(Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images)

Kahleah Copper was ready for Candace Parker’s first day with the Chicago Sky. Months after Parker left the Los Angeles Sparks to sign with her hometown team on Feb. 1, making the biggest splash in 2021 WNBA free agency, she arrived at her first training camp.

Parker’s debut practice with the Sky was enough of a milestone, but Copper knew that Parker had also just celebrated her 35th birthday. Awaiting the two-time MVP in Chicago was a veteran team hungry for a championship — and a bundt cake from Copper.

“When I got here, it was right after my birthday and Kah is big on making sure you celebrate your birthday,” Parker says. “I just thought it was really cool. I’ve never gotten a cake for my birthday at training camp.”

The gesture was just the start of a special relationship between the teammates, through which the 14-year veteran has served as a mentor for Copper in her sixth season.

As the Sky prepare to face the Phoenix Mercury in a best-of-five Finals series starting Sunday, driven by Copper’s 18.2 points per game on 53.2 percent shooting and emotional leadership in the playoffs, both players think back to that first day. Parker jokes now that Copper didn’t reach out to her during free agency, but the bond they’ve formed since then has helped Copper become the type of player who can take over games and lead the Sky to their first championship in franchise history.

“From Day 1, she challenged me. She was on me every single day like, ‘No, you’re going to be that person for us, you’re going to be that defender for us, you’re capable,” Copper says of Parker. “I think that her challenging me and just who she is, I’m like, damn, if she thinks I can do it, for sure I can do it.

“She’s really taken me under her wing, teaching me on and off the court … She’s played a major part in also keeping me level-headed.”

Parker knew about Copper’s basketball talent, having played against her for five seasons. That potential became even more apparent when Parker got to Chicago and saw the 6-foot-1 guard in practice every day, becoming her shooting partner during the season.

“She’s energetic and her personality is kind of how she plays. She plays hard, she’s got a quick first step, she can knock down the jump shot, she can shoot the 3, she defends,” Parker says. “We feed off her energy, and I saw that early in training camp. I have always played against her and she was always really hard to guard, but to be able to see it up close and personal in training camp, I was like wow, she can be something really crazy and she’s already a really good player.”

Copper entered the 2021 season with more of a target on her back after a breakout year in the bubble. In her first season as a full-time starter in 2020, Copper more than doubled her minutes (31.3) and points per game (14.8) as Chicago’s second-leading scorer.

This year, the Sky added Parker to an already loaded roster with Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stefanie Dolson and Diamond DeShields, and with players like Azurá Stevens and Ruthy Hebard waiting in the wings. Where Copper could have faded into the background, she surged forward as one of the Sky’s most consistent players through a tumultuous regular season. Leading the team with 14.4 points and 30.8 minutes per game, Copper helped the Sky right the ship after a 2-7 start and was named to her first WNBA All-Star team.

“Last year, teams recognized her as a main player and one of our leading scorers. This year, she takes another step and she’s an All-Star and she didn’t stop there,” Sky head coach James Wade says. “That’s the thing that’s special: She didn’t stop there. She said, ‘I’m not just satisfied with being an All-Star. I would like to take one step further and even lead.’ She’s found the lane in which she can lead us, and that’s emotional energy, that’s defensive energy, and that’s getting buckets.”

“There was never a doubt in my mind that I could do it. I just needed the opportunity,” Copper says. “My mindset is that I am only going up from here. I am just trying to do what I do consistently because I know I bring so many different things to this team.”

Parker and Copper have formed a tight bond this season. (Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images)

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During a road trip to Los Angeles this season, a few Sky players extended their stay to spend time together at Parker’s home. It was then that Copper and Parker found themselves talking about another common bond.

Parker played for legendary coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee from 2004-08, four years before Copper entered the Rutgers basketball program under Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer.

“Everybody came over to my house and we were able to just talk and just understand where we came from,” Parker says. “We shared stories about Vivian Stringer and Pat Summitt. To know [Copper] is to love her. Her energy is amazing and it’s hard not to gravitate towards that.”

Parker’s message for Copper throughout the season echoes what Stringer instilled in her during her four years with the Scarlet Knights.

“I just want her to realize how great she is,” Parker says. “You don’t have to be the No. 1 draft pick, you don’t have to be No. 1 all your life to be the next superstar. Honestly, I told her early on in training camp, ‘You could be the next superstar and I see it,’ and to just keep after it.”

