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Kahleah Copper spent most mornings this offseason working out at Girard College where she attended school from first through 10th grade.

Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times

It’s Kahleah Copper’s time to shine for the Sky

The superstar is ready to be the face of the Sky, a role she has been preparing for since her youth in North Philly

PHILADELPHIA — Kahleah Copper was uncharacteristically subdued on this particular March morning.

The hood of her powder-blue sweatshirt hung over her forehead, nearly covering her eyes as she walked into the familiar Girard College gym with her head buried in her phone. Copper was present physically, but her mind seemed far away.

“I don’t feel like being here today,” Copper said as she made her way across the court to the bleachers to prepare for her workout.

Girard’s gym, one of the locations in Philadelphia where Copper worked out this offseason, matched her hushed demeanor. No one was present aside from Copper’s player-development coach, Chaz Franklin. After lacing up her basketball shoes she attempted to shift the energy with music.

The smooth sound of Wizkid’s ‘’Mood’’ pumped through Copper’s speakers as she started putting up shots.

With every make, Copper’s energy levels began to rise, but her edge was still missing. Then, the door of the gym creaked open and an elementary student popped her head in.

“Oh, my God, it’s Kahleah Copper,” the young girl said seemingly to herself.

But in an instant, a flood of students surged through the door and toward the 2021 WNBA Finals MVP.

“Kahleah!” they shrieked as they enveloped her with hugs.

Some might have been bothered by the disruption but not Copper. Her smile reached her ears as the group of students there for gym class opted instead to grab a seat on the sideline to watch her break a sweat. Their eyes were the catalyst she needed to set the tone of her nearly two-hour session.

Now that she had an audience it was time to put on a show.

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Kahleah Copper was able to use her high school gym at Girard College as often as she wanted this off season. On some mornings she was greeted by an audience of young students eager to watch her workout.

Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times

In her seventh season with the Sky and the last one on her current contract, Copper will have the entire league’s attention. After the departures of the Sky’s longest-tenured player and two hometown legends just two seasons after bringing the city its first WNBA title, the organization and the fans are looking to her to lead it through the road ahead. Not to mention she’ll be the focus of every opponent.

Wondering what makes her uniquely prepared for this moment?

Well, that requires a little trip down memory lane.

Girard, the prep school Copper attended from first grade through 10th, is where she began perfecting her basketball skills but not where she learned the game. Rather, that was on the corner of 32nd and Berks playing on a backboard someone from the neighborhood swiped and hung up on an electric pole with a crate as a makeshift hoop. The crate is gone, but the backboard remains, along with all the memories of being young and having fun in her neighborhood of North Philly.

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Kahleah Copper grew up shooting on this basket that once had a crate attached as a makeshift hoop near the corner of 32nd and Berks in North Philadelphia.

Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times

Copper’s first experience with organized basketball didn’t happen until middle school when Girard’s girls basketball coach, Sabrina Allen, saw her running around campus.

Her first thought was, “She’s going to be a track star.”

By seventh grade, Allen noticed a shift in Copper’s interest in the game. She went from a kid who was just there to have fun to a young star in the making, prompting Allen to make a call.

“Sabrina called and said ‘I have a kid I need you to see. She’s raw but she’s really athletic and loves to play basketball,’ ” said Yolanda Laney, a coach and staple in the Philadelphia basketball community and a star on Cheyney State’s historic 1982 team. “Kahleah was 12 years old at the time playing up with our 13-year-old AAU program. She was this lanky kid and she could jump out of the gym. She was really aggressive defensively as well, and she didn’t back down even though she was the youngest one in the gym.”

“You have that certain fire and that fire is not going to deny you. Not all players have that kind of fire. Well, she had that kind of fire that you could see. It’s a fire that transcends everything.”

†††

WATER ICE AND FROZEN ICE are not the same desserts. At least, not to Copper anyway.

Standing in front of King’s, the food stand she frequented as a youngster and forcefully claims has the best water ice in Philadelphia, she tried but failed to describe the difference. That didn’t deter her from remaining adamant that the sweet treat Philly is known for is far superior.

Although Copper’s preseason diet — no sugar or carbs — won’t permit her to indulge, she recommended passion fruit and a cheese pretzel to go with it. After she reluctantly ordered her sugar-free cherry, Copper took in her surroundings.

“This is the neighborhood,” she said with a grin.

The basketball courts at 33rd and Diamond in North Philadelphia were frequented by Kahleah Copper often as a child growing up in the neighborhood.

The basketball courts at 33rd and Diamond in North Philadelphia were frequented by Kahleah Copper often as a child growing up in the neighborhood.

Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times,

When Copper wasn’t on Girard’s campus, where she lived Monday through Friday, she was three miles north at the house of her great-grandmother, Bytia. It’s a stone’s throw away from King’s and a few blocks south of one of the basketball courts Copper grew up playing on at 33rd and Diamond.

Bytia was like an oak tree, sheltering her family and bringing everyone together under the comfort of her sturdy branches. Her house was the epicenter of all family gatherings and the place to seek comfort in good times and bad.

“I used to sneak into her room in the middle of the night if I couldn’t sleep,” Copper said standing in Bytia’s old room at the house she recently had renovated. “She’d just tell me ‘come on’ and I’d sleep right next to her.”

Driving around Philadelphia, recalling childhood memories that are branded into her brain, family is the theme Copper continues to come back to.

Whether she’s talking about a request from one of her nieces to have a movie night with no cellphones or her new real-estate ventures with longtime friend Keisha Hampton who is more like a sister now, it’s apparent her relationships with her family bring out a unique ease in Copper. The comfort, closeness and assurance she feels with her family is what she wants to share with her teammates. After winning a championship with a team that shared a bond like the one Copper has with her family, she knows it’s a recipe for success.

It’s also a recipe for professional heartbreak and a reason this past offseason was one of the most challenging for Copper.

Last November, Copper expressed confidence that the Sky’s unrestricted free agents would return for at least one more season together. Reflecting back on that confidence, Copper said it wasn’t that she was kidding herself, rather she was trying to psych herself up for a free-agency period she truthfully had mixed feelings about.

One by one, it felt like her teammates were falling off a cliff as they inked deals with new teams, Copper said. If there is one person Copper wishes she could have turned to as her teammates departed, it would have been Bytia.

After she passed away in 2018, Copper got a chain with her picture in it that she wears every day. When she really needs it, she listens to one of the voicemails she still has saved.

“It’s only me Kahleah,” Bytia starts before reminding Copper to stop worrying. Before hanging up she tells her granddaughter to hit her three-pointers and “your freebies.”

Bytia called practice rehearsal and free throws were nicknamed freebies. The advice she had for her great-granddaughter remains relevant now.

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Kahleah Copper stands with her entire family, her arm around her grandmother, Bytia on Draft night in 2016. She was selected with the seventh overall pick by the Washington Mystics.

Provided photo

†††

WHEN COPPER STEPS ONTO THE COURT, even on the days when she doesn’t feel like being there, her demeanor changes. The way her gentle, compassionate — maybe even needy at times — character morphs into a cutthroat assassin, ready to break anyone who stands in her way with what many have called the quickest first step in the WNBA, is almost incomprehensible.

For Copper, it’s not enough to win, she has to beat you, a distinction only recognizable by the way an opponent is left feeling. Copper relishes that.

“When you beat somebody, they feel like you just sucked the life out of them,” Copper said. “It’s more fun that way.”

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Copper’s trainer, Chaz Franklin, was hired by the Sky in April as a player development coach.

Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times

There isn’t a single aspect of Copper’s journey in the WNBA that she would change.

Looking back though, she acknowledges that none of it was easy. She halfway kiddingly admitted that in 2018 she contemplated retirement.

After being drafted by the Mystics with the seventh overall pick in 2016. She was happy in Washington, where she felt former coach/general manager Mike Thibault, now just the GM, was invested in her development.

After being traded to the Sky in 2017, Copper said she didn’t talk during her first year as she attempted to figure out where she fit. Her first two seasons in Chicago were spent coming off the bench for Allie Quigley and Diamond DeShields, among others.

She averaged 6.9 points, two rebounds and less than one assist and steal in 15.3 minutes.

“I remember Allie said ‘You could go anywhere in the league and be a starter, but we need you here,’ ” Copper said.

Ahead of the 2020 season, Copper was ready to test that theory as a restricted free agent.

She took meetings with multiple teams and was contemplating an offer to play for the Minnesota Lynx, but in a transparent meeting with Sky coach/GM James Wade, Copper’s mind was changed.

“He was like ‘You have to trust,’ ” Copper said. “First of all, I have trust issues, that’s No. 1, and two, I was at a point in my career where I don’t want to [come off the bench]. I’m not even that person that’s like ‘I want to start.’ I just wanted a chance. I deserved it.”

Copper still has a screenshot of a tweet she read from the locker room before her first game in 2020.

“Why are the Sky starting Kahleah Copper?” were the words displayed back to her on her cellphone.

After reading it, she texted it to an old coach who told her to get off Twitter and focus on the game plan. She proceeded to score 18 points to go with her three rebounds and two assists in 22 minutes in the Sky’s season-opening victory against the Las Vegas Aces.

By the end of the season, she had more than doubled her previous averages, finishing with 14.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and one steal. When doubters wanted to chalk it up to the shortened bubble season, Copper followed it up with a nearly identical stat line in 2021.

