What Candace Parker is teaching teammate Kaleah Copper and WNBA’s next generation

DEERFIELD, Ill. — Kahleah Copper was a self-described cheap wine drinker before she became teammates with Candace Parker.

Parker knew her younger Chicago Sky teammate was in need of some maturity in a few areas — notably, her palate. Though Parker is true to her Chicagoland greasy tastes with a famous affinity for Portillo’s chili cheese fries, she doesn’t mess around when it comes to wine. And she expected Copper to learn the intricacies of vino.

“She’s got me drinking that Malbec,” Copper said, proudly.

Parker walked by Copper after the Sky’s practice last week and heard Copper was discussing her developing sophistication. “I’m taking her on a wine journey,” Parker said. “This is a coming-of-age story. We start with Malbec, and then we go to Cab(ernet), and then that’s it. She’s matured.”

Parker’s lessons about growth apply beyond the vineyard to the hardwood, too. Copper has credited Parker with instilling the self-belief that helped her become last season’s WNBA Finals MVP. She took a critical career step — under Parker’s tutelage — from emerging player to transformative star as the Sky won their first championship last season, with Copper’s gutsy play and swagger setting the tone.

“From Day 1, she came in here and took me under her wing,” Copper said. “A lot of things she did just kept me level-headed and mature about situations. Just always kept me aggressive and constantly challenging me and making me a better version of myself.”

Both will be All-Stars, though on different teams, Sunday at Wintrust Arena — their home court. This is Copper’s second All-Star Game appearance as a reserve. Parker’s seventh appearance is a nod to her consistent production through 15 seasons in the league.

She recently became the first WNBA player to reach 6,000 points, 3,000 rebounds and 1,500 assists. She guided her hometown team to its first title last season, and averages 13.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and five assists per game this season for the Sky (15-6), who sit tied for first in the league standings with the Aces. With Adidas and Gatorade endorsements, a side gig as an NBA on TNT commentator and a household name since becoming the first woman to dunk in an NCAA Tournament game as a Tennessee player, Parker is one of the WNBA’s most recognizable and revered players.

But her legacy also will be as a caretaker of the game. She makes a point to boost younger Sky teammates and even WNBA opponents, shares the limelight with them and draws attention to their accomplishments. When Parker joined the Sky, she told Copper she was a “superstar” in the making. One reason Parker said she joined the Sky last season was the potential to play alongside Copper, who had a breakout season in 2020 and whom Parker had been impressed by when competing against her as a Sparks player.

“Obviously Lisa (Leslie) took me under her wing,” Parker said. “I was taking from her knowledge. As you get older, you realize you take from (the younger players) as well. It’s not like you’re just the one teaching. I learn a lot from Kah. The excitement of her making the All-Star for the first time last year, it invigorates me. … I’m benefiting from it as well. It’s just fun for me to be in this position.”

It was pivotal for Copper to receive Parker’s mentorship, yes. But that tutelage is also a necessity for the WNBA trajectory.

Sue Bird, 41, and Sylvia Fowles, 36, are heading into retirement after this season — and they undoubtedly will be abundantly celebrated at the All-Star Game. Diana Taurasi, 40, likely doesn’t have too many more years ahead of her in the league. Parker, 36, is similarly nearing retirement and has hinted it could be soon.

These superstars have carried the league in terms of production and cachet, entering the WNBA about a decade post-inception to a critical phase of seeming stability. Now, they are in their career twilight. Who are the next superstars capable of carrying the league?

The All-Star Game offers a glimpse. The Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu, 24, and the Aces’ Kelsey Plum, 27, and Jackie Young, 27, are making their first starts. Dream rookie Rhyne Howard was selected as an alternate. The Storm’s Breanna Stewart, 27, is already a bona fide star. Copper, 27, could be the face of the league one day soon, Parker said.

“You need (new) faces; you need superstars,” she said. “You need people that are going to be great basketball players, but then off the court, be good people. And Kah’s that. I have no doubt. That’s what we all saw. The fact she runs down the court no matter if she’s going to get the ball or not, the fact that she plays defense every time.”

(Shaina Benhiyoun / Associated Press)

Copper is often described as Parker’s little sister. She grew up watching Parker at Tennessee and then with the Sparks. She was drawn to Parker’s versatility and her aggressive, unapologetic style of play. Copper is known for her own on-court feistiness — diving after loose balls, driving ruthlessly to the hoop and infamously striking an intimidating pose by standing over the Mercury’s Sophie Cunningham during last season’s finals.

“She was super passionate,” Copper said. “She was a fired-up player, a big competitor. That was me growing up, and I wanted to see women in the game be competitive and fired up. To see that and to know that it’s OK, was (great). They want girls to be settled down, but no, we’re the best at what we do, especially now. We should be able to celebrate. To see Candace in college being herself was nice.”

Parker tends to the league by seemingly preparing it to be in fertile condition when she eventually leaves it. At practice on the sideline, she is the first onto the court to high-five teammates after a play. During one game, when their coach had to run to the bathroom, Copper said, Parker picked up the clipboard in the huddle and instructed them. When she was injured at the start of last season, Parker often looked like a coach on the sideline, directing and correcting teammates.

As soon as she arrived in Chicago, she ingratiated herself with her new teammates. Even in ways she might have later regret. Shortly after joining the Sky, she loaned Copper her car. (Copper can’t remember which of Parker’s cars but confirms it was an expensive one.) When she left her home for practice, the car wasn’t there. The car had been illegally parked and towed, so she somewhat sheepishly called Parker for a ride. “I figured she’d be more upset if I was late for practice,” Copper said.

The point being, one of the league’s biggest stars was just one of the players. It’s an attitude Copper was quickly drawn to. In ways big and small, she says she sees the ripple effects.

“She’s very unselfish, and it’s going to do nothing but grow the game,” Copper said. “It doesn’t even directly benefit her. It’s a major plus. It speaks to who she is off the court. She shows genuine love and wants to help. She could’ve just been selfish and to herself and had it be all about her, but it was never like that. She’s always complimenting other players. We’ve been in press conferences, and she’s talking about Sabrina (Ionescu)’s triple-double. She don’t want to be the only player. She wants the game to grow. She’s acknowledging younger players.”

When Parker notched her record-setting 1,500th assist in a victory against the Sun last week, it was fitting it came on a dish to Copper.

“How about that?” Copper said. “Now she’s stuck with me for life.”

(Top photo of Kahleah Copper, left, and Candace Parker: Shaina Benhiyoun / Associated Press)

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