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With quiet resolve, Chicago Sky’s Rebekah Gardner dreams on

Rebekah Gardner has been a key piece to the Sky’s run at a repeat championship this season. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rebekah Gardner has spent most of her career as a basketball nomad. By 2018, she had played six years in Israel and Turkey, packing her bags and returning to California during every offseason. The lifestyle weighed on her, and though she felt welcome, Gardner never felt fully at home.

So she created a blog, “Overseas: Uncut,” as an online diary of sorts, relaying her adventures back to people in California who were cheering her on from afar. The UCLA graduate was starting her seventh year of professional basketball, a journey that also took her to Romania and Spain.

In her first entry on Sept. 11, 2018, she described what it was like playing for a new team — “an uncomfortable feeling at first” — and expressed her delight in finding a Starbucks in Ankara, Turkey.

In the thick of her overseas career, Gardner wrote about how difficult the constant changes were. It was an unsteady world, one where the future was forever uncertain. And in an effort to convey that to her readers back home, Gardner penned the following: “Just when you are getting comfortable and are beginning to get into a routine, things shift in a way that you have no idea what to expect.”

It’s been three years and 10 months since Gardner published that blog post. And in the moment, she had no idea just how right she was.

She had no idea that she’d find her way to the WNBA, playing as a 32-year-old rookie for the first-place Chicago Sky. Or that she’d become an integral part of their hunt for a repeat WNBA championship and a Commissioner’s Cup title Tuesday night.

As she typed, listening to the familiar sound of fingers on a keyboard, in an unfamiliar Turkish town, Rebekah Gardner had no idea that a dream she had pushed to the side would finally come true.

***

Mel Sims turned on his TV in mid-May to watch the Chicago Sky. At 80, the longtime coach is mostly retired, but he still soaks up as much basketball as possible.

Sims coached at colleges in California, and then for a fledgling women’s professional team in 1979. Eventually, he turned to high school basketball, spending decades molding young players.

After so many years in the coaching world, there isn’t much on a basketball court that surprises Sims. But on that late spring day, something, or rather someone, caught him off guard.

He recognized the slender frame, the slicked-back black ponytail, the easy smile. He knew the way she moved to the hoop, and how she fit effortlessly into the team’s game plan.

“I said to my wife, ‘That’s Rebekah!’ I didn’t know she was in the WNBA,” Sims said. “So I called my assistant coach, and he said, ‘You’re right, that is Rebekah.’”

He hasn’t missed a Sky game since.

Seeing Gardner on his TV screen was unexpected, but it wasn’t the first time she had surprised her former coach.

When he was at Ayala High School in Chino Hills, Calif., Sims got a phone call about an incoming freshman. Then he got a second call. Both people said the same thing: “You’re getting a girl who can really play. Her name is Rebekah Gardner.”

It wasn’t a name that Sims recognized, but as soon as the 14-year-old showed up for her first summer practice, he knew what the callers meant.

She was the real deal.

Once Gardner started to blossom as a basketball player, her dad, who had also played growing up, set out to find a high school program that suited her. He walked into the Ayala High School gym and saw Sims on the sideline. He was loud, energetic, and wasn’t afraid to get on his players. That was the style of coaching Gardner’s dad wanted, and she thrived under Sims’ tutelage.

“It’s hard for kids to play for me because I’m so demanding,” he said. “But Rebekah, she came in, and she never even blinked when I got on her.”

Gardner laughs at the idea of Sims being hard on her. Sure, he yelled from time to time, but that just meant he wanted the best for her. In reality, Sims was a tough coach, but Gardner was a tough player. Everything he said, or yelled, went toward improving her game. “I just tried to be coachable,” she said. “When a coach critiques me, I look at it as them having the best intentions for the team.”

The good intentions brought even better results, and by the time Gardner signed to play college ball at UCLA, she had led the Bulldogs to two undefeated league titles and a CIF Southern Section Championship. She also broke her school’s scoring record.

Sims knew that no matter how long he coached, he wouldn’t come across another player like her.

“If you’re lucky, you get one,” he said. “In college, you can recruit, but at the high school level, you get one walk in the door, you’re very fortunate. And I was very fortunate.”

