WNBA Finals MVP Kahleah Copper trusted the grind, and it paid off

(Courtesy of adidas)

Kahleah Copper believes in the process.

After winning a WNBA championship with the Chicago Sky and being named Finals MVP, Copper is on top of the world. And yet, the 27-year-old star still finds joy in the grind. As the party fades and the enormity of the last year begins to sink in, Copper is just starting to reflect on how exactly she got here.

“The most rewarding aspect of it is just me looking back on my process, from being traded from D.C. to coming to Chicago,” Copper tells Just Women’s Sports.

“Even throughout our season, we hit adversity early … we won seven, we lost seven, but for us to really come together and really lock in and heighten our sense of urgency once the playoffs hit and to win a championship, it’s like you look back on your process and you’re like, ‘I wouldn’t change anything, because things wouldn’t be the same.’”

Drafted seventh overall by the Washington Mystics in 2016, Copper started in just three games for the team before being traded to Chicago in 2017. Copper struggled to find playing time in her first few seasons with the Sky, as well, starting 10 games in her first season and just two in her second before exclusively coming off the bench in 2019.

The 2020 bubble season changed everything for the guard, as she started every game alongside veterans Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, averaging a career-high 14.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

While it’s hard to view Copper now as anything but unstoppable following her dominant playoffs performance, her rise through the ranks was never promised or prophesied. But that didn’t stop Copper from believing it would happen.

“I trusted myself and I trusted the grind and trusted I would be rewarded,” she says. “I think that that was really what it was for me, is just constantly, constantly putting my head down and keep putting the work in so that when I was given the opportunity, I would never look back.”

(Courtesy of adidas)

The stay-the-course mentality that helped Copper earn a spot on the Sky’s starting five is also what propelled her to a WNBA trophy, an achievement she attributes to the team’s collective focus and work ethic.

“I think those single-elimination games were so important for us. Like, so important,” she says.

The Sky, coming into the playoffs as the sixth seed, had to dispatch both the Dallas Wings and the Minnesota Lynx in first- and second-round single-elimination games before their semifinal series against Connecticut.

“I have not seen our sense of urgency hit that new height all season,” she says. “Once we got to the semifinals, we treated those games like single-elimination games. We were so locked in. That’s why I appreciate the single-elimination games — the sixth seed didn’t matter to us.”

Copper says after losing Game 2 of the semifinals to the Sun, the Sky promised themselves they would not go back to Connecticut. She says that clinching the “very tough, very physical” series against the No. 1 seed prepared the team for the Finals.

Standing between Chicago and the WNBA trophy was another tough opponent in the Phoenix Mercury. In a contentious series that spurred rumblings of a new WNBA rivalry, Copper sparred with Phoenix’s Sophie Cunningham in a now-infamous moment that inspired many memes on social media. Though Copper calls the tussle “nothing serious,” she says this type of competitiveness is ultimately good for the WNBA.

“I appreciate the league wanting to create rivalries, because I think that it’s important for women to be able to be passionate and to be feisty and for that be OK,” Copper says. “We are very competitive, we are the best at what we do, so those moments — they happen. The fans love it. They love us to be passionate about it. And those things happen within the game, and I think it’s good for women’s basketball.”

After clinching the Finals trophy, Copper immortalized the photo, selling merch emblazoned with the iconic staredown. “Everything is not always pretty,” she says. “We are gonna be feisty out there, and those things happen, so I think that it’s important for the league to continue to let us be us and to allow us to be passionate.”

Copper’s first round of T-shirts and sweatshirts quickly sold out, speaking to the rising star’s popularity among the Chicago fan base. The love is mutual, with Copper crediting the raucous crowd at Wintrust Arena as a critical factor in the Sky’s championship run.

“The fans, they really showed out,” she says. “I think that having Game 3 and Game 4 sold out was huge. I think they really came out to support us.”

The Sky have been the toast of the town ever since, with fans flocking to downtown Chicago for the team’s championship parade, something Copper doesn’t take lightly.

“I think we got so much love from the city. Riding through the city, you saw little kids coming out of school, little babies come out of daycare, older people were out there, there were people out there with walkers. Like, the city really came out,” recalls Copper. “And it was a Tuesday. People had work. So for the city to really come out and show love like that, it’s like wow. Thank you, Chicago.”

Ruthy Hebard, Candace Parker and Kahleah Copper (Courtesy of adidas)

While the city has embraced her, Copper’s future with the Sky isn’t set in stone as she enters the first unrestricted free agency of her career. The guard can’t definitively say if she plans to be back in the Windy City next year, but she does admit she’s approaching free agency with an open mind and is interested in seeing what’s out there.

“I love Chicago, so I’m just gonna enjoy it for that matter, just enjoy the free agency and just make good decisions,” she says.

No matter where she ends up, Copper’s role on the court is likely to evolve. Just as Candace Parker filled a leadership role that was previously missing in Chicago — bringing something Copper calls “that been there, done that” mentality — the 27-year-old has also now been there and done that, climbing to the top of the WNBA as Finals MVP.

“I was just a sponge, and [Parker] was just giving me everything she had every single day, just pouring into me. I think it’s my due diligence to do the same for whoever next year — me giving it to the next player in order for us to be successful,” Copper says.

(Courtesy of adidas)

The Philadelphia native isn’t just interested in leading on the court; she’s also committed to giving back to the game of basketball in the offseason. Through her partnership with adidas, Copper has fully outfitted her free annual basketball camp in her North Philadelphia neighborhood.

“This year, adidas really stepped up. They really took care of me,” she says. “They were able to provide basketballs, they were able to provide sneakers, water bottles, gift bags, T-shirts, socks — I was able to provide these kids with a lot of things.”

Copper’s hope is that, through her partnership with adidas, she can continue to support young, aspiring athletes coming out of her hometown.

“I think it’s just important for me to never forget where I came from, and to be able to inspire the little girls that are here so that when they grow up and they make it, they’ll want to do the same thing for the next little girl,” she says.

A lot has changed for Copper in the last year — making the All-Star team, winning a league championship and taking home the Finals MVP. One thing that remains constant is her next-up mentality, whether on the court or in her hometown of Philadelphia. While she already has her sights set on earning a Defensive Player of the Year nod, Copper is also focusing on enjoying the moment and appreciating where the easily-praised, often-difficult “process” has gotten her.

“It’s just finally starting to sink in now,” she says. “Like, wow, we won a WNBA championship. Wow, I was Finals MVP.”

Clare Brennan is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @clare_brennan2.