Kahleah Copper isn’t supposed to be here. The reigning WNBA Finals Most Valuable Player arrives at Soho House in the West Loop wearing a green-and-tan puffer vest, camo pants, and a pair of khaki Yeezy insulated boots that look built for some very cool and very cold space travel. “I told myself I would never spend another winter in Chicago after last year,” she says, laughing. Spoken like a true Chicagoan.

The Chicago Sky guard and forward has just returned from Spain, where she went to play for Perfumerias Avenida, a pro team in Salamanca, not to escape the Midwestern winter. She’s back in the country for just a few days to take care of some promotional campaigns and to visit her family in Philadelphia. Sitting in the restaurant at Soho House, she’s quiet at first, tired and hungry after a full day of filming for a sponsor. She scans the menu and orders the meatball appetizer.

Copper is soft-spoken and leans back into the booth when she talks. But she springs to life when I ask if she did anything differently last off-season, ahead of her sixth WNBA season, to help her achieve the best year of her career.

She takes out her phone and flips, searching for a specific picture. “These are my kids,” she says, smiling and presenting a locker room photo of a women’s college basketball team grinning and pulling at their matching white shirts to call attention to the photo printed on them.

The image they are wearing is the photo of the 2021 WNBA season: Taken during Game 2 of last year’s finals, it shows Copper standing over fallen Phoenix Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham, her face just inches away from Cunningham’s as she stares down at her with a look that says, Try me one more time. I dare you. The “kids” wearing this photo are the Purdue University Northwest women’s basketball team. Most WNBA players, including Copper this past year, spend the off-season playing in Europe, where contracts are often bigger than in the WNBA. But after the 2020 season, Copper stayed home and worked as a college coach — an unusual arrangement she credits with making her a better leader and communicator.

“It was good for women’s basketball,” Copper says, her voice rising and her hands flying as if she were back in that Game 2 moment. “We aren’t even allowed to be like, ‘And one!’ We aren’t even allowed to celebrate without the refs being like, ‘Hey hey!’ Like, damn! We are the best at what we do. We are competing at the highest level. Let us celebrate that! Let us be passionate, let us be feisty. Like, we’re not trying to kill each other. Let us be us.”

When Copper gave the stare-down, her college players were watching together in a dorm suite on campus in Hammond, Indiana. “When we saw that happen, all of us stood up yelling at the TV, like, ‘Yeah, Coach Copper!’ ” says Purdue Northwest guard Kennedy Jackson.

A referee ushered Copper out of Cunningham’s face and gave her a personal foul for the contact that preceded it, but the photo lived on, going viral and prompting plenty of memes and commentary. After the finals, Cunningham told a reporter to “put me on all the T-shirts you want, my hair looked nice.” So naturally Copper started selling T-shirts featuring the image, accompanied by a message: “Never Forget.”

It’s an appropriate catch phrase, because Copper does not forget easily. When I mention I went to several Sky games last season, she looks up from her ginger ale. “Which ones?” she asks quickly.

“The Wings game in August, the one you guys lost —”

Copper cuts me off.  “Oh my God, I rolled my ankle in that game,” she says, her face twisted with disgust. “Yeah, that game, ugh — that one stung.”

“You go through so much in your career and it’s not that you want to give up,” Copper says. “But it’s like, Damn, when is it going to be my time?”

Never mind that the Sky beat the Dallas Wings a month later, in the playoffs when it really mattered. She’s still fuming. “I was so mad,” she says. “We were trying to find a rhythm before the playoffs, and it was just so concerning. We knew we were going to be playing single-elimination games, and we weren’t coming to games locked in where we were finishing. I felt like we were on the right track and then we lost to Dallas. Damn!”

Even over dinner in a trendy social club with low-key live music and dark mood lighting, Coppesur doesn’t relax when talking about past games. She’s naturally introverted but can quickly flip the switch to become the sometimes petty, always brash competitor who wouldn’t hesitate to stare down anyone in the WNBA. And maybe that’s because she has had to prove herself every step of the way.

Copper, 27, began her Sky career in 2017 as an afterthought in a trade with Washington, where she played her first year. But now she’s a main feature. After three seasons coming off the bench, she earned a starting role in 2020 before leading the Sky to their first-ever title last year, averaging 17 points and 5.5 rebounds in the finals. Despite earning Finals MVP honors, Copper can still be overshadowed by the star power of teammates Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, and Allie Quigley.