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Before she joined the Sky, Gardner's basketball career took her all over the world. (Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cori Close took the head coaching job at UCLA during Gardner’s senior year of college, and she quickly learned the same thing Sims had: If the team wanted to be successful, they had to play through Gardner.

“She was just that one rock solid kid I always knew I could count on,” Close said.

During her first three college seasons from 2008-11, Gardner had been more of a role player, appearing in the starting lineup 20 times. But when Close came in, she identified Gardner as more than just the center of UCLA’s game plan — she saw her as the future of the program.

It was a challenging season for the Bruins. They went 14-16 and 9-9 in conference play, failing to advance to the postseason. But Gardner’s impact goes much beyond that single 2011-12 season. Close is in her 12th year at the helm for UCLA, and every player she’s recruited since has Gardner to thank. She was the blueprint of what Close wanted a Bruin to be.

Close described Gardner’s presence that season as a “beacon of light.”

“She was always in the gym early or staying late,” Close said. “And she was one of the only ones at that time when I first got the job. She was really the one that we built our cultural foundation around. I’m just so grateful for her.”

Even after Gardner graduated, though she spent only one season with Close and her staff, she remained loyal. She came to team events, alumni weekends and practiced with UCLA players in the offseason.

“She could have said, ‘I’m going to survive this staff and then I’m going to go my own way,’ but she didn’t,” Close said. “She’s been a proud Bruin through and through.”

It was at an alumni event this year when Close first heard about the possibility of Gardner playing for the Sky.

Gardner kept coy, not knowing if the opportunity would work out, and not wanting to get her hopes up. Over the years, there had been chances — even once before with the Sky — and they hadn’t materialized.

The WNBA has always been a part of Gardner’s story. When she was 6 years old, the league launched. Her mom, inspired by the new professional organization, signed her daughters up for peewee basketball.

Gardner didn’t have professional aspirations then, but as she grew, the game became an obsession. She watched as much as she could, and was desperate to learn everything about basketball. Eventually, the WNBA became a fixation — “It’s every basketball player’s ultimate goal,” she says — and even when that final season at UCLA didn’t go according to plan, she still held out hope for the dream.

Close always thought Gardner had the skills; it was the other things that didn’t line up at the time.

Without UCLA making the postseason, it was challenging for Gardner to showcase her capabilities and get her name into the WNBA conversation.

“There’s a lot of luck involved, too, because there’s only 144 spots,” Close said. “But I knew she had the work ethic. I knew she had the drive. I knew she had the perseverance; it was just a matter of having preparation and opportunity matching up at the right time.”

It wasn’t the right time. Not yet.

In fact, Gardner almost didn’t get an opportunity to play anywhere. She wasn’t selected in the WNBA Draft, and even though she knew she wasn’t ready to give up basketball, Gardner had no idea where to begin when it came to going overseas. She even started looking into graduate school as a backup plan.

But a former teammate connected her with an agent, and eventually, Hapoel Petah Tikva, a team in Israel, pursued Gardner.

“There was one coach who gave me a chance, “she said. “I remember there were a few others who weren’t sure about me. But that team gave me an opportunity, and that’s what kind of started off my professional career.”

From 2012-22, Gardner played for nine different teams. Her first three seasons were in Israel, then three in Turkey, another in Israel, one in Romania, and finally, her last in Spain.

A California girl at heart, Gardner wasn’t sure what it would be like to live in another country. But she found beaches in Israel that reminded her of home and developed a community with other American players. By the time she moved to Turkey, Gardner was a pro at integrating into new places and cultures.

And as her overseas career progressed, Gardner moved on from the only team to give her a chance to some of the top leagues in the world. Her last season was in the EuroLeague, regarded as the second-best professional league after the WNBA. There, she averaged 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game during the 2021 season.

“That was really exciting, and a big goal for me,” she said. “I felt like that was enough for me.”

For years, Gardner battled to prove she was good enough to be in the WNBA.

In 2014, she participated in training camp with the Atlanta Dream, and then in 2017 she had a tryout with the Sky, under former coach Amber Stocks.

