no matter where they are," Julia says. "And I'd have to say I'm super excited at the moment because of how well they're treating her in Las Vegas. What a great organization it is and just how incredibly supportive they've been."

Despite Cambage's reservations about coming to Vegas, she knew she couldn't return to Dallas, where she'd played the previous season in her first year back in the WNBA. The team had fired coach Fred Williams, the person who'd earned her trust and made her feel comfortable. And she was adamant that she wanted to live on the West Coast to be closer to her family. After digging herself out of that dark hole in 2016, things like this mattered-she prioritized her self-care and mental health above all else.

In the end, Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer convinced her -- in his uniquely Bill Laimbeer way (picture one of the NBA's most notorious Bad Boys trying to recruit) -- that he respected her game and thought he could get the best out of her.

"Liz looks at herself as a global person, and there's no other team in this league that could afford her those kinds of opportunities than us," he says, referencing MGM, the team's corporate parent. "You know, we got casinos in Macao and China, we got them in Dubai, we were looking at one in Japan. She wants to be in the entertainment world and we're one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world. So it seemed to be a natural fit if those are her interests.

"But that's only one piece of the puzzle. I told her very clearly that she has a day job. That's our task, that's our mission. We are going to win here in Las Vegas. That's all we were about. This is how we do business. We will respect you at all times."

Eventually, Cambage was excited about the move. And when she arrived, the Aces made a point of supporting her on and off the court. Laimbeer's daughter Keri, the team's head of player-coach communications, has become a close friend.

"I put out fires, I help them with things, I make sure they have what they need and whenever they need it," Keri Laimbeer says.

Keri figured out pretty quickly that all Cambage needed was someone who looked after her and would help her stick to the lifestyle and routines that have grounded her and given her a sense of peace. "She needed to get herself healthy and stay healthy," she says.

CAMBAGE STOPPED DOING that during All-Star weekend. And after going 5-for-21 in the first two games of the second half, she couldn't cope. After her "meltdown," Cambage turned to Keri and to her agent, Allison Galer, to help her mend after everything felt like it was unraveling.

"Allison was pretty firm on me not traveling the next day," she says now. "I really wanted to go to Dallas [for the next game], and Allison was like, 'No, you're not OK. You need to take a couple of days off to get your mind right.'

"We all came to the decision that I needed to do what's best for me."

This is all still a work in progress. Happiness goes in and out of focus, as it does for all of us. Cambage says now that she's learned that her triggers are different during the season-that just because she felt fine off her meds during the offseason, that can all change when basketball comes back.

"Life's easy when I'm away from basketball," she says. "I'm not dealing with the media. I'm not dealing with things like that, and I don't stress.

"Now I know that while I'm still living this life, I need help being balanced out and trying to deal with the roller-coaster ride that is being an athlete and a person in the media as well."

As Cambage says now, she is still "day to day. Just focusing on the next day." But she's excited about basketball again, especially with the Aces just days away from their first playoff game against the Sky. Cambage was the Aces' leading scorer in five of the team's last 10 games, including a 21-point, nine-rebound performance on the last day of the season, sealing the Aces' No. 3 seed.

"It probably didn't show, but I had been struggling for a while in the lead-up to All-Star," she says. "In my head I was full of self-doubt. Now I just stopped stressing over everything and I'm able to play my game and be free."

There are people who would call this high-maintenance, who would stay away from it because of the drama. But loving Liz Cambage is about deciding all this maintenance is probably worth it if it helps her be her best self.

"It's just the old narrative that we should act ladylike and shut up and be happy with what we want," Cambage told me back in July. "It's like, 'I want more.' And I'm going to say what I want, how I feel, stand up for myself. No one's been able to stop me my whole life, and I'm not going to stop any time soon."