Still, the team knows there is perhaps no one more significant to its quest for a repeat. In January, head coach and GM James Wade placed the “core” designation on Copper, marking her as integral and giving the team exclusive rights to negotiate a contract with her in free agency. WNBA teams can assign that designation to only one free agent, and the Sky had several key players with expiring contracts. “I just didn’t never expect nothing like that to happen,” Copper says. “That’s, like, big-time. It’s funny because Candace always said, ‘You a superstar.’ But, like, it’s for real.”

Kahleah Copper in Salamanca, Spain
After leading Chicago to a title, Copper spent her off-season playing for a team based in Salamanca, Spain, and won EuroLeague MVP. Photograph: Ana Nance

Moments after she was named Finals MVP last October, Copper let loose an f-bomb in a postgame interview. “I worked so fucking hard,” she told ESPN’s Holly Rowe and hundreds of thousands of viewers. Including her mother. “Kahleah does not curse,” says Leticia Copper. “When that slid out, I was like, She is over the top right now!”

It seemed unlikely Copper would ever get this far, certainly not when she was riding the bench. “You go through so much in your career and it’s not that you want to give up,” Copper says. “But it’s like, Damn, when is it going to be my time?”

Her time would come. It would take hard work and patience, lessons she learned early on growing up in North Philly. In sixth grade, Copper quit her team during her first year playing organized basketball. “I didn’t think I was good enough,” she says. “I was always super athletic, but I was like, I don’t think I can put it all together.”

Copper was used to playing with boys just for fun, so when her high-energy, anything-goes style of play didn’t fit, she was out. But the next year, her friends were all playing again, so she decided to give organized hoops another shot. She refused to stop wearing her heart on her sleeve, though. “If they started losing, oh my gosh, she became a maniac,” Leticia says. “She’d stomp, she pounded, she twisted. You know when everybody is looking and there’s only one person acting like that? She’d stomp off the court, slam her stuff down, put her thing over her head, and sit there, and you couldn’t say not one word to her.”

Kah, as her family and friends call her, is the baby of the family, the youngest of four girls. Leticia says she “spoiled her half to death” and then had to “batten down the hatches” whenever things didn’t go Copper’s way on the court. “Look,” Leticia recalls telling her daughter, “you think I am going to keep getting off of work early to see you act like this? That is not cute. You have to be a team player.”

This lesson in humility proved valuable, and she got more of it when she went to Rutgers to play for the legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer. “When she got with Coach Stringer, that’s where a lot of humble started falling in,” Leticia says. “She was like, ‘Mom, Coach Stringer is crazier than you, but guess what? I can deal with her! Everybody else is going crazy, but I can deal with everything she throws at me, because of you.’ ”

Copper finished her college career third among Rutgers’ all-time scorers, and the Washington Mystics drafted her seventh overall in 2016. Still, she barely played her rookie season.

That off-season, Copper went overseas to play in Belgium. She’d never spent so much time away from her family, and she was struggling with homesickness. Then the Mystics traded her. Deep down, she knew she shouldn’t take it personally, but it still hurt. “I was lonely,” she recalls. “I was emotional. I wanted to be home. For that to happen, I was just like, Damn, what does this mean? Does it mean I am not good enough?”

Leticia tried to convince her to find the upside. “They don’t even know what they got rid of,” she told Copper. “Always look at the good in it. At least you not without a job. I believe this is a good move.” How did her daughter respond? “She was just like, ‘OK, OK, OK …’ ”

Kahleah Copper with her trophy, tossing a basketball
Originally from Philadelphia, Copper has found a second home in Chicago after a 2017 trade that upended her young career. Photograph: Jonathan Lewis/Slam

Copper only started to feel better when she realized she was traded as part of a package deal that sent Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 league MVP and a then three-time All-Star, to the Mystics. (“This is not just anybody!”) But she still dreaded the idea of moving to Chicago. It meant playing farther away from her mom, sisters, and grandma in Philadelphia. “I was like, Damn, I am going all the way to Chicago,” Copper says. “I don’t like starting over. I have to start over and meet people — that sucks.”

Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot came late to camp that year because she’d been playing in Europe. The day she arrived, she met her new teammate at practice. “We walked by each other and I was like, ‘Hi, I’m Courtney!’ and she was very quiet,” Vandersloot recalls. “I was like, Wow, maybe she doesn’t want to be here?”

