Kahleah Copper broke out in a big way in 2021, becoming a first-time All-Star with the Chicago Sky before going on to win a championship and earn Finals MVP honors.
The 27-year-old became a household name for WNBA fans in her second season as a starter for the Sky, averaging 14.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in the regular season before upping that production to 17.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in the playoffs. Copper enters 2022 as one of the MVP frontrunners at 10-1 as she has grown confident and comfortable in her role with a Sky team that is full of talent.
2022 also marks the 10-year anniversary of Copper’s appearance in the McDonald’s All-American Game, an experience she credits with showing her how much incredible basketball talent there is out there — and how hard she was going to have to work to stay at an elite level. A decade later, Copper spoke with Dime on behalf of the McDonald’s All-American Game about her memories of the game, what this year’s selections to the All-American team can learn from the experience as they go forward in their basketball journey, the Sky’s championship run, and what she’s setting as her goals for the future.
You’re 10 years removed now from from playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game. When you look back on that 2012 game, what are your memories of being a part of that group and playing in that game?
Wow, 10 years. I’m starting to feel like I’m getting older [laughs]. But I think, just going back to when I I got the call, just the emotions and just the gratefulness that I felt in being recognized as one of the top players in the country. So for me then to travel to Chicago and be able to be with the best players in my class and be able to compete with them, and also get to know them off the court, was just a great experience. And it’s, wow, I just can’t — I’m stuck on the 10 years. I just think that it was such a great experience being able to compete against the other best players in the country.
What advice would you give this year’s crop of All Americans who will find out Tuesday that they’re part of this team? What would you tell them about what comes next in the basketball journey, what they can expect from here, and what it means to be a McDonald’s All-American?
You know, I think it’s — you go through this phase of your career where you go from playing in high school and you’re probably the best player on your team, the best player in your your city or wherever you are, and then you go to McDonald’s All-American and everybody’s just as good. So, I appreciate just what McDonald’s All-American Games did for me. It just showed me that, okay, it’s not just you. Like there are other great players out here, and it just fired up my competitiveness. And I think that this sets the tone for where your career goes from here, because you then go from high school, you know, playing the McDonald’s All-American game, seeing the other better players, and then go on to college and it’s like, okay, like they’re just as good if not better. And then you go from college and you get drafted and you go to WNBA, and it’s totally different worlds. So I think that the McDonald’s All American Game, it sets the tone for where your career is going and just how it’s going to be.
You had a fantastic season this past year in Chicago, and it seemed like it was building off of what you did down in Bradenton and the bubble when you got a chance to finally be a starter. How much confidence did that experience down in Florida give you coming into this season and being on a starter on the team that obviously had championship hopes and ended up fulfilling them?
I think that that season was very important for me, but what people don’t really understand is that you have to be prepared for opportunity. People always are like, you know, I want to play more or I deserve to play more. But when you get the opportunity, like what are you doing? Are you maximizing every single thing that you can do in order to be better, not only for yourself, but for your team. So I think that me being prepared and me being ready to be a starter was very important. And then for me to continue the next year and be consistent with playing with other great players — like I’m playing with Candace Parker, I’m playing with Courtney Vandersloot, playing with Allie Quigley, like they are great players. So for me to be able to consistently do what I do and what I do for the team and then win at the highest level is amazing.
And going back to what you said about playing in the All-American game kind of shows you that level and shows you that how many players are on that level. What do you have to do as a player to make sure that you’re elevating your game but also staying true to who you are as a player? Because like you said, I think that’s so important to being prepared when you step on the floor is to be comfortable with who you are as a player, not trying to be somebody else.
You know, I think that’s something great to cover because, if you just think about my team in Chicago, teams have roles and every single person is very different in what you bring, the next person might not bring. So when you go to the All American Game, you know, just do what you do and do it well. I think that if you look at our team in Chicago, Allie Quigley is a shooter. I’m a slasher. Courtney is a facilitator. Candace is pretty much everything [laughs]. But you know, like we all bring different things. So it’s important for Allie to consistently be the shooter for us. You don’t have to try to do what I do. You don’t have to try to slash to the basket, because, nah. Our team is like a puzzle. Teams are like puzzles, and if you understand your role and you consistently bring what you do well, that’ll make the team run like a well oiled machine.
Last year, you guys were 16-16 coming into the playoffs, had some ups, had some downs. Was there a point where y’all realized like, we can be that that title team? Was there a moment either in the regular season or early in that playoff run where you guys really started to feel that confidence that we can do this?
Yeah, I think that once the playoffs came we just completely forgot about the regular season, which was very important. Like we literally just was like, ‘we never played those games.’ Like, ‘that never happened.’ We hit so much adversity early in the season with injuries and just everything and it happens, it’s basketball, but I think it was very important for us to really treat the playoffs like it was just a completely new season and we stepped into it 0-0. And it was like, OK, we’re treating every game like a single elimination game. We didn’t care that we had to play those those two games, and I think that those games actually prepared us more than ever. It heightened our sense of urgency, and it really put a fire under us and we were just ready to bring it every single night. I think that when we went to Connecticut and we fought game one, we won. And then game two we fought and we were tired. We were tired and we ended up losing, and then when we went back home, we were like, we’re not going back to Connecticut. It’s not happening. So for us to come home and win those two, we had all the confidence we needed in going into the Finals. And we knew how important it was to take game ones in general. So for us going into Phoenix and taking game one, it was just setting the tone for our confidence, and then we had been so confident from the Connecticut series. So once we got that confidence and we got that swag we were like, yeah, like we got it.
You mentioned setting the tone. You had the moment with Sophie Cunningham that fans latched on to and what was it like seeing fans gravitate that? Like people have shirts with that photo on it and it became people’s Twitter avatars and all of that. what was it like getting that kind of support and seeing fans really take hold of that moment?
Yeah, I think it was it was cool, you know — and I think it was just a moment that women’s basketball needed. You know, they expect us to be so like [proper]. Like, we’re very competitive. We’re the best at what we do. And like we’re not allowed to have that emotion and have these moments but you know, it’s basketball. We’re out there competing, we’re fighting for a championship. So you know, things happen in the heat of the moment, whatever. But I think the moment was great. It happened, people were going crazy, but I think that you know what, that happens and it just shows that we also are very passionate and we have those moments.
And now coming off of a season where you’re a champion, you’re a Finals MVP. What’s the focus for you as you get ready for this coming season and how do you try to continue to build and grow as a player?
I just take so much pride in getting better every year and there’s just so many things that I can just continue to tap into as far as my game. But of course I want to win. I want to win as many championships as I can, but just focusing on me, I think that my game has so much room for improvement. I think there’s really no ceiling for me as far as how much better that I can continue to get. So I’m just taking pride in just getting better and bringing something new every season. You know, I was a first time All-Star won a championship so it’s like, what’s left? Like I want to be on All-Defensive team. You know, I’m very capable. So I have just goals that I just want to continue to smash and just continue to get better.