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Julia Poe: Sky’s trade of Kahleah Copper is a logical rebuild step — but there’s no logic in love

CHICAGO — The Chicago Sky will never know what could have been with a team built around Kahleah Copper.

For the past year, the Sky’s sole focus has been building a team for the star who stayed. But on Tuesday, both sides gave up on that effort as Copper was traded to the Phoenix Mercury.

In many ways, this trade is the logical first step in a rebuild that became a necessity after last year’s free-agency implosion. The payoff is appropriate: The No. 3 pick in 2024, two second-rounders in 2025, another first-rounder in 2026, plus two frontcourt additions who can make a meaningful impact during the awkward growing-pains season at the start of a rebuild.

But there’s no logic in love — and Chicago loved Copper.

That feeling was mutual, a bond Copper acknowledged first and foremost in addressing her exit from the team on Tuesday.

“I came to Chicago with a hunger and a desire to learn, make an impact on the community and be great on the court,” Copper wrote on Instagram. “Seven years later I can honestly say, Chicago, I love y’all. We went through ups and downs together; we battled together; we won a championship together; and most importantly we supported one another.”

Copper was skeptical when she first arrived in Chicago. She said so herself. It wasn’t the team that drafted her. When she was traded abruptly from Washington after a quiet rookie year for the Mystics in 2016, Copper wasn’t sure how she fit into the Sky or Chicago at all.

Those early seasons were a learning experience for Copper. She averaged 6.8 points per game in her first three seasons in Chicago, mostly coming off the bench to offer support behind Diamond DeShields. But in 2020, Copper stepped into a starting role and eagerly devoured the challenges that came with it.

If there was ever any doubt Sky fans would fall in love with Copper, it evaporated in the 2021 WNBA Finals.

Copper has always defined herself by her North Philadelphia roots. It was something teammates like Candace Parker quickly identified in her — a sharp, fierce desire to compete that was barely hidden below her reserved demeanor. And over that five-game series to snatch a title away from the Mercury, it just made sense to a Chicago fan base eager for a little bit of an edge.

It was her 21-point performance to steal Game 1 in Phoenix, dragging offensive rebounds out of Brittney Griner’s hands, flexing at the crowd as she sat up after taking yet another foul at the rim.

It was the way she leaped to her feet in Game 2 to step to Sophie Cunningham — now her teammate in Phoenix — and deliver the type of wordless “try me, I dare you” challenge that the Sky had sorely missed in the past.

It was the way she stared straight into the ESPN camera after the Sky clinched the championship in Game 4, shaking her head back and forth as her voice shook: “I worked so f------ hard. I worked so f------ hard.”

Because she did. Copper worked and worked and worked — even when her veteran teammates later left for super teams, even when her coach walked midseason.

Copper entered a different stratosphere of stardom after that 2021 season. It wasn’t just the All-Star selection or renewed interest from USA Basketball. After that breakout performance, Copper no longer belonged to Chicago alone. She had become a key piece in the WNBA, for the national team, for the sport at large.

And the Sky could never meet her on that plane. Something special had happened in 2021 — an entire team recalibrating itself around Copper, accepting and understanding that she would one day be the new center of gravity for the franchise. But when Copper did indeed become the Sky’s centerpiece, she was met with inconsistency.

So it’s fitting that this announcement came when it did — while Copper was half a world away in Belgium, playing alongside legends (and new teammates) like Griner and Diana Taurasi to secure the Americans their spot in the Paris Olympics, forging a new identity for herself as one of the primary stars in the country.

Chicago will never get to see what was supposed to come next — and that in itself is a heartbreak for Sky fans, who experienced the rare phenomenon of watching a player grow into herself over the better part of a decade. And whether it was a necessity or a misstep, this decision will define the new front office as coach Teresa Weatherspoon builds her vision of the Sky.

Regardless of the impact of this trade in the long run, Copper will leave behind the same legacy: the kid from North Philly who brought a championship to Chicago.