“I got trust issues,” Copper explains. “I’m always going to be myself, but I just gotta feel good vibes. If I feel good vibes, then I’ll be fine, but it’ll take a little minute. It’s funny because Sloot be like, ‘One year you didn’t even talk. You didn’t talk at all.’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t know y’all!’ ”

In her first three seasons in Chicago, Copper averaged just 15 minutes a game, mostly coming off the bench to spell guards Diamond DeShields and Allie Quigley. “I felt like it was about opportunity, really,” says Wade, who became Chicago’s head coach in 2019. “We knew we had a great player. It was, How do we fit them all together and how do we continue to develop them and allow them to compete?”

Copper was frustrated with the lack of playing time, but she didn’t complain. Instead, she made the most of every minute she got on the court, even at practice, where teammates took note of her potential. “She would be with that second group in practice and she would just dominate the starting five,” says Vandersloot.

In her limited time on the floor, she impressed opponents, too. During a 2018 game against the Minnesota Lynx, Copper came off the bench late, with the Lynx comfortably in control. But even so, Copper was still competing vigorously. So longtime Minnesota guard Seimone Augustus started jawing at Copper, essentially telling her to take it down a notch. Copper took it as a compliment.

“Hoopers recognize hoopers, even when they aren’t in the position that they want to be in at the moment,” Augustus says. “She was an up-and-coming star, so you could see her evolving. She was transforming, but what I liked the most about her was the mentality. Regardless of how many minutes, whether she played or didn’t play, she had the same mindset.”

While Copper waited for her turn on the court, she started warming to her teammates. She found out everyone’s birthday and would bring in cake from Nothing Bundt Cakes to celebrate. “The most unique thing about Kah is how special birthdays are to her. Hers is top-of-the-list special, but everybody else’s is, too,” Vandersloot says. “She does that for everyone — managers, staff, anyone involved with the Sky. If they have a birthday, they are getting a cake from Kah.”

After the 2019 season, Copper’s contract was up. Several teams courted her in free agency, and she knew she’d have the chance to become a starter — if she left the Sky. DeShields was coming off an All-Star season playing in front of her at shooting guard, so there wasn’t an obvious opportunity for Copper in Chicago. Still, her teammates knew her value. “We need to do whatever it takes to get her back, because she is an important piece to this,” Vandersloot told Wade. “We will find minutes for her. Wherever that is, we will find them.”

Copper and Wade went to breakfast together in Chicago that winter to discuss her role if she stayed. Wade knew she wanted more playing time — Copper didn’t start a single game in 2019 — and she says they’d “bumped heads in the season about it.” She let Wade bring it up first, and then she chimed in with her own vision for her future. “This is something that I want and I feel like I deserve,” Copper recalls telling Wade about an expanded role, adding: “If I had any doubt that I couldn’t be the player that I am, I probably wouldn’t say anything. But I was like, No, this is what I want, so I felt like it was time to grow up a little bit and have those uncomfortable conversations.”

Copper ended up signing a two-year deal with Chicago, and soon she took on the greater role she desired. With DeShields hampered by injuries, Copper started every game in the WNBA’s 2020 bubble season, earning herself the nickname Kahleah Freaking Copper for her wild and unpredictable drives to the basket. She doubled her minutes, played more than any teammate other than Vandersloot, and outscored all but Quigley, averaging 14.8 points, more than twice her previous career high. As Wade puts it, “She doubled everything that she was doing. It didn’t surprise me.”

“I just needed an opportunity,” Copper says. “Luckily, I was able to be prepared when it came about. You hear people say ‘I want to play more’ or ‘I want this,’ but when you actually get the opportunity, what do you do? Do you take advantage of it fully?”

Kahleah Copper celebrating with Candace Parker
Since joining the Sky last year, Candace Parker has been Copper’s hoops mentor and “life coach.” Photograph: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

When Copper is in town during the season, she and Candace Parker take their dogs to a dog park in Northbrook, where they both live. Parker has three, and Copper has one, a scruffy gray shih tzu–Yorkie mix named Sonny (because she calls him her son). Sonny rarely leaves Copper’s side. She takes him on road trips, and she recently threw him a third birthday party, with goody bags for the (canine) guests. “I always tell her Sonny is brainwashed to think she is the only person who exists in the world,” Parker says. “I have never seen a dog that looks at their person with so much love.”

