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Kahleah Copper Is Giving Back To The Community That Shaped Her

It’s possible you know Kahleah Copper best for a photo of her that circulated widely in the 2021 WNBA playoffs. Yes, the one where she’s bending down over Sophie Cunningham on the floor, Copper’s face inches from Cunningham’s and a coy, almost calm smile playing on Copper’s face after a three second tangle for the ball that was anything but.

The Sky would go on to win the WNBA championship and Copper went on to be named Finals MVP. It was just her second season as a starter, and she rode the momentum to Spain in her offseason to be named an MVP of the Spanish League, EuroLeague, and make All-EuroLeague First Team.

What you should know Copper for, however, are her incremental improvements season over season, like finishing this past year with career-high points. Or for the way she can dash down the floor, making eagle-eye reads at either end, and control her body midair to make impossibly contorted floaters look graceful or impossibly deep shots like she’s zoomed in on the basket.

At the end of this past season, Copper entered into a partnership with Gatorade. To kick it off, returned to her hometown of Philadelphia to give 400 pieces of new equipment to kids in the community with the Fuel Tomorrow Initiative. Copper took a few minutes out of her appearance to chat with Dime about her progress, Candace Parker getting on her case, her stint as an assistant coach at Purdue Northwest, and why giving back to the community that shaped her is important.

Something I don’t think people fully grasp when we talk about athletes staying ready is what actually goes into that. You came off the bench for a few seasons before you were consistently starting and then you went on to have your championship season. How were you keeping yourself ready physically and also mentally? What were you focusing on day to day?

Personally, I just take pride in getting better every single year. There’s plenty of things that I know I can grow at in my game. I’m working out every day, but most importantly, I’m getting stronger. That’s what’s going to be a big thing for me this offseason. You know, before this season, nobody really knows but I don’t lift. I don’t lift weights cause I don’t like it, but I’m getting a little older these days. I’ve had many conversations with my teammate Candace Parker — I make fun of her for being old, but she makes fun of me because she says I’m not strong.

So I think this offseason, a big thing for me is about getting stronger. Right now I’m lifting, I’m taking care of my body, and working on different, small parts of my game. But most importantly was being healthy coming from the World Cup and getting stronger.

Do you like that feeling of putting in rep after rep? I know with some athletes it can feel kind of monotonous. But do you like seeing the change at the other end of it?

Yeah, I think I’ll never get bored. Looking at my career, seeing myself continuously get better but also looking and like, “Damn, I’m just scratching the surface.” You know, there’s so many things that I really want to tap into as far as my game. I think the sky is really the limit. Like, it’s super cliche, but really, that’s what I believe.

Something you’ve said you want to focus on is making an All-Defensive team by building on your ability to be an impactful two-way player. Do you set goals for yourself, season to season like that?

Yeah, I think it’s important to set goals. It gives you something to look forward to and it keeps you motivated.

Between seasons in 2020 and your Championship season in 2021, you were an assistant coach at Purdue Northwest — how did that opportunity come about?

So [head coach] Courtney Locke went to Rutgers University, and I think that sisterhood there is very strong. I was home during the offseason, and we’re friends on social media, and she saw that I was home — it was really random — she’s like, “Hey, what do you think about coming to coach with me?” And I’m like, you’re joking, right? She’s like, “I’m serious!” COVID was still around and really bad in Europe, so I decided not to play overseas and was like, this can’t hurt, right? And it was right outside of Chicago, so I was like I’ll do it. That was a really good experience, it definitely showed me a lot. I think it helped on my side of being a better leader, a better communicator, and I was seeing things differently.

Is that a place you could see yourself going back to down the road, into a coaching role?

Yeah, I definitely have to give a major shoutout to the young women that I coached, because they were like sponges. They just wanted to learn, they wanted to get better. They made it so easy for me. And I appreciated that because they listened. For me to be able to really teach, and then for me to see the growth in them, their progress, it’s like okay, I’m doing this thing right. That was special for me. I could definitely see it for me. I’ve had so many great assistant coaches in my life so I know how important those relationships are. That was a special time, and it led me into a great season.

You’ve talked before about [Rutgers] coach C. Vivian Stringer being a reason why you could see yourself going to the WNBA. What did she instil in you to make you feel that would be possible?

I think coach Stringer was the ultimate leader. She poured into me not only as a basketball player, but a young woman, she humbled me from day one, which was very important. She just loved on me, and that was what I needed. I needed that leadership, I needed that love, and I needed that tough love. And not only was she teaching me the game of basketball, she was teaching me how to come up in this world as a young woman and how to be successful.

What does it mean to you to now be instilling that same sense of belief in girls and young women, whether they’re fans or they’re the women you’ve coached, who’ve watched you make jump after jump in your career thus far?

That part of it is so inspiring. They have moments and they have times where they just feel they aren’t good enough, and for them to see my career, it’s like wow, anything is possible. For them to see that, it’s not super cliche — you work hard, you get the results. And for them to be able to really see me, and ask questions, and for me to tell them there’s no cheating the game. You put in the work, you get the results. For them to be able to witness it first hand — because I was doing player development at Purdue Northwest — I was also developing myself. So for them to see me work out with them, and then to see the results, it was like okay, I need to work out [laughs]. This is what I need to do, there’s no getting around it, that’s just the blueprint to it.

On that note, you’re partnering with Gatorade and are in your hometown of Philly to launch that partnership. Could you tell me a bit about the Fuel Tomorrow Initiative?

kahleah copper

The Fuel Tomorrow Initiative, along with Good Sport, was special because we were donating 400 pieces of new equipment. That was important because we’re creating opportunities and just being able for them to have the things that they need. When I was growing up, I didn’t have all the new equipment, I was working with the things that I had in order to be successful. I think sports has the power to change lives — this is working to create more opportunities and equality and belonging in sports.

Why is it important, and what does it feel like to be back there and be able to give back to your community like this?

It’s special for me because Philly has really shaped who I am. It’s made me the player and the person and the competitor that I am. For me to come back where I’m from and to see little girls that look like me, for them to see that I’ve accomplished so many things that they’re automatically inspired, and they know that it’s something that is possible.

Candace Parker has previously been a part of this same initiative. Growing up, you’ve said she was one of your favourite players, now she’s your teammate, but now you also share your contributions to this program. What’s that like?

It’s special. Like you said, I grew up watching Candace, watching her play, and seeing her be successful. But for me to become her teammate and be able to learn her off the court, and see how important giving back and creating these opportunities are also important to her, so we share some of the same values and views. For us to both have this partnership with Gatorade, and for them to really pour into us and see our vision and want to support our vision, and the things we’re passionate about, it’s very important. We appreciate and love that.