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Prep Charter star has come a long way quickly

Don't blame Kahleah Copper if she finds the hoop to be a bit roomy and the hardwood floor slightly strange.

Don't blame Kahleah Copper if she finds the hoop to be a bit roomy and the hardwood floor slightly strange.

One of the elite girls' basketball seniors in the nation, Copper is still getting acclimated to the idea of organized basketball. But if you're looking for evidence of that, stay away from the stat sheet.

Last season, the Prep Charter forward led the Huskies to the first Public League girls' basketball title in school history. She earned MVP honors in the championship game with a 19-point, 17-rebound performance against Central.

For the season, the agile, 6-foot-2 senior averaged 17 points and two assists, and her North Philadelphia rowhouse was swarmed by college recruiters before she chose Rutgers last month.

When her school day unwinds, Copper finds solace in the school's sparkling gymnasium and the adjacent locker room that's fit for a college program. The high school's digs are a far cry from where Copper fell in love with the game.

It takes precision to fit a basketball inside a cramped milk crate, let alone when that crate is perched high above a street pole and your older male cousins are guarding. The milk-crate court near her grandmother's house at 32d and Berks Streets kick-started the passion that blossomed inside Copper.

"Act like it's just like a rim," Copper said.

Copper's passion for the game didn't immediately make her a standout at Girard College, the North Philadelphia boarding school that she attended from first grade until she transferred last year.

Her first stint on an organized team didn't come until middle school, and the experience proved short-lived.

"I was like, crazy. I was just playing, running all over the court," Copper said. "I didn't want to play organized basketball."

After just a few weeks on the team during the sixth grade, Copper quit. She was too much of a street baller to be confined to a team. But she didn't leave the sport completely, as she periodically trained with the team and its coach, Sabrina Allen.

"That's like my child. That's like the kid I gave birth to," said Allen, who teaches at Imhotep Charter and helps Copper train throughout the year.

Copper and Allen both said that Copper didn't begin to take the game seriously until the summer before eighth grade. Allen urged her to come out for elite AAU team Triple Threat, and it was then that Allen saw what type of talent Copper possessed.

"She played up with the 15-year-olds, and because of her speed and athleticism, she hung in there," said Allen, who coached Copper up until last summer on the AAU circuit. "And from there, she just blossomed."

After her sophomore year at Girard, Copper transferred, as the possibility arose that the school would cut competitive sports. Once unable to fit onto a team, Copper was driven away because of the idea that she would no longer have a team.

Prep Charter, a jewel in Southwest Philadelphia, one of the city's poorest areas, and an academic institution with a basketball pedigree, became her new home.

Along with being a college preparatory school with rigorous admissions requirements, the school has girls' basketball coach Paul Reiser, who has a track record of sending players to college. Four Huskies from last season's squad are on college rosters, including Tiffany Johnson, who is on a full scholarship at Drexel.

"When she came to us last year, she was a really, really good athlete," said Reiser, who is in his seventh season as coach. "I think what we've done for her is make her a better player, structural-wise. . . . With us, she came out, played her game, and didn't have to worry about doing everything."

Before she left Girard, Copper received difficult news: Her mother, Leticia Copper, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Kahleah Copper said that it was difficult to be away at Girard while her mother was diagnosed and that it helps to be able to live at home.

"My mom always had my back. It's only me and my mom [at the house]," said Copper, who said her mother is doing well. "The sacrifices, they stick with me. And I'm the baby and definitely spoiled. She's done a lot for me."

This summer, Allen noticed a new aspect in Copper's game. Allen already knew of Copper's strength and maturity. But, now it was her leadership that drew attention.

Playing with girls her own age for the first time, Copper became a vocal leader on the court. No longer was she battling older cousins for a shot at a milk crate.

"She's shown a lot of leadership, and she knows this game can take you far," Allen said.