“I never get too high on things, never get too low,” Copper says. “I just feel like throughout my process, even coming from college, you get humbled at every stage in your career. Going from high school to college and you were one of the best players, and then you go to college … [Stringer] humbles you as soon as you get there. It ain’t about you.”

Copper leaned into that lesson during her first few years in the WNBA. Drafted seventh overall by Washington in 2016, Copper was a role player during her rookie year, averaging just over 16 minutes per game for the 13-21 Mystics.

Copper’s time in Washington didn’t last long. A few months before the 2017 season, the Mystics traded her to the Sky in a package deal for Elena Delle Donne. Suddenly, the 22-year-old had to adjust to a whole new city, team and system.

“I’ve learned at every stage of my career to be humble and just put in the work,” says Copper, now 27. “And then coming into the league and having to start over again. I appreciate my process, and that keeps me humble.”

Copper’s journey took another unusual turn after the 2020 season. Instead of going overseas in the offseason, as many WNBA players do to supplement their salaries and stay in basketball shape, Copper took an assistant coaching position with the Purdue Northwest women’s team. Spending the season on the sideline and the other side of the huddle with the Division II program gave her a new lens into the game.

“I was able to stay mentally there and just learn,” Copper says. “Being a coach and just seeing things from that perspective and appreciating the things that my coaches do for me and appreciating their time, but also seeing the game, I was able to stay sharp because I was coaching.”

The film studies, scouting reports and lessons she instilled in her team gave Copper a greater appreciation for her own coaches. It also prepared her to step into a leadership role with the Sky this season.

“It helped me as a leader, as a communicator, and even how I approach it as a professional,” Copper says. “I was telling my kids, ‘It’s so funny, I’m telling you to not let this person go left, and I’m actually having flashbacks of my coaches telling me don’t let this person go left.’

“I think I approach it so differently now. I take so much pride in the scouting report and how much time that the coaches put into it and game-planning.”

(Kamil Krzaczynski/NBAE via Getty Images)

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Before Parker got to Chicago, Copper observed and learned from another all-time great. Vandersloot, Chicago’s longest-tenured player, was a big part of the Sky’s last run to the WNBA Finals in 2014, when Diana Taurasi and the Mercury — their same opponents in this year’s Finals — swept them in three games.

Vandersloot has been just as crucial to this playoff run for the Sky, dishing out 8.7 assists per game and recording the second triple-double in WNBA playoff history in Chicago’s semifinal Game 1 win over Connecticut. Copper, who calls the 32-year-old Vandersloot “the most competitive person on our team,” feeds off of the point guard’s mix of selflessness and swagger.

“I appreciate Sloot so much, whether she’s cursing me out about moving the ball or running the floor or telling me to step up,” Copper says. “If you feel like Sloot believes in you, it also takes your game to another level.”

Wade credits Vandersloot and Parker for supporting Copper in her development this year. As Copper has come into her own as a scorer, defender and teammate, the Sky have risen with her — and tried to give her the spotlight they know she deserves.

“She just puts her head down and just goes to work,” Parker says. “I think if you continue to do that, eventually people notice. She doesn’t need to hear it. This isn’t something she struggles with. … It’s the positive energy that really made me understand how great she can be. I’m glad people are recognizing it and I hope that they continue to.”

Wade knows he has a special two-way player in Copper, who can not only affect the game in so many different ways but also lift her teammates up with her energy.

“Off the floor, she’s this different person where she’s straightforward, closed and quiet and nice and sweet and she does everything for people,” Wade said. “But when she plays, it’s like she’s so open, you see everything. You can see where she came from, you can see passion, pride. You can see all these things just in the way she plays and it’s amazing to watch. I feed off of it.

“The sky’s the limit for her. We would love for when it’s all said and done, when you think of Chicago Sky basketball, you think of Kahleah Copper.”

As Copper gets ready to play in her first WNBA Finals series, she reflects on the seasons when she didn’t get as much playing time, when the Sky ran most of their offense through their three All-Stars.

Even then, she says she focused on celebrating everybody else’s accomplishments. Now she’s one of those All-Stars, but her approach hasn’t changed.

“We talk about preparation meeting opportunity — that’s what it was for me,” Copper says. “I was always consistently believing in myself and always confident. When preparation met opportunity, I was locked in. From that moment on, I never turned back. I have always celebrated other people’s success, and when it was my turn, I was already ready.”

Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.