Kahleah Copper grew up playing basketball on the corner of 33rd and Diamond Streets in Philadelphia.
She was the only girl from the neighborhood on the court with boys who were older and stronger players at the time. They held nothing back, and she kept returning to those courts.
That corner in North Philly is one of the places Copper earned her stripes and laid the foundation to become a WNBA All-Star. This week in Las Vegas, as she made her All-Star debut, the friends that became family from that corner park showed up to support her.
In their minds, she always has been an All-Star.
”About 30 people came to Las Vegas to support me,” Copper said.
Those 30 people included her mother, her sister, her old resident assistant from Girard College boarding school and several friends from the neighborhood. They all came with unique stories about whom Copper is, but one constant is that her friends mean everything to her.
Her grandma Bytia, who died in 2019, remains with Copper in a photo she wears on a chain around her neck everywhere she goes. Copper said her grandma always knew she would reach this moment in her career.
Copper isn’t from Philadelphia, she’s from North Philly. And if you get it wrong, she’ll let you know. There’s a deep pride associated with what neighborhood you grew up in, and North Philly is known for its grit and hustle. Those are two characteristics that define Copper’s style of play.
”We had one play in middle school, and it was called, ‘Give the ball to Kahleah,’ ” said Michael Pinkney, Copper’s old coach and resident assistant at Girard.
Even back in those days, Copper was getting defensive rebounds and taking the ball from coast to coast. It’s something fans have come to expect from her this season, and it’s one of the reasons she was voted an All-Star. That, along with the fact she’s leading the Sky in scoring at 13.8 points per game.
A more important stat to her is her 4.9 rebounds per game. Entering this season, Copper wanted to establish herself as a rebounding guard who was a lockdown defender.
Copper often has been charged with guarding an opponent’s leading scorer this season. Her development on the defensive end of the court — something coach and general manager James Wade hounded her and teammate Diamond DeShields about — is a huge factor in why the Sky’s defensive rating is third in the league. Add it to the list of reasons she was voted an All-Star.
Copper’s All-Star nod made her the second woman from North Philly to earn the honor. Six-time All-Star Dawn Staley was the first.
”From year to year, she’s added more and more to her game,” Staley said. ”Her opponents have to really scheme for her. You’re seeing the evolution of her take form into a really, truly great Philadelphia guard.”
Staley and Copper always have been connected by North Philly. This year, that connection moved beyond the place they both call home when Copper was invited to participate in USA women’s basketball camps.
Copper’s most recent camp with Team USA was at the end of March, with teammates DeShields and Stefanie Dolson. Copper thought she performed well at the camp. Leading up to the announcement of the
Tokyo Olympics roster, she was confident she, DeShields or both would make the team.
After the Sky’s 91-81 victory against the Sun on June 19, Copper got a call from USA Basketball saying she didn’t make the team. DeShields was also left off the roster.
”Fall down nine times, get up 10,” Pinkney said. ”That’s her mentality.”
Copper was disappointed, but she maintained a positive perspective by acknowledging she’s just getting started.
Winning a gold medal is still a priority for Copper. She said her ultimate goal is to win at every level. The potential to win at the WNBA level is there this season, but a few things need to happen first.
The Sky closed the first half with an overtime loss to the Mystics and will begin the second half with a 10-10 record. After losses such as that one, Copper is desperate to play another game to hit the refresh button. The closest she’ll get to game action, however, is when the Sky return to practice July 26.
The point of emphasis in the second half, which the Sky open against the Storm on Aug. 15 at Wintrust Arena, needs to be consistency. Copper said she thinks the Sky have all the pieces to find it.
Candace Parker is the voice of reason who reminds everyone to relax in high-pressure moments.
Courtney Vandersloot is the player who holds others accountable.
Dolson brings the humor, and DeShields and Copper are the sparkplugs.
Combine these defining characteristics of the starting five with a bench led by one of the best knockdown shooters in the WNBA in Allie Quigley, and you have a championship contender.
Still, to reach their full potential, the Sky must make adjustments before August.
”We have to learn how to win in those tight situations,” Copper said. ”Practice is going to help us get there because we’re fighting through possessions. We’re going to challenge ourselves by pushing ourselves to the limit when we’re tired.”
Every member of the Sky’s starting five but Parker will be a free agent at the end of the season. Quigley, Astou Ndour-Fall and Lexie Brown also will be free agents.
It’s a near guarantee that the Sky will look markedly different in 2022. Copper said that the players don’t discuss the potential changes to the roster, adding that they love one another and will try to make things work however they can.
”It’s going to be a tough one for Mr. Wade,” Copper joked.
This season has been a continuation of Copper’s breakout performance in the WNBA bubble last season that had her in the running for the league’s most improved player award.
People beyond the league have taken notice. Copper joined Adidas’ roster, which includes more than 25 WNBA athletes, before the season.
Copper’s current focus remains on the present and winning with the Sky. Still, there’s no denying what might be waiting for her as a free agent.
”Free agency is like being recruited all over again,” Copper said.