Both instances felt like formalities, not real opportunities. After working out with the Sky in 2017, she made a decision.

“I would only go back if a coach or team really, really wanted me,” she said. “They would come after me or give me a call. I think before, when my goal was to get to the WNBA, it was kind of to prove to everyone else that I was just as good of a player as some of the WNBA players. But then I started to realize, like, I am as good as them. So I didn’t really need that stamp to prove it.”

In 2022, the Sky really, really wanted her.

Gardner described Chicago as playing a “run and gun style,” of basketball that suits her abilities. Her success in Spain, and her compatible skill set, caught the attention of Sky coach James Wade.

“When free agency came about, he called me and asked if I would even be interested in playing in the WNBA,” she said. “And from there, I finished out my season in Spain and came straight here.”

When it happened, Gardner didn’t even have time to take in how monumental it was for her career. She finished her season in Spain on a Thursday, and was at practice with Chicago the following Monday. Two days later, she played in her first game.

She was nervous and excited, and also a little surprised. The Sky didn’t waste time easing Gardner in, and her first appearance was a start on May 11.

“I don’t even have the words to express it,” she said. “It was almost surreal.”

Gardner played 27 minutes in that game, scoring 14 points and grabbing four rebounds. Since then, she’s become a key piece for the defending champions, averaging nine points on 54 percent shooting, 1.5 steals and 1.3 assists in 21.9 minutes per game.

Gardner moves on the basketball court like she was born there. Cutting to the hoop, dropping into a defensive stance, handling the ball — everything looks natural, comfortable. It’s hard to believe it took her a decade to break into the WNBA. For 10 years, she didn’t have the luck Close says it takes to earn one of the 144 spots. But landing with the Sky, well, that was worth the wait.

“Oh my god,” Close said. “She really found the right match.”

Close says Gardner is one of the best players in the world when it comes to moving without the ball. She cuts to the hoop with purpose, and with passers like Courtney Vanderlsoot, Candace Parker and Julie Allemand on the court, she’s almost always rewarded for her efforts.

Wade even thinks she should be in the Rookie of the Year conversation.

“She’s really affecting winning,” he told reporters after an 80-68 victory in which Gardner secured a double-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. “She’s a special talent.”

Even when she’s not finding a lane to the basket, Gardner is always doing something productive. She never wastes a second when she’s on the court.

“That’s a critical element,” Sims said. “There’s a lot of times when players can float. But not Bekah. She never floats. She plays hard all the time.”

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Gardner has been a valuable contributor to the Sky and teammates Courtney Vandersloot and Candace Parker. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images).

Close and Sims are avid members of the Rebekah Garder supporters club. Watching her slow and steady climb to the WNBA has been proof of the coaching adage, that good things come to those who work hard.

“I’m totally fangirling,” Close said with a laugh. “She’s encouraged my heart so much, because it’s what you preach to people. If you put in the work, if you persevere and never get tired of doing the right thing, good things are going to happen.”

Since she made her debut for the Sky, Gardner has received countless messages from people she crossed paths with over the years.

“It’s funny because my friends, my family and some of my former coaches, it’s almost like they are more excited than me,” Garder said. “It makes me happy to see that I can make those people happy.”

It’s been a long journey, but Gardner’s love and appreciation for the game never dwindled. Today, it’s at an all-time high. The people in her life are overjoyed for Gardner, but also for her impact. Because anyone who’s witnessed her dedication, or even just heard her story, knows there is a bigger picture.

Gardner knows that, too. One of the friends she met while playing overseas recently told Gardner that he’d been thinking of giving up the game, but watching her play in the WNBA inspired him to keep playing.

“Bekah never quit,” Sims said. “She loved the game, and when you love the game, setbacks don’t matter. She’s a 32-year-old rookie, and that says a lot about her character.”

Gardner plans to play in Spain again during the offseason, and after that, she hopes to return to the WNBA for a few more years. From Ayala to UCLA, to Israel, Turkey, Romania and Spain, to the WNBA, Gardner’s basketball career has been epic. And if you ask Sims, it’s also been Hall of Fame worthy.