Sonny may be Copper’s best friend, but Parker comes close. They first met a few years ago, before Parker joined the Sky, when a mutual friend took Copper to Parker’s house in Los Angeles for a barbecue. But instead of socializing outside with other guests, Copper decided to take a nap on Parker’s couch. “My wife and I were like, She’s really just gonna sleep on our couch?” Parker says. “OK, bet. And then, like, years later, it’s Kah, and now we get it, and she’s awesome.”

“I always tell her you have to learn to be a superstar — there’s a learning process to that and there’s a learning curve in that,” says Candace Parker.

Copper grew up idolizing Parker, long one of the league’s biggest stars. These days, the admiration is mutual, but they also rag on each other relentlessly. “Candace, she knows everything, apparently,” Copper says. “She’s always like, ‘I’m living vicariously through you.’ To me, she old, she married, she got kids. She on a settle-down type, and I’m on the young, free, so I keep her young. I let her live my life a little bit.”

“That’s 100 percent accurate,” says Parker, who turned 36 in April. “My wife and I serve as her psychologists slash life coaches. And Kah serves as my constant laugh and constant energy and constant just, like, Wow, I remember when I was that age and could do all of the things that you are doing.”

During Copper’s breakout 2020 season, Parker was still playing for the Los Angeles Sparks, her team for the first 13 years of her career. In two games against the Sky, she took note of Copper’s development. “Playing against Chicago in the bubble year opened my eyes to how great she could be,” she says. As Parker weighed signing with the Sky in 2021, she thought about Copper’s potential. “She was a huge piece [of my decision],” Parker says. “And I don’t even think I really realized how big of a piece she was going to be that next year.”

After joining Chicago, Parker resolved to take her new teammate under her wing. In Copper, the veteran saw a bit of herself. “I have been there before: young, wanting to win a championship, wanting to do all these things,” the two-time WNBA MVP says. “I always tell her you have to learn to be a superstar — there’s a learning process to that and there’s a learning curve in that.”

Parker turned out to be the perfect teacher. Several members of the Sky recalled a pick-and-roll drill at a practice toward the end of the regular season. Copper was struggling with an assignment. Wade had already pointed out Copper’s error, but she made the same mistake again. That’s when Parker stepped in.

“You gotta be there, you gotta be there!” she barked at Copper. “Look at me! That’s not the defensive assignment we were in. You effed up. You gotta be there.” Copper stared at the ground, hands on her shorts. She didn’t respond. “Kah, you gotta be there,” Parker said again. “You gotta be there.”

Wade could tell the veteran was getting to her. “Candace kept repeating it and wanted her to make eye contact with her, and that’s when Kah was quiet,” Wade recalls. “I thought it was hilarious.” Vandersloot also sensed Copper’s frustration. “All right, Candace, maybe leave her alone,” she said. “We got it. She’s got it.”

Kahleah Copper posing for a photo with her team after their championship win.
In 2020, Copper earned a starting role after three seasons mostly on the bench. Then in 2021, she soared, becoming an All-Star and the Finals MVP. Photograph: Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune

But Parker kept at it until Copper finally looked up and gave her what she wanted. “I heard you,” she said. “All right, I’ma do it.” And then she did.
“We always challenge each other,” Parker says. “I’m not going to stop. When you ignore me, I think it’s even funnier. Half the time I am joking but serious. It’s fun for me when I know I got under your skin.” (Says Copper: “She was getting on my nerves so bad.”)

Parker knew exactly what she was doing, and she ended up being the best thing that happened to Copper. When she wasn’t picking fights with her in practice, she was boosting her up, telling her she could be a superstar in the league. “Coaches are good for players, but when it is one of your peers and one that is like Candace, done everything and won everything and seen everything, it makes it even more special,” Wade says. “It gives you more belief.”

If Parker hadn’t shaken up the WNBA by signing with Chicago last off-season, Copper doubts she would have achieved her own career year in 2021. “Especially because there was a point in the season where things could have gone either way,” Copper says. “It was just a part of me growing up and me being mature about a situation, and just the conversation that I had with her, it literally changed everything.”