Copper was the leading scorer on a championship team with Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, Quigley and DeShields. She earned her first All-Star nod in 2021, and when the Sky won their first WNBA championship, beating the Phoenix Mercury in four games, Copper was named Finals MVP.

She admits that she still reads people’s hot takes at times. The criticism and doubt provide her with an added level of motivation. But what really fires her up is that some of the same people who were questioning her role as a starter are sending out, “Kahleah Freaking Copper,” tweets now.

“Nobody was team me,” Copper said. “That I do take personally.”

†††

AT EVERY STOP COPPER MAKES in Philadelphia, she seems to know somebody or they know her. On this sunny Thursday afternoon, as Copper walked up to the recently painted mural of her at the Simpson Rec Center, a young man stopped before getting into his car.

“If you ever need a trainer give me a call,” he said as he handed Copper his business card.

The two-time All-Star is already equipped with a team of trusted advisors in that area, most of whom she has known since a young age, but she graciously accepted and slipped his card into her pocket.

Copper enters the 2023 season in the second year of the two-year deal she signed in 2021.

She’s not one to get wrapped up in daydreams about the future, but one potential scenario that has crossed her mind is the possibility of being a cornerstone on an expansion team in Philadelphia.

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A mural of Copper was painted by Philadelphia artist, Priscilla Bell and unveiled at the Simpson Rec Center in Northeast Philadelphia last October. Her great-grandmother, Bytia is a staple piece of the artwork.

Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert addressed the league’s expansion at the draft in April, providing a vague update saying, “I’d love to add at least two teams over the next few years and maybe longer-term four.” This came after she previously had shared the league’s goal of having two expansion teams begin play in 2025. The timeline she gave included naming an expansion team at the end of 2022.

In previous interviews, Engelbert said the league is considering 10 cities for expansion but as recently as this week she told the Sports Business Journal that the list is at 20. Engelbert hasn’t named all 20 cities in consideration, but reports have speculated that Oakland, California, Nashville, Tennessee, Portland, Oregon, and yes, Philadelphia, could be potential landing spots for new teams.

“That would be a crazy dream come true to be the face of a franchise in the city that groomed you or made you who you are,” Copper said. “You see players that are driven by the idea of going back home to win a championship. It’s different to go back home. You get all the support from your family and friends, plus you’re home. I could live in my own house.”

Wade didn’t answer a question about the degree of conversations that have taken place between himself and Copper regarding her future beyond 2023. He did say that Copper is a priority for the franchise.

“We want Kah here a long time,” Wade said. “We want it to be Chi-KAH-Go. We’ll do whatever is necessary to put her in a great situation so she can continue to lead us in the future.”

This season being a contract year and her first as not just a piece to the Sky’s success but rather the player it hinges upon is undoubtedly the most significant of Copper’s career. Ask her if she feels any pressure and she’ll tell you she feels none.

Why would she? After all, nobody expects much from the Sky this season, and Copper said that is one of the things fueling her.

There are so many questions Copper will be forced to respond to this year:

What do you do when you’re left to pick up the pieces of a recent championship franchise that has been unceremoniously gutted?

What do you do when people don’t expect you to win?

What do you do when no one believes the Sky will sustain a championship identity?

That morning in North Philly getting ready to work out when she wanted to be in bed, Copper answered those questions by answering the question, “What do you do when you don’t feel like showing up?”

“You do it anyway,” Copper said.

You win anyway.

You compete anyway.

You show up anyway.

The students who gathered to watch Copper practice were a reflection of the fearless, hardworking, dedicated kid she used to be. As their teacher blew a whistle that marked the end of their gym class the kids trickled toward the door, some slower than others.

One of the boldest walked right up to Copper to get one more word in. It turns out she was counting Copper’s makes and misses and wanted to share her final tally.

This year Copper knows everyone will be counting her makes and misses, her wins and losses, her triumphs and failures. She’s ready because of days like the one at Girard where she did it anyway.

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One young student tallying Kahleah Copper’s shots during her morning workout made it a point to let her know how many makes and misses she had before heading back to class.

Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times

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Kahleah Copper (far right) attended Girard College in North Philadelphia from first grade through 10th.

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Kahleah Copper lived on campus at Girard College Monday through Friday before her grandmother, Bytia would pick her up to spend the weekend at home.

provided photo

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Girard College, where Kahleah Copper attended school from first through 10th grade was the prime location of the two-time All-Star’s offseason workouts.

Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times

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Kahleah Copper spent many mornings this offseason training at Girard College in North Philly with player development coach Chaz Franklin and close friend Taron Barnes both of whom she’s known since childhood.

Annie Costabile/Chicago Sun-Times

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