He’s tried three separate times to get Gardner into the Hall of Fame at Ayala High School, writing letters and making phone calls. So far, no luck.

“It’s discouraging,” Sims said.

But he isn’t giving up. Gardner never did, so neither will he. And Sims hopes with the WNBA added to her resume, Ayala High School won’t be able to ignore her accomplishments any longer.

“She deserves that,” he said.

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(Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Gardner’s 2022 season has been a whirlwind. The rookie hasn’t fully processed what’s happened in the last three months, and she definitely hasn’t had a spare second to ponder her WNBA future. But there certainly is one.

“I see her playing four, maybe five more years,” Sims said.

The potential to play multiple seasons in the WNBA was not something Gardner envisioned when she wrote that first blog post in 2018. Two years before it was published, Gardner says she accepted that her ultimate dream would probably never come to fruition.

But there’s one line that alludes to something different.

“I feel so blessed to still be playing the game I love and in Turkey, arguably one of the best leagues overseas- which is rare for an American player who has yet to reach the WNBA,” she wrote.

Yet. The word stands out among the rest. Perhaps there was more for her after all.

Content or not, Gardner still had hope.

Seven years into her career, she was still playing the game she loved professionally. She hadn’t climbed the ranks to the WNBA, but this was good enough — that’s what she told herself. And maybe it would have been. If the Sky never came calling, perhaps Gardner would have finished her career in Spain, or maybe she would have gone back to Israel, or ventured to an entirely different country.

That could have been fulfilling. It could have been enough.

And yet…

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Phoenix Mercury Unveils $100 Million Practice Facility

phoenix mercury practice facility's diana taurasi courts
The 58,000-square-foot facility includes two indoor practice courts with built-in courtside technology. (Phoenix Mercury)

As part of the 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend festivities, the Phoenix Mercury officially opened the doors to their new state-of-the-art practice facility on Thursday.

Along with a host of player-driven amenities, the 58,000-square-foot, $100 million property showcases two full-sized basketball courts named after veteran Mercury star Diana Taurasi, complete with a one-of-a-kind Taurasi-inspired logo.

Phoenix mercury players celebrating at the new team training center's diana taurasi courts during wnba all-star weekend
The Mercury hosted a grand opening for their new practice facility during WNBA All-Star Weekend. (Phoenix Mercury)

The Diana Taurasi courts pay tribute to the three-time WNBA champion, six-time Olympian, 11-time WNBA All-Star, and the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.

"Phoenix is the best basketball city in the world and continues to elevate the standard in women’s professional sports," said Mercury owner Mat Ishbia in a team release. "This practice facility is about hard work, passion, and greatness, all attributes that Diana Taurasi exemplifies, and we are honored to name our basketball courts after the greatest women’s basketball player of all time."

phoenix mercury weight room
From training to recovery, each aspect of the Mercury's new facility is geared toward player conditioning. (Phoenix Mercury)

With 24-hour access for players and staff, the practice courts feature built-in technologies capable of providing real-time performance analytics. The facility also includes a strength and cardio training area, indoor and outdoor turf training areas, a functional movement area, and a team meeting room with theater-style seating.

Amenities specific to athlete recovery are also on hand, including a dedicated physician and testing room, recovery room, hydrotherapy room with hot and cold plunge pools, freestanding underwater treadmill, and two massage rooms. The locker room is home to vanity stations, a sauna, a steam room, and a wellness room.

phoenix mercury players lounge
In addition to recovery and training areas, the facility also showcases a stocked player lounge. (Phoenix Mercury)

An area for players to relax and refuel, the onsite player lounge and kitchen is stocked with private chef, snack bar, pantry, and smoothie bar.

"This practice facility sets the standard for what it means to invest in women’s sports," said Phoenix Mercury and Phoenix Suns CEO Josh Bartelstein. "From performance to recovery to team culture, we are providing our players with the space and amenities they need to be and feel their best."

phoenix mercury training facility
The new training center is a part the Player 15 Group's downtown Phoenix campus. (Phoenix Mercury)

The Mercury's practice facility is located inside the Player 15 Group's team member campus, headquarters to owner Mat Ishbia’s sports, entertainment, real estate, and investment company. the Player 15 Group's team member campus. Debuting this past April, the grounds also house business facilities for the Phoenix Mercury, Phoenix Suns, Valley Suns, and arena operations.

