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Liz Cambage abruptly leaves Sparks in what team deems a 'contract divorce'

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New Los Angeles Sparks player Liz Cambage holds her jersey during a press conference to announce her signing with the team outside Arena Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in Los Angeles.

New Los Angeles Sparks player Liz Cambage holds her jersey during a press conference to announce her signing with the team outside Arena Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in Los Angeles. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Liz Cambage wasn't just about what she could bring to the court. The increased media and fan attention were also on Derek Fisher's mind when the former Sparks coach and general manager signed the controversial four-time All-Star.

"Is it going to be great?" Fisher asked on the team's preseason media day. "Or is it going to implode?"

It didn't take an entire season to answer the latter.

Cambage, Fisher's prized free-agent signing who vocally declared that L.A. had always been her ultimate WNBA playing destination, abruptly left the Sparks on Tuesday as the team announced a "contract divorce." The Sparks (12-15) play at Phoenix on Thursday, a game that's critical for postseason seeding with the ninth-place Mercury (12-16) only half a game out of playoff position.

"I have to respect what she wants," said interim coach Fred Williams, whose relationship with Cambage began in 2018 when she played for the Williams-coached Dallas Wings. "Once a person gives you that verbally what she wants, you have to listen because it could be something else, could be something that's not related to basketball."

"It is with support that we share Liz Cambage's decision to terminate her contract with the organization," Sparks managing partner Eric Holoman said in a statement. "We want what's best for Liz and have agreed to part ways amicably. The Sparks remain excited about our core group and are focused on our run towards a 2022 playoff berth."

Cambage was averaging 13 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25 appearances and 24 starts for the sixth-place Sparks with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season. It's the 30-year-old's second-lowest scoring season of her WNBA career, trailing only her rookie year when she averaged 11.5 points a game in 2011 for the Tulsa Shock.

Williams — who replaced Fisher when he was fired on June 7 — said during the season that Cambage was struggling with conditioning and facing double- and triple-teams. Williams hinted that Cambage cited her physical struggles as a reason why she made the unexpected departure, in addition to personal issues that were "lingering."

Just as Cambage appeared to be rounding into form with five double-digit scoring efforts in six games, she was knocked out by COVID-19 on July 14. She missed two games while in health and safety protocols. Her last game was an 11-point, five-rebound performance in Las Vegas against her former team on Saturday.

"A lot of emotions flew around," said Williams, the only person the Sparks made available to reporters after practice Tuesday. The Sparks lost 84-66, getting swept in the four-game season series by the WNBA's second-place team.

"For a coach, it's puzzling," Williams said of the timing. "But you have to still put the puzzles together and keep making it work."

Williams expects that the team will shift its focus on offense from feeding the ball down low to moving the ball around the perimeter and attacking the rim on drives. The Sparks scored 49.4% of their points in the paint, the highest percentage for anyone in the league. Conversely, they attempt only 16.4 3-pointers a game, the fewest in the league, and shoot 34.5% from beyond the arc.

Chiney Ogwumike's resurgent season gives the Sparks a frontcourt option without Cambage, but Ogwumike's everyday availability is a concern. She was a late scratch in two games this month, missing a game because of a knee injury and Saturday's loss in Las Vegas because of a non-COVID illness. She has started in her last four appearances.

The Sparks signed rookie guard Kianna Smith to a seven-day contract Tuesday. The Louisville alumna was a second-round draft pick this year and played in two home games earlier this month when injuries ravaged the Sparks backcourt.

This isn't the first time the former Australian national team star has ditched a team suddenly. Instead of rejoining the Shock after the 2012 Olympics, Cambage announced the morning of her scheduled flight to the United States that she would miss the rest of the WNBA season because she was "physically exhausted" from national team duty

In 2021, she withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics less than two weeks before the Games, citing mental health concerns. The sudden move came after Cambage was involved in an incident with members of the Nigerian national team during a closed scrimmage. Cambage was accused of using a racial slur during an outburst after she unintentionally fouled a Nigerian player, who Cambage said "physically assaulted" her in retaliation, sparking an altercation between the teams on the sideline. Cambage denied using the slurs and received support from her Sparks teammates when reports surfaced in May.

Cambage is the WNBA's second high-profile "contract divorce" this season after center Tina Charles split from Phoenix last month. The former WNBA most valuable player signed with the Seattle Storm three days later and became the fourth player in league history to score 7,000 points in a win over the Atlanta Dream on Monday.

A similar redemption story seems unlikely for Cambage considering her contentious history, but Williams, who once shared a pinky promise with Cambage to meet in L.A., said he's hopeful the star can play in the WNBA again.

"I'm not in her brain right now," Williams said, "but I hope she does have an opportunity to get back and play. We'll see. Only time will tell."

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