Los Angeles Sparks' Liz Cambage denies directing racial slur at Nigerian basketball team during p...

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Monday, May 30, 2022

Los Angeles Sparks center Liz Cambage pushed back Sunday against a report from an Australian newspaper that she directeda racial slur toward the Nigerian women's basketball team during a pre-Olympic scrimmage last year in Las Vegas.

"The incident that took place in the pre-Olympic scrimmage with the Nigerian national team was handled privately almost a year ago," Cambage, who was playing for the Australian women's national team at the time, wrote Sunday night in a statement posted to Instagram. "I am very disappointed and hurt by the events and accusations that have unfolded in the Australian media. The account of what took place is inaccurate and misleading. I did not use the racial slur toward the Nigerian team that has been circulating."

The report, published over the weekend in The Sunday Telegraph, a subsidiary of News Corp, cited two anonymous members of the Nigerian team who said they heard Cambage refer to them as "monkeys" during the closed-door scrimmage at UNLV. A third player told the paper that Cambage also said, "Go back to your third-world country."

Cambage, whose father is Nigerian, played several years for the Australian women's basketball team, the Opals.

News Corp Australia said it obtained video from the scrimmage -- held on July 13, 2021, the day before the WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas -- that showed Cambage elbowing one Nigerian opponent in the head and neck, before a timeout is called and Cambage is taken out of the game. According to the newspaper's description of the video, Cambage then returned to the game and got tangled up on an ensuing play with another Nigerian player, whom she slapped. As Cambage walked to the bench after being subbed out, that same Nigerian player came up behind Cambage and punched her in the temple. It was then that Cambage is alleged to have made the derogatory remarks.

In her Instagram post on Sunday, Cambage wrote, "After I unintentionally fouled a Nigerian player on court, I was then physically assaulted by this player on the sideline of my bench. I was hit in the face and pushed to the ground, but I walked away. ... We did not have professional referees to manage and prioritize both teams' safety during this highly physical scrimmage.

"This is not an excuse of justification to the events that unfolded or my actions, however, I feel that a full picture of the environment that led to this outcome must be shared."

According to The Sunday Telegraph, Cambage apologized for her actions during a Nigerian team dinner the day after the scrimmage.She also gave her Opals teammates a "lighthearted" apology, one member of the Australian team told the paper.

Cambage, who played for the WNBA'sLas Vegas Acesin 2019 and 2021, suited up for the All-Star Game the next day but did not take the court. A day later, she withdrew from the Australian national team, citing mental health concerns, and she didn't play in the Tokyo Olympics.

Basketball Australia conducted an independent review of Cambage's conduct during the scrimmage with Nigeria, and it announced in November that she would receive a formal reprimand but would not be fined or suspended. That meant she was still eligible to compete in the 2022 FIBA World Cup, which will be staged this September in Australia.

But in December, Cambage posted on social media part of an email from Basketball Australia asking her if she wanted to be considered for the World Cup squad, and Cambage said she had "zero interest." That appeared to officially end Cambage's connection to the national team.

However, the Australians were further upset when Cambage, in an interview prior to the start of the 2022 WNBA season, said the Sparks "protected her" and wanted her to succeed in a way she didn't think the Australian team did.

Jenna O'Hea, who was the Australian team captain for the Tokyo Olympics, said during an appearance on an Australian sports television show earlier this month that Cambage did tell the Nigerian players to "go back to your third-world country."

Team Australia coach Sandy Brondello, who now coaches the WNBA's New York Liberty, said during a pregame video call on Sunday of the Cambage-Nigeria incident, "Right now, I'm not going to make a comment. To be quite honest, I've really moved on from it. It wasn't a very fun time, that situation. I'll make a comment at an appropriate time."

Cambage signed as a free agent with the Sparks in February, and she is currently averaging 15.6 points and 5.9 rebounds. Sparks coach Derek Fisher was asked Sunday if Cambage's alleged comments during the scrimmage came up when Los Angeles was looking to add her to its roster.

"We had some conversations internally -- ownership, some of our players, management -- and made the decision that Liz would be a welcome part of our team," Fisher said. "That's the way we're looking at it at the moment.

"If there are things that continue to come out that are confirmed at a later date, we'll address that at that time. Right now, it's something that in our opinion is pretty much completed."

SistersNnekaand Chiney Ogwumike of the Sparks both wanted to play for the Nigeria national team last summer, after Nneka was left off the United States roster. Because of her extensive past with USA Basketball, though, Nneka was denied a chance to play with Nigeria, in accordance with FIBA regulations, and Chiney opted not to play. Their younger sister, Erica Ogwumike, did play for Nigeria.

Nneka Ogwumikesaid Sunday on a video call that the incident between Cambage and the Nigerian team was discussed by the Sparks' players.

"We're past it. Whatever agenda is happening with it resurfacing, that's other people's business," she said. "Quite frankly, we talked about it before she came to the team. And, granted, people have their own accounts of what happened. But we addressed it. We talked about how important it is for us to be together, be transparent, and also the power of giving people second chances."

Cambage concluded her Instagram statement on Sunday by saying she has "taken responsibility and accountability for my involvement in what occurred. I genuinely apologized to the Nigerian team and I once again am sorry that these events are being rehashed.

"I truly hope that I can move forward from this incident and apply actionable effort to be my best self."

ESPN's Alexa Philippou contributed to this report.