Skills Challenge, 3-Point Contest Open 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend

Team WNBA on the court at 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend
The WNBA All-Star Game court will be buzzing with action on Friday night. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

While the 2024 All-Star Game doesn't tip off until Saturday, this year's WNBA Skills Challenge and STARRY 3-Point Contest promise to light up Phoenix's Footprint Center on Friday.

The evening's programming will allow fans to watch as towering center Brittney Griner shows off her speed and mobility before putting 2024's most statistically excellent three-point shooters to the test.

In addition to the two annual events, the night will also showcase the first-ever WNBA All-Star 3×3 Exhibition, with the Olympic-bound 3×3 National Team taking on USA Basketball's 3×3 U23 National Team.

To make things even more interesting, Aflac has promised to supplement the Skills Competition and 3-Point Contest's prize pool with a $55,000 bonus for each winner.

Team USA's Brittney Griner poses in her Paris Olympics uniform.
Mercury center Brittney Griner will test her speed at the All-Star Skills Challenge. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Skills Challenge highlights league's best

Perhaps the least straightforward event in Friday's series, the Skills Challenge — in which five players will compete in a timed obstacle course testing their dribbling, passing, speed, and shooting abilities —should come down to the wire. Each contestant will attempt to complete the course as quickly as possible, with the two fastest first-round players advancing to a head-to-head final.

Ten-time WNBA All-Star Griner (Phoenix) headlines the Skills Challenge roster, accompanied by Mercury teammate Sophie Cunningham as well as Allisha Gray (Atlanta), 2019 WNBA All-Star MVP Erica Wheeler (Indiana), and newly acquired Connecticut guard Marina Mabrey.

Mabrey will be competing in both the Skills Challenge and 3-Point Contest, taking the court for the first time since her requested trade from Chicago sent her the Sun.

Team WNBA's Jonquel Jones lines up a shot at Friday's All-Star practice.
Liberty ace Jonquel Jones leads Friday's stacked 3-Point Contest lineup. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Top shooters put their skills on display

Despite Sabrina Ionescu and Caitlin Clark reportedly declining to participate, some of the WNBA's best shooters will be on display in tonight's STARRY 3-Point Contest. Shooters will tally up points from five set shooting locations around the arc plus two additional "Starry Range" deep shots worth three points each.

2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones (New York) will enter a battle of the bigs with Washington's Stefanie Dolson, who sits second in the league in three-point field goal percentage this season with 48.5%.

But Jones and Dolson will face stiff competition from Kayla McBride (Minnesota), who leads the league in three-pointers made, as well as the aforementioned Gray and Mabrey.

Team USA 3x3 players Cierra Burdick, Hailey Van Lith, Rhyne Howard, and Dearica Hamby
Team USA's Cierra Burdick, Hailey Van Lith, Rhyne Howard, and Dearica Hamby will take on their U-23 counterparts in Friday's new 3×3 Exhibition. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Weekend adds 3×3 Exhibition to the mix

Tonight’s debut 3×3 Exhibition will serve as a warmup for Team USA's Rhyne Howard (Atlanta), former WNBA player Cierra Burdick, college star Hailey Van Lith (TCU), and Dearica Hamby (Los Angeles), who came on to replace Sparks teammate Cameron Brink after her season-ending ACL tear.

The Olympians' U-23 opposition is also gearing up for a major event, with collegiate squad members Christina Dalce (Maryland), Morgan Maly (Creighton), Cotie McMahon (Ohio State), Lucy Olsen (Iowa), Mikaylah Williams (LSU), and Serah Williams (Wisconsin) set to play in the 2024 FIBA 3x3 Nations League tournament in Mexico City starting July 22nd.

Where to watch the WNBA Skills Challenge and 3-Point Contest

All three events will air on ESPN starting at 9 PM ET on Friday, July 19th.

