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After being a WNBA breakout star last year, North Philly’s Kahleah Copper is ready for an encore

Last year’s WNBA Finals MVP for starring in the Chicago Sky's title run opens up to The Inquirer about what she hopes to do for an encore.

Kahleah Copper (center) driving to the basket during a Chicago Sky game against the New York Liberty last May.
Kahleah Copper (center) driving to the basket during a Chicago Sky game against the New York Liberty last May.Read moreEileen T. Meslar / AP

It’s nothing new for Kahleah Copper to be in the headlines.

She was The Inquirer’s 2012 Southeastern Pennsylvania girls’ basketball player of the year at Prep Charter, and a McDonald’s All-American. Then in four years at Rutgers, she racked up the third-most points in Scarlet Knights history. Now 27 years old, she’s heading into her seventh year as a pro in the WNBA, all but the first one spent with the Chicago Sky.

Last year, though, the North Philly native really reached the big-time. She earned her first All-Star nod, then led the Sky’s upset run to its first WNBA title and was named Finals MVP.

So what’s next?

“You know, I literally just try to take moments, just have moments where I actually am like, ‘Wow, like, I’m just so grateful,’” Copper told The Inquirer. “And I have to take it all in because the season and the year went by so fast and so many different things happened.”

But she knows things are different now.

“You know how people are — you win, you have big accomplishments, and it comes with that,” she said. “A lot of things come with that. So, yeah, it’s cool for people to finally recognize me as a player, but I just think that just comes with it.”

» READ MORE: How Philly native Kahleah Copper became a WNBA All-Star

There’s been a breakthrough for the Sky as a whole, too. As great of a sports town as Chicago is, its fans focus much of their passion on men’s teams. The Sky’s title run captured the city, drawing a celebrity-packed sellout crowd for the clinching game at home.

“Our city wanted to be behind us — they wanted to support women’s basketball and they wanted to be there,” Copper said. “Hearing that the game was sold out, and then to step into the arena and to be able to feel the crowd — not only hear the crowd, but to really feel the crowd — it was such an amazing feeling. And I think it was just really good for the city and good for women’s sports in general.”

There were shoutouts from all over Chicago, from Barack Obama to Chance the Rapper to Dwyane Wade. And for Copper specifically, there were shoutouts from two of North Philly’s most famous hoops alums, Dawn Staley and Kyle Lowry.

“I loved that because, you know, Philly, we stick together,” Copper said. “Just to see Kyle and Dawn really reaching out and just showing love, it was just super cool. They’re so big-time, so for them to just shout me out, I definitely felt good about that.”

Copper is big-time too, now. But, in fairness, there’s one Sky player who’s bigger-time — indeed, one of the biggest-time in women’s basketball. Chicago native Candace Parker came home last year after 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks and had a huge impact.

“We were missing that lead-by-example and also communicating leader who’s also had the blueprint,” Copper said. “Every single day, she challenged everybody. But me personally, I think that she pulled the greatness out of me by just challenging me every single day to be a better version of myself — for me and also for the team so that we could be successful.”

» READ MORE: Kahleah Copper shared a North Philly experience with Dawn Staley at a Team USA minicamp last year

The Sky opens its season Friday night at home against the Sparks (8 p.m., NBA TV). But Copper won’t be there because she has spent the WNBA offseason playing in Spain and her team is in the Spanish league’s playoff finals. She expects to make her Sky season debut May 22 at the Washington Mystics.

Copper has enjoyed her time in Spain, the fourth European country she has called home in a WNBA offseason. Her team has many Americans on it, including West Chester native Shantae Evans, former UConn star Katie Lou Samuelson, and Princeton legend Bella Alarie.

But Copper knows there’s a debate raging back home about when WNBA salaries will be big enough so players don’t have to go overseas at all.

“As much as I want to just be like, ‘You know we need expansion, and you know we need more money,’ I think that the league has made great strides,” she said. “I think the new CBA is really good, and I think that the next best thing will come. And maybe I won’t be a part of it, but I’ll be here now, dealing with what we have, and then the next generation will be able to be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor.”

Where could that expansion be? She knew that question was coming.

“I’ve heard some things,” she said. “I would definitely love to see a team in my city … People show up for the Sixers, and I think Philly is a sports city, and I think it’s a great place for a WNBA team.”

» READ MORE: Kahleah Copper is one of many WNBA stars who play overseas to make more money

The WNBA’s Philly connections

While there isn’t a WNBA team in Philadelphia, the league has a lot of players and head coaches with ties to the region, either by roots or where they went to college. Here are some names to know.

Atlanta Dream: Kia Vaughn (played at Rutgers); Erica Wheeler (played at Rutgers); coach Tanisha Wright (played at Penn State)

Chicago Sky: Kahleah Copper (from Philadelphia, played at Rutgers)

Connecticut Sun: Alyssa Thomas (from Harrisburg)

Dallas Wings: Bella Alarie (played at Princeton, though she’s taking this season off); Jasmine Dickey (played at Delaware); Isabelle Harrison (daughter of 1980 Eagles Super Bowl defensive end Dennis Harrison)

Indiana Fever: Coach Marianne Stanley (from Yeadon, played for Immaculata as one of the Mighty Macs, coached at Penn, assisted at Rutgers)

Las Vegas Aces: Victoria Macaulay (played at Temple); Kiah Stokes (daughter of former 76er Greg Stokes)

Minnesota Lynx: Coach Cheryl Reeve (from Washington Township, N.J., played and later was an assistant coach at La Salle)

New York Liberty: Betnijah Laney (from Smyrna, Del., played at Rutgers)

Phoenix Mercury: Shey Peddy (played at Temple)

Seattle Storm: Ephiphanny Prince (played at Rutgers)

Washington Mystics: Natasha Cloud (from Broomall, played at St. Joseph’s); Elena Delle Donne (from Wilmington, played at Delaware)

» READ MORE: How Marianne Stanley and the Mighty Macs launched the modern era of women's college basketball