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Liz Cambage the next Lauren Jackson

Liz Cambage the next Lauren Jackson

When Lauren Jackson first met Liz Cambage, she declared Australian basketball had ''another superstar'' with the world at her feet but with a ''lot of expectation'' already on her shoulders.

With Cambage 203 centimetres tall and possessing outstanding athletic ability, Jackson is not alone in believing the 19-year-old is the next big thing in her sport. Many call her ''the next Lauren Jackson''.

Cambage's coach at Bulleen, Tom Maher, the man who moulded Jackson's early career at club and Australian level, agrees in part.

''I suppose in one way it's true, she is the next big thing coming out of Australia. She's six-foot-eight, is really athletic - she can dunk - she's quick and she's mobile,'' he says.

''The difference is that Lauren is the best player in the world. You're not comparing her to another great player. I use the analogy, you're not comparing her to Steve Waugh, you're comparing her to Donald Bradman. It's not just the player of that generation, she's [Jackson] the player of the century.''

Cambage chuckles when the comparison arises in conversation. It's a regular topic. ''A lot of people say I'm the next Lauren but we're completely different,'' Cambage said. ''It's great to be compared to her, and I'd love to have her profile or even bigger. But I want to be me and not someone compared to Lauren.''

Jackson describes Maher as ''the best coach I ever had'' but last year she was instrumental in inflicting a painful first on him. With Maher having made seven successful visits to WNBL grand finals, Jackson's Canberra team defeated his Bulleen outfit 75-70. For the then 18-year-old Cambage, the loss was devastating.

''The pain of that loss is motivation for this year,'' Cambage admits as she prepares for Sunday's WNBL grand final, again against Canberra but this time in Melbourne. ''I had a little moment last night thinking about when we lost, and I got a bit teary, and it makes you want to go out and win it and get revenge. That feeling was the worst in the world, and I never want to feel it again. It was horrible.''

Cambage, who has a Nigerian father and Australian mother, was born in London. Her parents separated when she was just three months old, and she moved to Australia with her mum Julie, growing up in Coffs Harbour. Melbourne then became home, and when she was nine they moved to the Mornington Peninsula.

It was there young Lizzie - who was more interested in music, dancing, singing and acting - discovered basketball.

She admits she was lazy and had no interest in sport, but it was her mother's idea for the new kid to make some friends. ''Mum saw an ad in the paper for basketball after we had just moved to the Mornington Peninsula,'' Cambage explains. ''I was new at school, and because of my height I did cop a bit off other kids - don't worry, I gave a lot back too - so Mum thought basketball was good way for me to make friends, and I did make a lot of friends.''

While many parents proudly claim they saw sporting stardom in their youngsters, Julie Cambage is brutally honest. Her daughter couldn't catch, dribble or shoot, but her young teammates would always be excited when Liz arrived at games, purely for the fact she was so tall.

Young Liz soon took to the game, especially after she hit her first basket. As a reward, her mother gave her $10 and took her to the movies. It was enough to convince her to keep going. It wasn't long before her competitive spirit emerged. She honed her skills as she kept growing, and in 2008 was offered a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport.

''I really enjoyed the AIS. I was living with all these girls and, with all my friends around me, I wasn't that focused on basketball all the time. I had great fun, looking back, but if I could go back and live it all again, I'd put in a lot more hard work.''

When Cambage decided to leave the AIS in mid-2009, interest was at fever pitch. She had just played in the junior world championships, and although having just turned 18, she was inundated with offers to play overseas. Back home, Sydney and Bulleen wanted her on their rosters.

In the end, she decided against chasing the money overseas, and opted for Bulleen. She was able to return to Melbourne and join ''world-class coaches'', and now admits it was the best decision for her.

''We can't compete financially for kids like Liz, so what we bank our program on is having three Olympic coaches [Maher, Michele Timms and Gary Fox] who can work with you,'' Maher says. ''We're saying, 'You come to us, we'll give you a game that you can go to Europe or the US, and you can make your money that way, and you'll make more in the long term than taking the bucks in the short term.''

Those bucks are coming but they won't be big just yet. Early next month, Cambage and her mother will head to New York for the WNBA draft. Like Jackson in 2001, Cambage is being touted as the No.1 pick in the draft (which would mean going to Minnesota), but her rookie salary will be only about $40,000. Bigger money beckons later in her career if she heads to Europe.

But before all that there is a grand final to win.

- smh.com.au

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