Olympians Face Fan Favorites at 2024 WNBA All-Star Game

Team WNBA rookie Angel Reese at 2024 WNBA All-Star Game team practice in Phoenix, Arizona
Team WNBA is gearing up to take on a stacked Team USA roster on Saturday. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Weekend has arrived, with orange carpet fits, courtside looks, and fierce competition adding up to one epic weekend in Phoenix, Arizona, all punctuated by the 2024 All-Star Game.

Here's everything you need to know ahead of Saturday's tip-off.

Alyssa Thomas high-fives her Team USA teammates at 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend
Alyssa Thomas and the rest of Team USA will face Team WNBA on Saturday. (Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Olympians and All-Stars take the court

The much discussed Team USA vs. Team WNBA format will take centerstage on Saturday, as Olympic preparation meets a few snubs and some surprising teammates.

The US has limited opportunities to build chemistry within their squad of top American talent, and will need to take their rotations seriously despite the game's friendly nature.

For Team WNBA, the All-Star Game could provide vets like Arike Ogunbowale and star rookies Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese the opportunity to publicly show how they match up against this year's Olympic roster, with thoughts toward the future.

Team WNBA's Angel Reese lines up a shot while fellow rookie Caitlin Clark looks on.
Saturday's showdown marks the first time rookies Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark will be teammates. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Star rookies link up for the first time

Saturday's showdown will also mark the first time Clark and Reese have ever suited up for the same team, taking the court for Team WNBA in the highly anticipated team-up of two former college rivals.

"She's probably going to lead the game in rebounds," Clark quipped when asked about playing alongside Reese.

"This is not going to be the [last] time, I know we'll be All-Stars again," Reese said about playing with Clark on last week's NBA Today. "Hopefully in 2028 we'll be Olympians together, too."

Team WNBA head coach Cheryl Miller at practice before Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game
Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller will lead Team WNBA at Saturday's All-Star Game. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Game coaches face starting lineup decisions

Fans are keeping watch on Team USA's starting five, though recent injuries to Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier could affect head coach Cheryl Reeve's ability to immediately field the best group.

Meanwhile, WNBA legend Cheryl Miller — who coached the Phoenix Mercury from 1997-2000 — will serve as Team WNBA's boss for the night. Overall Top 10 All-Star vote-getters Clark, Ogunbowale, Aliyah Boston, and Dearica Hamby are expected to start the game for Team WNBA, alongside an additional player of Miller's discretion.

Olympians Collier and Stewart, plus A'ja Wilson, Kahleah Copper, Jackie Young, and Sabrina Ionescu also landed in the Top 10 of votes submitted by fans, media, and fellow players.

Where to watch the WNBA All-Star Game

The 2024 WNBA All-Star Game will tip off at 8:30 PM ET on Saturday, July 20th, on ESPN.

First-Time Olympian Kahleah Copper Is Seizing the Moment

Phoenix Mercury star Kahleah Copper playing in a WNBA game against the LA Sparks
Kahleah Copper's first season with the Mercury has been a banner one so far. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Phoenix Mercury guard Kahleah Copper has been working toward this year's WNBA All-Star Weekend for a long time.

2024 won't be Copper's first trip to the All-Star Game — in fact, she's been an All-Star for four consecutive seasons. This weekend also won't be Copper's greatest individual achievement to date. Afterall, it's tough to beat winning Finals MVP as part of the 2021 WNBA Champion Chicago Sky. And this year isn't even Copper's first time playing the All-Star Game in her home arena; that was in Chicago in 2022.

But this will be Copper's first All-Star Weekend as an Olympian, a title she's been striving for since the moment the Tokyo Games ended in August 2021. Back then, the 29-year-old had been one of Team USA's final roster cuts prior to the Olympics. And from that day forward, she made it her mission to channel  her disappointment into becoming an indispensable part of the 2024 Paris Olympic squad

"I wouldn't change my process for anything," she told Just Women's Sports earlier this week as she prepared to join the national team at training camp in Phoenix. "I'm super grateful for it, it has definitely prepared me. It's a testament to my work ethic, and me just really being persistent about what it is that I want."

A proud product of North Philadelphia, Copper has always been big on manifesting, speaking her intentions confidently into the universe and never shying away from  ambitions no matter how far-fetched they sounded.

