Viva Liz Vegas!
LAS VEGAS — “It was a bit of a journey, but I’m so grateful to be here,” Liz Cambage said in her opening statement at Monday’s introductory press conference.
The All-WNBA center arrived Sunday in Las Vegas in time to support her new teammates from the bench during their preseason contest against the Minnesota Lynx. The Aces acquired Cambage Thursday from the Dallas Wings in exchange for Moriah Jefferson, Isabelle Harrison and two draft picks.
Cambage requested a trade back in January. Aces president of basketball operations and head coach Bill Laimbeer knew from the outset that this was a deal he needed to pursue.
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“As president, I immediately went and told [general manager] Dan [Padover], absolutely, we have to do this,” Laimbeer said. “We are Las Vegas. We do things big and over the top and there’s nothing like this lady right here. This is perfect or our team and our town.”
“When me and Bill sat down and looked at where we were at and where we wanted to go, we wanted to add another star,” Padover added. “And there’s no bigger star to add than Liz Cambage both from a national and a global perspective.”
Cambage sat out previous WNBA seasons dating back to her time with the Tulsa Shock, now the Dallas Wings, who drafted her with the No. 2 overall pick in 2011. She returned to the Wings last offseason on a multi-year deal after four years out of the league.
Would any team acquiring Cambage from the Wings run the risk of seeing her sit out again? How many teams was she open to joining? Laimbeer did his due diligence in consulting his team about a move of this magnitude.
“I also wear the coach’s hat and I’m like, ‘Woah, boss, slow down a little bit. Let’s talk about this one.’ You know, you hear this and you hear that about players—especially Liz. She’s very high profile,” Laimbeer said. “I don’t care. I wanna coach the player. I wanna know the player. I wanna be with the player on the team and know who that player is. That’s how I do business.
“So whatever people say, I don’t really care or believe it. I only care what happens when I’m around. The players went through this process and it’s been a long, hard process. I talked to A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Kayla McBride when they were overseas to just judge their temperature on this. They were all for it.
“Then I had a long talk with our team when they came to training camp discussing Liz and our opportunity to acquire her. We went through all the positives, a couple negatives and we all looked at each other and went, ‘Hey, yeah, we’ve got to do this.’ And then we said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ And there were more hiccups.”
Those hiccups appeared to come to a head last Tuesday as Cambage shared her frustrations on Instagram.
“That was literally a breakdown,” Cambage said. “If I look back on my whole career, it’s frustrating. I got drafted to a team I was open to not wanting to be a part of. When I came to the league I was looking to be nurtured. I wanted to grow. I wanted to be looked after and cared for.
“I was thrown into the deep end and there was no nurturing and no being cared for. I was just another object, another trading card. The same organization held onto me for years and it was so frustrating.”
A player of Cambage’s magnitude requesting a trade is sure to drive discussions and lead many to weigh in on the issue. Cambage continued, opening up about her rationale and the criticism she faced along the way.
“I don’t even log onto Twitter, but for some stupid reason I logged on a couple of weeks ago,” Cambage said. “It’s just everyone talking about me, making things up. That’s literally been my whole life. No one ever speaks the truth and I don’t think you can believe anything about me unless it comes from my mouth. Because I definitely speak my truth and live my truth on a daily basis.
“It’s frustrating to see people write articles and make things up and tweet things when they’re not even true. Seeing people say, ‘She should sit out another year.’ I’ve already sat out years in this league. If you’re going to work and you don’t feel comfortable and you don’t like the people that you see every day because they bully you and belittle you, would you quit your job? Would you move? Would you try to find a new job?
“Why, as an athlete, do I not have a choice? Why, as an athlete, do people not respect how I’m feeling? And it’s been that way since I was 19 years old. So I guess I was really caught up in looking back on that and looking back on the way I have been treated in this league.”
Cambage pointed to her mother, who has been her rock throughout her career, dating back to her first two WNBA seasons in Tulsa.
“It is frustrating, but I’m so lucky that I went through such horrible times,” Cambage said. “My first year in Tulsa, I cried on the phone every night to my mom and my agent because I just wanted to be out of there. But the WNBA continued to let it happen. The Tulsa Shock didn’t care, and it ruined me to the point where I had to step away.”
Laimbeer stepped in to add some context, noting that he had aimed to acquire Cambage long before this offseason.
“While I was in New York—Dan was there with me—we tried to acquire Liz Cambage and thought we had a great fit there,” Laimbeer said. “But we were rebuffed by Dallas at the time, and they said absolutely not.
“And we never quite got an answer. They were just blocking. When she was drafted by Tulsa, quite frankly, the handwriting was on the wall for a player of that magnitude. This is Tulsa, Oklahoma for professional basketball. And I’ve told Liz, I’m sure the towns she went to were very sincere but she’s kind of been dealt a bad hand in the WNBA. She hasn’t been in an environment that’s comfortable for herself, and we think that this one is the best one that there is for her.”
Cambage went on to explain why the emotion came spilling out at the press conference while reflecting on the early years of her WNBA career and how it has affected her outlook on her place in the sport.
“I’m not crying that I’ve been through stuff. Everybody’s been through stuff,” Cambage said. “I’ve just been frustrated that I look back on my career and people say so many things about me. ‘She’s a diva, she’s this and that.’ And at the end of the day I’m just a person who wants to be comfortable and wants to be respected in the job that I’m doing.
“But I love that I went through the tough times because it makes me the strong person that I am today. And probably if I wasn’t treated so badly my first season, it wouldn’t have made me this person who wants to nurture the youth so much.
“My biggest thing is looking after our future—I know that we have rookies, so taking them under my wing. I don’t know if you saw my relationship with Azura Stevens last year, but she was a rookie in Dallas and she’s one of my best friends now. And I just want her to be the greatest person that she can be.
