Liz Cambage decision shocks Tulsa

Hey, I've missed flights before. I'd like to say it was because a spaceship landed on the highway, which stopped all traffic for hours and left me completely blameless.

But … it's actually always because I overslept, or absurdly cut myself short on time, or didn't allow enough leeway for a traffic jam that wasn't caused by alien visitors.

In other words, I know it is always my fault -- even if, in the moment, I can sometimes rationalize why it happened.

But when the news came Monday that Liz Cambage had missed her flight out of Australia to make the journey to Tulsa, you had to doubt that it was an inadvertent, um, time-management problem.

Like I said, I can relate to those. But considering Cambage had several days to recuperate after the Olympics and knew how eagerly the Shock were anticipating her arrival in Oklahoma, it seemed unlikely that her missed flight was accidental.

The final word, then, came Tuesday: Cambage is not returning for the rest of this WNBA season. Maybe you're not surprised, but Shock President Steve Swetoha said he genuinely was.

"I did not have any inkling that this would happen until this morning when I spoke to her agent," Swetoha said by phone Tuesday afternoon. "She said, 'She's fatigued, and if you don't mind, she'd like to take the rest of the summer off.'"

If they don't mind? Heck, why would they mind? She's just the Shock's No. 2 draft pick from 2011 around whom they are hoping to build the franchise. Tulsa has been marketing her return for Thursday's home game against the Los Angeles Sparks ever since the London Games ended.

Well, so much for that promotion. But the thing is, Swetoha really didn't sound angry … more just tired, a little sad and frustrated. And yet, not to the extent of saying anything negative about Cambage, nor the Shock's prospects for the future.

It has been an uphill slog for Tulsa since the franchise relocated from Detroit after the 2009 season. Some of that is the Shock's own doing: The mistake of hiring Nolan Richardson as coach/general manager got the organization off to the wrong start. Some of it was bad luck, such as not getting the No. 1 draft pick either of the past two years, despite having the league's worst record in 2010 and '11.

There's no quick, magical way to recover when you take a formerly successful franchise, move it to a completely different part of the country, lose most of the personnel that had made it good, and then bring aboard a coach/GM who really isn't the right fit even if he's a local celebrity.

Recovery, instead, takes some time and usually is painful. But if you've been around the Shock this summer, you get the sense that things are changing for the better.

Gary Kloppenburg, a coach with a lot of experience in the WNBA, took over the reins for 2012. Swetoha is a visible presence at games, interacting with fans, players and media, often soliciting their opinions on the franchise.

One Tulsa player told me after a recent game -- even though it was another tough loss for the Shock -- that this year was "a thousand percent" better than last season. Will that show up in Tulsa's record? Probably not: The Shock are 4-19. But it does show in how hard they play, how close they've come in a number of games, and the overall attitude amongst the players.

But this is a 2012 Shock team and atmosphere that Cambage hasn't experienced. She was here in 2011, which started with Richardson still at the helm. He resigned during the season and was replaced by Teresa Edwards. The Shock won just three games, and the team's morale by the summer's end was completely sapped.

That's the Shock that Cambage knows. Plus, there's the fact that she'll be playing this winter in China, which provides a bigger paycheck than what she makes in the WNBA. (By the way, she doesn't draw a salary from the Shock while not playing, but the salary that she would have been getting this season still counts toward Tulsa's salary cap.)

In some ways, it's easy for me to empathize with Cambage. She just turned 21 this month, and I think we all make some decisions at that age that we look back on and cringe about. She has spent this summer with the Australian national team, and it's clear that she really does just want to relax now. The problem is, she should have figured that out before the last minute of supposedly returning to Tulsa.

"We were in the process of trying to decide who we were going to cut to make room for her," Swetoha said of opening a roster spot for Cambage. "She was supposed to arrive Monday; the team is in Atlanta [Tuesday.] We would not have to make that cut until Wednesday. So we were going to use [Tuesday's] game as a last evaluation process. We had every intention of her playing the rest of the season."

There will be some folks who see this as a big conspiracy -- that either Cambage never intended to come back, or the Shock organization itself is secretly telling her to stay home because it would just as soon have the league's worst record again and hope it gets luckier this time in the draft lottery.

Both those theories are pretty ridiculous. Kloppenburg talked at length recently about how much he was looking forward to having at least the last 10 games of this season to get to know Cambage and work with her. As mentioned, the franchise has been trumpeting her return.

But neither Kloppenburg nor Tulsa management was expecting Cambage to come in and suddenly turn Tulsa into a great team. They weren't exactly worried she was going to somehow wreck their lottery chances.

They knew she'd be limited in how much she could absorb of Kloppenburg's system in such a short time. They're aware that she's very young and still learning the game. But they're very bullish on her upside. And they wanted her to see for herself that Tulsa is a better place to be now, making her more comfortable for next season.

As for the idea that Cambage was stringing the Shock along, Swetoha said, "I don't believe that at all. We bought the ticket and thought she was on her way. She had tweeted about it, and talked to our players about it. I believe she and her agent would have told us upfront if she really believed she couldn't play."

So what changed? Many people make commitments that they idealistically really do want to keep. Yet when the time comes to fulfill them, they don't have the energy or heart to do it.

Some will not give Cambage any break because of her age, but I do. She has been pushed and pulled in a lot of different directions in recent years, and she's obviously still not great at saying "absolutely" or "absolutely not" when she needs to.

Also, she is not an American, thus it's actually more understandable if the WNBA in general is not inherently as important to her as most of us think it should be to American-born players. I'm not saying she doesn't care. But the time might come when she values the WNBA more than she probably does now.

Those Australians who've made the biggest contributions to the WNBA, such as Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor, would acknowledge that the league came to mean more to them personally and professionally after they spent time playing in it and living in the United States.

I've always admired what the Aussies have done for the WNBA, because they miss home and made some sacrifices along the way to make things work here. Will Cambage come to feel that way about the WNBA? Or, maybe more to the point, will she feel that way about Tulsa?

There was chatter before the 2011 draft, based on some comments she had made in Australia, that she wasn't keen on going to Tulsa and would prefer someplace like Los Angeles. At the draft, though, she said that wasn't the case, and she was happy to go wherever she was picked.

Admittedly, no one is ever going to mistake Tulsa for Sydney, or Melbourne, or London, or New York, or L.A., or … you get the picture. But Kevin Durant and his NBA teammates seem pretty happy down the road in Oklahoma City, especially with the fan adulation and attention they get as huge fish in a smaller pond.

Granted, Tulsa might not be the most exciting place to live, but it's not some backwater outpost entirely devoid of all culture, nightlife or things to do. Furthermore, the Shock's fan base has the capacity to grow -- and doesn't have a great deal else to take away its attention during the summer.

The Shock brass, Cambage and her agent need to have serious conversations about how strong her commitment is to Tulsa. Once the Shock know that, they can make a decision on whether they actually should consider other options, such as trading her. As of right now, Kloppenburg and Swetoha love the potential that Cambage has, and say they do want her as a big part of the process going forward.

"She's under contract with us through at least 2014," Swetoha said. "We have no indication she won't fulfill that. Some may say, 'Well, you also had no indication she wasn't coming back this year.' But we're going off what the contract says.

"She's telling us now she needs rest, and we're doing everything we can for her. Our expectation is that she will be here for 2013."