"It's important to set goals, manifest those things, talk about it," she said. "Because the more you speak it, you speak it into existence." 

She also displays those goals on her refrigerator at home, forcing herself to keep them front of mind every day. The day she was named to the Olympic roster, ESPN’s Holly Rowe posted one of these visual reminders to social media: A 2021 photo showing Copper wearing a Team USA t-shirt over her Chicago Sky warmups, smiling at the camera while holding up the homemade gold medal slung around her neck.

"Kahleah Copper put out [the] photo on the left in Aug. 2021 and manifested that she WOULD be an Olympian," Rowe’s caption read. "Today she made team USA. Dreams to reality." 

Kahleah Copper of the USA Basketball Women's National Team poses for a portrait during Training Camp in Phoenix
The 2024 Paris Games will mark Copper's Olympic debut. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper turns her focus to Team USA

With one dream realized, Copper is aware that the job isn't finished, as USA women's basketball is aiming to win a historic eighth-straight Olympic gold medal in Paris this summer. That path doesn't technically begin with All-Star Weekend — where Team USA will take on Team WNBA in a crucial tune-up game — but the trial run could make a difference when the team touches down in Europe next week.

"It's serious, because other countries, they spend a lot of time together, so their chemistry is great," Copper said of her Olympic competition. "We don't get that, we don't have that much time together. Just putting all the great players together is not enough. It's gonna take a lot more than that."

With a laugh, Copper acknowledged that Team USA’s task at hand could lightly dampen the occasionally raucous All-Star festivities ("Balance!" was an oft-repeated word). But it's a cost she and her national team colleagues are more than willing to pay if it helps them come out on top in Paris. 

Of course, Copper — along with club teammates Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner — will be enjoying home-court advantage when the All-Star Game tips off inside Phoenix’s Footprint Center on Saturday, a factor that might put them slightly more at ease. 

WNBA players kahleah copper and candace parker celebrating winning the 2021 championship with the chicago sky
Copper won a WNBA Championship in 2021 alongside one of her idols, Candace Parker. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

A "damn near perfect" new WNBA team

Copper made the move to the Mercury just this season after establishing herself as a respected star in Chicago. What she joined was a work in progress, one of a number of key 2024 signings under first-time head coach Nate Tibbetts. Having played for the Sky since 2017, Copper wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of the transition. But any positive manifestations she put out about her new team seemed to have done the trick.

"I said I would never go to the West Coast, I could never go that far from home," she said. "But I didn't know that this organization was what it was: Super professional, really taking care of everything. It's damn near perfect."

Copper herself has been damn near perfect, shooting 45% from the field while leading sixth-place Phoenix to a 13-12 record on the season. She’s also averaging a career-high 23.2 points per game, second highest in the league behind soon-to-be six-time WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson’s 27.2 points per game. It’s not lost on Copper that she’s playing in front of packed houses, with the Mercury accounting for some of the W’s biggest crowds throughout its 28-year run. 

"Here in Phoenix, our fans are amazing," Copper said. "They show up every single night."

Phoenix Mercury player Kahleah Copper poses on the court before the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game
Copper will play in her fourth consecutive All-Star Game on Saturday. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper's All-Star home-court advantage

All-Star Weekend presents Copper even more opportunities to connect with her new city, including by making an appearance at American Express's interactive fan experience at WNBA Live 2024. As part of the activation, Copper recorded a few short stories about growing up a basketball fan, describing the posters of Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, and Ivory Latta she had as a child, and how she dreamed of joining her idols as a professional basketball player. 

The Rutgers grad said she was excited about connecting with Phoenix fans on their level, rooting herself in a shared love of the sport even as she moves from watching the WNBA on TV to becoming one of its brightest stars. The message is clear: If you want something bad enough, and you work for it hard enough, just about anything is possible.

But for all of Copper's personal manifestations, she's never lost sight of the most important thing: winning. And she won't stop grinding until she's posing for the cameras in Paris, holding up a real Olympic gold medal.

"When winning comes, the other stuff will come," she said. "The individual sh*t will come."

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