Neither Copper nor Parker will reveal what “crazy and interesting” situation, as Copper calls it, prompted the conversation that got Copper back on track. “All I will say is, I feel like there is a point in everybody’s career where [you have to decide], Do you want to be right? Or do you want to win?” Parker says. “It took me a really, really long time to realize that winning is way more important than being right. There were numerous situations this year where it came to that. It was like, ‘All right, Kah, we know in principle that you are right, but do you really want to act crazy or do you want to win?’ ”

Parker has another year on her contract, and she’ll use it to go for another ring and keep schooling Copper on how to elevate herself even further. “There are superstars, and then there are superstars in multiple years, and then there are superstars in careers,” Parker says. “And in order to take that next step, you have to adjust as well. The WNBA knows now. You’re not just like an asterisk on the scouting report. They know now. I am excited to see her ability to adjust, because I know she’s going to.”

Kahleah Copper during a game
Copper, the Sky’s leading scorer in 2021, is known for her intense brand of basketball — a philosophy her coach tried to instill in her teammates last season. Photograph: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

On the first day of last season’s WNBA break for the Olympics, it didn’t take long for Copper to realize that the monthlong hiatus wouldn’t offer much of a respite. The Sky were just 10–10 on the season, and at practice that day, Wade informed his players that they’d be playing full-court games of one-on-one. “Honestly, I wanted to kill him,” Copper says. “This man said ‘one-on-one’!”

But the grueling drill, which continued for 10 consecutive practices, was meant to forge Copper’s teammates more in her image. “I wanted to make us a little bit tougher and a little bit more competitive, but it actually molded people to fit her identity.” Copper matched up against DeShields and took it seriously, yelling at Wade when she thought he wasn’t calling fouls correctly.

Wade’s experiment worked, and the team began to transform into a group that could match Copper’s intensity. Fueled by the ascendant star, who led the team in scoring and earned her first All-Star nod, Chicago made the playoffs as the No. 6 seed of eight. But Copper saved her best ball for the postseason, averaging 17.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.2 steals and helping Chicago beat the Wings and Lynx in the single-elimination first two rounds before shocking the top-seeded Connecticut Sun in the best-of-five semifinals. Even after that upset, few expected the Sky to beat the three-time champion Mercury, led by all-time great Diana Taurasi, in the finals.

The night before the decisive Game 4, with Chicago leading the best-of-five series 2–1, neither Copper nor Parker could sleep. They wound up texting each other at 3 a.m. “I don’t think anyone realizes how important Game 4 is,” Parker told Copper, texting her in total darkness because her wife was asleep. She noted she had never won a Game 4 in the WNBA Finals. “I am 0-2 in Game 4 and I am 1-1 in Game 5. I don’t like 0-2, it doesn’t sit with me and 0-3 makes me want to vomit. Everyone is taking this like we won this and I don’t like that feeling of people preparing for us to win. Phoenix isn’t just going to roll over and give it to us.”

“She was like, ‘Dude, I really need this,’ ” Copper says. “I’m like, ‘OK, I got you.’ And she was like, ‘Come on, this team needs you. You have to show up.’ I knew how important it was for me to show up, but to have that conversation and to have that moment with her — she’s not just anybody, she’s Candace Parker. For her to genuinely believe in me and tell me what it is that I needed to do for our team to be successful, it meant a lot.”

At a packed Wintrust Arena, with Chicago royalty in attendance — Lori Lightfoot, J.B. Pritzker, Chance the Rapper — Copper did indeed show up, helping the team clinch its first WNBA title. Chance, wearing Copper’s No. 2 jersey, congratulated the Finals MVP on the floor after the game. Her reaction to seeing him wearing her No. 2: “Woooooowwwwww.” It was a far cry from her days as an afterthought on the bench.

Copper spent most of her off-season in Spain, where she added another MVP trophy — this time for the EuroLeague — to her burgeoning collection. But the reality of her new stardom still hasn’t quite set in. In December, she found herself at the same L.A. restaurant as Drake, a big deal for the self-professed “certified lover girl.” Her agent, Ticha Penicheiro, encouraged her to ask him to take a photo, but Copper shook her head no — she was too scared. So Penicheiro did it for her.

“I know you want a photo with the WNBA Finals MVP,” Penicheiro told Drake. “Yeah,” Drake answered. “I am a big fan. I watched the games.”  Copper, bashful as ever, was speechless.