Kahleah Copper will define Sky’s culture in 2023 with same energy she brings to game

Copper has been preparing for this new role since she joined the Sky in 2017 in the trade that sent Elena Delle Donne to the Mystics for her and Stefanie Dolson.

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Kahleah Copper is who Sky coach/GM James Wade is building around.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times, Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Kahleah Copper answered her phone almost instantly.

“Damn,” former Sky teammate Courtney Vandersloot said on the other end. “You answered on the first ring?”

Copper was waiting anxiously to hear where Vandersloot would be playing her 13th WNBA season. At that point last week, Candace Parker had already announced her intentions to leave the Sky and sign with the Aces. So when Vandersloot informed Copper that she, too, would be leaving, it was admittedly tough to process.

Copper, a two-time All-Star, has spent six years of her seven-year career with Vandersloot and Allie Quigley and the last two years with Parker. Their relationships transcend the typical bonds of teammates. They’re more like family, making Copper’s response all the more layered.

She could hear the peace in Parker’s and Vandersloot’s voices — and she was happy for them. But, she acknowledged, she has had to balance the emotions of saying goodbye to teammates with whom she won a WNBA title with the acceptance that their decisions weren’t anything personal.

“That’s the tough part,” Copper said, “especially when you have real relationships. It’s not like somebody’s leaving that I don’t care about. It’s tough. You go through those waves of emotions, like, ‘Damn, they’re gone.’ For any normal person, that’s going to happen. It’s going to take time to really say, ‘OK, it’s time to get ready for this season and step into this new role of this new era.’ ”

Truth be told, Copper has been preparing for this new role since she joined the Sky in 2017 in the trade that sent Elena Delle Donne to the Mystics for her and Stefanie Dolson.

In her first three seasons with the Sky, she started just 12 of 101 games and averaged 6.8 points and two rebounds off the bench. She didn’t argue about her role — she just worked harder.

Under coach/general manager James Wade in 2020, everything changed. During the WNBA’s pandemic “bubble season” in Florida, Copper started every game and was the Sky’s second-leading scorer behind Quigley with 14.9 points per game. The next season, she got her first All-Star nod, which she followed up with her second last year.

Beyond the personal accomplishments, which include being named the WNBA Finals MVP in 2021, Copper has developed into a leader capable of carrying the team. Given Vandersloot’s long history with the Sky and the even older connections Parker and Quigley have to Chicago, those aren’t small shoes to fill. But Copper wears just the right size.

“I wanted her to know, yes, from a basketball standpoint, you have the keys,” Parker said. “You have the keys and the skills to continue to be great in Chicago and continue to lead this franchise.

“But, from a friendship perspective, this isn’t conditional. I’m still here. I still want to be part of her life. We still talk and have FaceTimed since then. I’m going to be here. My love for her and what she has done and what she means to our family is endless. It’s not conditional on what jersey I wear.”

It wasn’t long ago that Copper herself was weighing her options on the free-agent market. Last year, Wade used the core designation on her, which came with a one-year, super-max qualifying offer worth $228,094. After negotiations, the two sides decided on a two-year deal worth $200,000 last season and $205,000 in 2023. Copper’s pay cut for 2022 contributed to Wade’s ability to re-sign Vandersloot and Quigley and add Emma Meesseman. It also was a factor in Parker’s decision to return for the final year of her contract.

Vandersloot had encouraged Copper during free agency to bet on herself with a one-year deal, knowing her stock would continue to rise. But Copper was looking for more security at the time. In the future, she can see that changing.

“Maybe when I’m old like you and I’m 30,” she recalls joking with Vandersloot, “I’ll be signing one-years.”

Copper didn’t say whether she expected the Sky’s core to return this season after she signed her two-year deal last year. Bringing everybody back in 2022 was accomplishment enough, and led to a franchise-record 26 wins during the regular season.

Past stars have requested trades when the future of the Sky appeared uncertain. It was Delle Donne’s trade request, after all, that led to Copper coming to Chicago. But Copper has no interest in leaving before her contract is up.

“Sometimes you have to roll with the punches,” she said. “I have a year on my contract. We go through the year, see how it goes, and then, you never know.”

Every recent Sky leader has brought unique individual qualities to their role. Parker was vocal. Vandersloot led by example. Quigley was a comforting presence.

Copper has always led with her energy. This season, she plans to bring a more mixed approach, combining that energy and the emotion she’s known for with a newfound vocalness she picked up from her veteran teammates.

Her definition of the Sky’s culture in 2023 is emblematic of the way she has always played the game.

“We aren’t backing down from anybody,” she said.

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