It was time for the bird to leave the nest.
Kahleah Copper passed on options like DePaul to play at Rutgers because it was near her North Philly home. She was able to take quick trips home after being drafted by the Washington Mystics.
Everything for Copper, who starred at Prep Charter, was about being close to home. Then in 2017 while playing basketball overseas in Belgium, Copper was notified by Mystics coach Mike Thibault that she was being traded to Chicago, more than 700 miles from North Philly.
“I just didn’t know what to expect next,” Copper said of joining the Sky. “Everything was so new. I just came in and tried to find my way.”
Uncomfortable situations sometimes bring the best out of an individual. Copper didn’t have a solidified role when she first got to the Sky in 2017, so she made herself the energizer by creating handshakes with teammates and highlighting her jubilant personality.
Now in her fifth season with the Sky, Copper is a WNBA champion after Chicago defeated the Phoenix Mercury in four games. Copper, 26, was awarded the WNBA Finals MVP trophy on Sunday after averaging 17 points and 5.5 rebounds in the series.
“It feels amazing,” Copper said. “I never lost the confidence in myself, I just continued to put the work in.”
Not too many WNBA players have seen Copper’s growth like New York Liberty All-Star Betnijah Laney. They grew up together playing AAU basketball and were teammates at Rutgers. They also both made their first All-Star teams this season after being two of the league’s most improved players in 2020.
“I remember when [Kahleah] was first starting off, she wasn’t the Kah she is today, so just to see the growth and everything that she’s been able to do, I couldn’t be more happy for her,” Laney said by phone.
After WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that Copper received the Finals MVP, her Sky teammates circled around her, chanting “KFC.” After averaging 17.7 points throughout the playoffs, she gave out enough buckets to contain a store full of KFC chicken.
This is a Philly story. Copper used the words “edginess” and “grittiness” to describe her efforts to get here — two words synonymous with the city’s identity.
Philadelphia doesn’t have a hometown WNBA team, so in a way, Copper is the city’s connection to a championship. Dawn Staley tweeted in excitement almost every time Copper did something amazing. Kyle Lowry commented, “Norf Philly finest!!!” on Copper’s Instagram page.
And on top of that, the image of Copper standing over the Mercury’s Sophie Cunningham has become the WNBA’s version of Allen Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals.
But it’s not just Philly. Chicago is embracing Copper. Hip-hop artist Chance The Rapper, a Chicago native, sat front row in Games 3 and 4 with a No. 2 Copper jersey. He could have worn a Candace Parker jersey since she’s one of the most popular WNBA players of all time and a Chicago area native. Or he could have gone with one of the longest-tenured stars, Allie Quigley or Courtney Vandersloot.
“It’s awesome just to have him and even other NBA players to come out from the Bulls, the Bears was supporting us, everybody was supporting us,” Copper said. “It’s just amazing for the city to come together and for us to share that moment with [Chance the Rapper].
Copper yelling into the mic “I worked so [expletive] hard” in the postgame celebration was frustration turning into joy. It was her first four years not being a starter, being traded after her first WNBA season and earning a starting role with the Sky. It was about the journey.
On a team with one of the WNBA’s best playmakers, shooters and a two-time MVP, Copper found her comfort zone.
Underdog stories are a familiar theme with Philly natives. Copper’s journey is the latest.
“I’m just grateful for my process,” Copper said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”