Apr 19, 2024  |  
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NextImg:Kahleah Copper’s jersey retirement serves as reminder of her basketball beginnings

PHILADELPHIA — Sky star Kahleah Copper hates surprises. She can’t really explain why she feels so strongly, but her dislike has led to a skill of detecting them before they happen.

So when Girard College’s new president, Christopher Goins, called to ask Copper what number she wore while attending the boarding school from first through 10th grade, her radar went off.

‘‘I hung up the phone and was like, ‘They’re gonna retire my jersey,’ ’’ Copper said, laughing. ‘‘I just knew it.’’

On March 22, Copper’s was the first jersey number retired at Girard.

Goins was hired last July and, upon taking the job, immediately began thinking of ways to honor past students.

The five-day boarding school initially was founded for orphaned white boys and wasn’t desegregated until 1968. In 1983, the school admitted its first class of girls. Today, Girard’s 43-acre campus is home to a student body of about 320 first through 12th-graders from single-parent or guardian households.

When Goins arrived from Chicago, where he previously served as the founding principal at Butler College Prep before working for the nonprofit Thrive Chicago and the Obama Foundation, he was shocked by Girard’s lack of recognition for its alumni.

‘‘I heard Copper’s name,’’ Goins said. ‘‘But I thought, ‘Why is it not more regular here?’ ’’

Goins and his colleagues got to work planning a Women’s History Month event to provide students with an opportunity to share space with some of the successful Black women who attended Girard. Copper’s name was at the top of the list.

‘‘She made such an effort to be present here for the panel,’’ Goins said.

The decision to enroll Copper at the school was that of her mother, Leticia.

Even though Copper’s family in North Philadelphia lived less than three miles from Girard, being away from them five days of the week was a challenge for her. Copper cried every Sunday night when getting dropped off for her first two years.

Nothing was quite like that first drop-off.

‘‘My grandma was like: ‘We’re taking her out. She’s not staying here,’ ’’ Copper said. ‘‘She was so mad, saying: ‘We’re not leaving her here. Look at how she’s crying.’ ’’

But Copper’s mother knew it was the best thing for her. A decade later, she acknowledges it was, too.

March 22 started in a familiar place for Copper — at chapel, or what others might refer to as assembly hall. Girard’s elementary, middle and high school students share the same campus, but chapel offers an opportunity for them to come together in one place.

Each chapel event is centered around the core values of the school: respect, responsibility, integrity, courage and compassion.

The Women’s History Month panel was an opportunity for the students to see those core values being carried out by four Black women who had sat in the same seats they were in now. The discussion was hosted by Girard’s student-government leaders.

After the panel, Goins brought former teachers and coaches of all four alumni on stage for a photo.

‘‘At the end, I said, ‘We have a special presentation for Kahleah,’ ’’ Goins said. ‘‘When I made the announcement that we were retiring her jersey, the place went crazy.’’

Copper insists she knew about the surprise, but Goins said her reaction told a different story.

‘‘I tried to save it for the end of the ceremony, so she would forget,’’ Goins said. ‘‘I think she did because she really was surprised.’’

Copper finished her high school career at Preparatory Charter School in South Philadelphia, but Girard is the institution that laid the foundation for whom she would become — on and off the court. The same pride Copper has for having attended Girard, the institution feels for having her represent it.

Discipline is one of the guiding principles she credits Girard for instilling in her.

This offseason, Copper returned to Philadelphia to maintain the level of discipline that has led her to two WNBA All-Star appearances, a WNBA championship and a WNBA Finals MVP award.

She continues to perfect her game in Girard’s gym, which serves as a reminder of where everything started and provides the comfort of home.

On some days, she walks in and it’s empty. On others, she’s greeted by current students. Their reactions range from squeals to whispers: ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s Kahleah Copper. She has a banner in the gym!’’

Soon, she won’t just have a banner bearing her image, along with the words ‘‘2021 WNBA Finals MVP.’’ Her white-and-maroon No. 24 jersey will be mounted alongside it.

‘‘It’s super-humbling,’’ Copper said. ‘‘You think about how you started, how you used to be that little girl. When they react to me, I act just like them. They scream, and I scream right back. They just want to feel like we’re the same.’’