Basketball sensation Liz Cambage commands attention on and off the court

Standing an imposing 203 centimetres (that's 6 foot 8, if you're wondering), it's impossible to not notice Liz Cambage walking into the café. Heads turn. People stare. The 26-year-old basketball star is used to being the centre of attention. Yet for someone who never had any ambition to pursue sport as a kid, Cambage has become a reluctant champion and international ambassador for women's basketball.

The London-born, Melbourne-raised sports star has just signed with the Dallas Wings, which sees her heading to America to compete in the WNBA later this year. Cambage was the number two US pick back in 2011, but she hasn't played there since she left Tulsa Shock in 2013 after just two seasons. Before heading back to the States, there's the small matter of the Commonwealth Games on her radar, as she prepares to hit the court with the Australian Opals in pursuit of gold.

As a child she loved music and could play the piano and violin by the age of 10, but it was her height that naturally drew the most attention. "I was head and shoulders above everyone else and felt awkward," Cambage admits. "I didn't really have a great time when I was young. I found it hard to make friends at school and I was really in a tough place."

Cambage's Nigerian father - a London-based doctor - met her mother Julia while he was working as a DJ in the club scene. Soon after she was born her parents split, and mother and daughter moved from the UK to Coffs Harbour to live with grandmother Aileen. Julia worked hard to make ends meet, eventually working her way up to senior executive roles.

They moved to Melbourne when she was nine years old, living in the inner city suburbs of Abbotsford and South Yarra before settling at Mt Eliza on the Mornington Peninsula. "I struggled to fit in. Mum had me try the Sea Scouts, but I lasted all of three meetings."

At the age of 10, Julia saw an ad in the newspaper looking for girls to play basketball and took her down to the local stadium to try our. "I wasn't happy about it because I love a sleep in and still do, l but I went along to keep her happy ... I have been playing basketball ever since."

As one of just two kids of colour at her school, Cambage says she was routinely bullied growing up. "It was a very cliquey place. I came home crying to mum. It must have been hard for her to see me go through that, but it also made me the person I am today. I have such thick skin and I really don't care what anyone has to say about me. I am very thankful for those hard times and it has given me an amazing strength in wanting to be the best in basketball."

By 16, Cambage had accepted a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport. She made her senior debut for Australia in 2009 with the Opals team and by 18 was Australia's leading point scorer at the 2010 World Championships where the Opals came fifth place.

Her most famous career move to date is when she slam dunked at the London Olympic Games playing with the Opals in 2012 – making her the first woman to ever do so and taking the Aussies to a 70-66 victory against Russia in a preliminary match.

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"I had a career adviser at the Australian Institute of Sport who sat me down and said; 'Liz, it's time to start thinking what you want to do with your life – do you want to go pro straight away or do you want to go to college'," she recalls.

"I knew academically I was not that strong. I really struggled to read books and stay in class. It is hard coming from a family where mum is a CEO and dad is a doctor. They both wanted me to go to university, but I knew it wasn't for me. I chose basketball."

For someone who didn't gravitate to studies, she managed to complete Year 12 at the Institute and discovered a love for art and Greek mythology (she has a pair of wings tattooed on her leg that reference the god Hermes who is a protector of athletes.)

She also enrolled in the Melbourne School of Fashion to undertake long distance education but dropped out, though has plans to launch a lifestyle and fashion label later down the track.

Down-to-earth Cambage is not one to big note herself and plays down any praise that comes her way. She denies being the poster girl who made basketball sexy again too.

Cambage scored a multi million-dollar contract with various teams in Zhejiang, Beijing and Shanghai and went to the Rio Games where she was a stand out performer in the green and gold. But by mid-2016 she felt it was time to take a break. The year prior she was dropped from the Opals after missing a camp to attend Splendour on the Grass music festival in Byron Bay, and the media storm that followed saw her refocus her priorities. "It was all getting a bit too much," says Cambage of managing her sporting career and social life.

"I was on a good thing and had been playing professionally since I was 16. I had travelled the world with basketball but never saw anything other than hotel rooms and basketball courts. I was missing my friends, important birthday parties and family events. I wanted a year off to do what I wanted so I did just that."

Her partying lifestyle might not sit well with high profile sporting clubs, but Cambage insists she's always there for the music, not the 'recreational lifestyle'. She attended Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert last year [think Mad Max outfits meets electronic DJs], travelled to the Greek island of Mykonos, swam the Blue Cave in Croatia and caught up with friends in Berlin. She happily ticked off many things from her bucket list that she hadn't been able to do in her early 20s.

Cambage says she's not prepared to give up her love of music, DJing and socialising – despite the stern warnings she should focus on her sport and leave the rest to off-season. More importantly, she doesn't care what others think of her. "I went to the Rainbow Serpent festival for the third time in a row," she beams while sipping a green smoothie a few blocks away from her apartment she bought in Toorak. "Some people like to go to the pub with their mates, I love to go camping and dancing at a festival."

Cambage also works as a DJ and owns decks at home. She says it's her form of meditation. She's opened for Mary J Blige, hit the decks at the Lavazza Marquee during the Spring Racing Carnival and says she's got more offers than she can fit into her schedule. "I love doing DJ work and it's a nice escape from my sporting life. I grew up listening to '90s house anthems with mum so it was inevitable I'd find interest in music. It's something I do when it's off-season with the team," she says.

After a three-year relationship went south, Cambage now has a new man in her life (they've been dating for a few years but Cambage is reluctant to reveal his name). "We've finally got our shit together, it's been the longest journey and working overseas means it does affect my relationships but hopefully we can get through this one. Being away from the ones you love is the hardest thing about basketball."

Cambage has a big year ahead with pressure to lead the Opals to victory at the Commonwealth Games and World Champs in Spain in September. The team is currently in Italy training. They will be among eight teams competing at the Commonwealth Games, including Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Mozambique, Malaysia, India and England.

While her sporting highlights have been many, Cambage says a turning point was meeting supermodel Naomi Campbell at Flemington a few years ago. "I actually bawled my eyes out when I met her," she smiles. "That was a special moment for me and reinforced it doesn't matter what size or colour you are, you are your own beauty and unique and there is room for everyone to shine – you just gotta own it."

Issue #3 of 51698009 magazine is in the Age and SMH on March 9. 

Stylist Kim Ellmer

Make-up Sally Axford for MECCA

Hair Joey Scandizzo

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