“It just blows my mind that people try to shrink other people’s greatness just to make them feel better. I’m just a person that wants to be around good energy and bring other good energy to other people.”
Cambage made the decision to request a trade knowing the backlash that could come with it. She again pointed to her mother as a pillar in her life when asked what she hopes the next wave of star women’s basketball players can take from this process.
“I’m kind of lucky that I’m stubborn and just believe in following my intuition and what my mom tells me to do,” Cambage said with a smile. “I couldn’t have made it this far without my mother and I’m so lucky to have her. I just hope everyone can find their strength in living what they want to do.
“I could have played all those years that I sat out. But I would have been miserable. So what’s the point? Life is for living; life is for doing what you want to do and living it to the fullest. So I just hope I give everyone the strength and belief that they should be living their life to the fullest and doing what they really want to be doing.”
Laimbeer—of course, an obvious benefactor in this scenario—gave a player-friendly answer when asked if a maneuver like this is truly good for the WNBA.
“The whole sports world evolves. The WNBA is still evolving right now,” Laimbeer said. “The players are beating their chests, so to speak, and making noise that it should be more about them than it has been in the past. And I get that. I agree with that.
“I’ve always been outspoken for the players. I played for a long time. The players play the game. Without the players, there is no game. I wouldn’t have a job. I’d be playing golf or something.
“Each situation is different. It depends on the leverage you have, depends on where you’re at in your career, when your free agency is coming around. Teams have to make decisions. Can you hold a player, or can they cut and run? There’s a lot of factors that go into it, but it’s basically about the leverage a player would have and how a team reacts to that leverage. Dallas had to move on, and rightfully so, I believe. So they cut a deal, and that’s how this business works.”
The Aces narrowly missed out on a playoff bid last season. Laimbeer and Padover have continually referred to 2019 being the second year of their three-year plan. Whether they like it or not, the acquisition of the superstar center will accelerate the expectations for their team.
Laimbeer noted that Cambage may need some additional time working her way into the fold. He’s more than happy to bring her along gradually early in the season.
“Going into the season, she’s still rehabbing a little bit of an Achilles tendon issue,” Laimbeer said. “She’s well down the road. I expect her to start a little bit slow. And as far as playing time is concerned, over the next couple weeks, it’s okay. We went in with eyes wide open understand where we were at. This is a long-term thing.
“We acquired one of the best players, if not the best player, in the world and she fits a need that we had. We needed a big power player on the inside.
“And the most important thing about Liz is that she’s a smart basketball player. She knows the game. She’s been double teamed and triple teamed all her life. She knows how to involve her teammates. We’ve got 3-ballers everywhere.”
“I actually haven’t played basketball since September of last year,” Cambage added. “I did too much and I pushed myself too hard. I’ve spend the last however many months just getting back to my fittest and my strongest. I’m feeling really good and just want to be out there with the girls.”
Though the Aces have more players in training camp this year compared to last, they will need some time, naturally, to feel each other out as they integrate Cambage. Laimbeer has noted his appreciation for her attitude and how her approach can help bring along his young team.
“We’re a very young team,” Laimbeer said. “One thing Liz told me on the phone was, ‘Coach, I can lead if you need me to.’ That’s pretty special coming into a blind situation like this one. I also told her, and she doesn’t know it yet, but we’re two of the same people. We’re just alike in many ways.
“I don’t know if that’s good or bad, Liz,” Laimbeer said as the two broke into laughter. “I look forward to this. And I’ve told Liz this, and a lot of people around our league believe this also. This is her time. It’s great for Las Vegas as a town, it’s great for our franchise, it’s great for our players, and it’s great for the WNBA.”
Cambage shared one big takeaway from Sunday’s preseason game: Opponents will struggle to send extra bodies her way.
“I was watching the practice game yesterday and saying to Bill, ‘Teams can’t double team me. You can’t. Are you going to leave A’ja open? Are you going to leave the girls open on the 3-point line? It’s not a thing,’” Cambage said. “We have so many strengths in so many areas. It’s so exciting. But I think the only thing right now for me is to just catch up with them.”
Perhaps the most pressing challenge facing opponents will be the approach to guarding both Camabge and Wilson inside. Both command double teams. When an opponent puts their best post defender on one, the other is just as likely to strike.
“We’ll take a lot of pressure off of each other,” Cambage said. “I like to push my game out to the 3-point line, but Bill will probably want me inside a lot of the time.”
“You’re making assumptions now,” Laimbeer quipped.
“I think us in the high-low is going to be very exciting to watch,” Cambage added.
The Aces open up the 2019 regular season on Sunday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center as they host the Los Angeles Sparks. Cambage is looking forward to the chance to officially get acquainted with the fan base and noted that she was very impressed with the team’s facilities when the Wings made the trip out to play the Aces in Las Vegas last season.
“It will be amazing,” Cambage said. “I even said on the phone when I was talking to these guys back in February that this should be the standard of the league. These facilities in Vegas are the best I’ve ever seen.
“When we came and played here last year it was like we had never seen nice things before. And it’s kind of sad. We’re meant to be a professional league. The standard’s just not there yet. I’m honored to be a part of this team and to show people how it really should be for women’s basketball.”
And with that, the dust has finally settled. Liz Cambage is a member of the Las Vegas Aces. On top of the increased expectations, however, the Aces are faced with the reality that she will be a restricted free agent after the season.
Cambage made it clear Monday that she is impressed with every aspect of the franchise. Time will tell if the Aces become an overnight contender as a result of this trade, then whether or not they will be able to convince her to stay for years to come.
Laimbeer, for now, is excited to get to work knowing his team came out the other end with Cambage in tow.
“It’s a saga that one day will be told—a great story. But at the end of the day, we got her.”
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