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How Jaida Roper and Sabrina Haines Went Pro During a Pandemic

(Photo by Hannah Phillips | UK Athletics)

(Photo by Hannah Phillips | UK Athletics)

Simple tasks such as grabbing a carton of eggs from the grocery store or filling up our cars with gas have become more pervasive than ever before. Physical interaction is a no-no. Self-isolation is the most important key. If you’re someone on the brink of entering the workforce and searching for the next move in your career, you are experiencing something no other generation in history has gone through before.

The degree of current global uncertainty has never been so high.

So how did two former Kentucky Women’s Basketball players, Jaida Roper and Sabrina Haines, manage to continue their athletic dreams and sign with agents as they officially turn to the professional ranks?

I don’t even know how to feel about the whole thing,” Haines told KSR about her experience of signing with an agent, roughly a month after her senior season was ripped away from her due to the ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Haines and Roper were two staples in head coach Matthew Mitchell’s backcourt for the 2019-20 season. The duo complemented SEC Player of the Year, Rhyne Howard, to form a solidified group of ball handlers that could run the offense, play defense and shoot from beyond the arc. Haines averaged 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per outing while shooting 40 percent from three. Roper added 7.8 points per game, connected on 33.9 percent of her outside shots and was UK’s assist-leader for the season.

The two took vastly different paths to reach this point in their careers. Haines originally transferred from Arizona State after a knee injury sidelined her for an extended period. She officially played just one collegiate season in Lexington but started all 30 games in that lone year. Roper spent all four seasons of her career with Kentucky, slowly blooming into a starting-caliber SEC point guard.

Despite coming from different parts of the country (one from Phoenix, the other Memphis), their goals were linked together – long before they had ever met. The unexpected end to their final college season expedited their long terms goals by a few weeks.

“Its been in the works since I was 10 years old,” Haines said with a chuckle about going pro. “It [the coronavirus] just fast-tracked everything.”

“That’s been a lifelong dream of mine since I was a kid, to play professionally,” Roper told KSR. “So that was one of my goals this year [to sign with an agent]. 

Roper signed with Paul Kevin of Virtus Sports Management back on April 9. Just a couple of days later on April 11, Haines officially began her professional campaign, signing with Patrick Arryn of Victorious Career Management.

During a typical college basketball season, the process wouldn’t have been this quick. There would have been combines, team-interviews, individual workouts and so many other avenues for organizations to explore (both in the WNBA and overseas) that would have extended the timeline for interaction. Roper, Haines and fellow graduating Kentucky guard Amanda Paschal were all supposed to go down to New Orleans for a combine event that would have happened during the Final Four. Haines had even been invited to participate in the annual State Farm 3-Point Shootout Contest (the same event former ‘Cat Maci Morris had finished in third at the year prior).

“I had got invited to the 3-point shootout that happens every year,” Haines said with excitement. “And I remember watching it every year – I believe it’s at the men’s Final Four – and I was like ‘I wanna shoot in that, I wanna compete in that.’ And I got invited and I was like ‘oh my God!’ and then the fact that it was all just taken away like that, it’s kinda crazy… I don’t know… It is a little sad.”

Obviously, Haines did not have the chance to win the event. None of them had the opportunity to improve their draft stock down in New Orleans. While it didn’t prevent Haines and Roper from ultimately signing with agents, it surely didn’t help. They didn’t have much time to think about their next step once their senior season began to crumble right in front of their eyes.

With no personal experience of going through the process of signing with an agent – and no one else to take advice from who had gone through this same thing – it was a daunting task for these two ladies. Their first step was to reach out to former players and gauge their opinions. Even if they hadn’t been in this same situation before (no one has), they could still offer points of advice.

I hit up a couple of former players that played for Kentucky and asked them,” Roper admitted. “I’m new to this, so I asked them how they went about finding their agents and they gave me some info.”

From there, it was all about the research. Haines and Roper said they reached out to all different kinds of people; from former players, to members of the coaching staff, to potential agents they were considering. The final round of college testing is right around the corner, but signing with an agent took priority.

For Haines, the decision wasn’t all that difficult once she got in contact with Patrick Arryn, who is also the current agent of former Kentucky players Maci Morris and Taylor Murray. Morris and Murray were both fan-favorites during their stints in the blue-and-white and both graduated a year ago, spending the previous season playing overseas hoops.

(Eddie Justice | UK Athletics)

“Before I talked to [Patrick Arryn], I talked to Maci, talked to Taylor, and they gave great reviews of him, and I went in knowing a little bit about him beforehand.” Haines added. “The conversation went well, the few conversations we had after that went well. I just decided he would be the best person to represent me.”

Morris spent her first year out of college playing pro ball in Italy while Murray was out in Hungary. Arryn has 16 female basketball clients, according to the Victorious Career website (including one men’s basketball player and four football players), and says he only hunts for the top-tier talent. Coincidentally (or maybe not?), his attention the last two seasons has been drawn to former Wildcats.

“We only recruit the best players in the country and Kentucky of course has one of the best sports programs, period, so Maci Morris was on our radar, Taylor Murray was on our radar last year,” Arryn told KSR over the phone. “I think having Maci Morris and Taylor Murray, not only sign with me, but also have a very successful overseas career helped me land Sabrina, as well.”

Arryn was the person that made sure Morris returned safely to the United State once the coronavirus became a serious health issue. Thanks to him and his team, they went through sleepless nights to ensure the safety of one of their clients – something that Haines surely noticed.

His agency had 48 hours to pull Morris from Italy, which included getting her released from her current overseas team and booking last minute flights before the airports would close. It wasn’t just Morris that Arryn had to pull from random parts of the world, either; he has a vast roster of clients.

I probably slept about 6-8 hours during those 48 hours,” Arryn said.

The reality of the situation hasn’t officially set in for Haines, she said, but she understands it’s time to move on. Her senior season is over, whether she likes it or not. Moving forward is the only option.

That wasn’t an issue for Roper, who has always been a planner and immediately shifted her focus to pursuing her basketball career once she knew her senior year was lost. Like Haines, Roper reached out to former players and coaches, picking out any bits of advice she could get her hands on.

“When my season ended I was like ‘Okay Jaida, what’s next?’,” Roper said. “With everything going on, the world was kind of still, but my mind was ‘Okay future, future, future. What are we going to do next? What’s the next step?'”

(Eddie Justice | UK Athletics)

Signing with an agent was the first step, but step two is the unknown. Normally, Roper and Haines would be trying to sign professional contracts right now. Neither heard their names called during the 2020 WNBA Draft that took place on Friday, April 17, and basketball is still stuck in limbo across the world. Stationed back at home, all they can do now is wait patiently – and workout.

The convenience of a multi-million dollar training facility isn’t available in their hometown neighborhoods. They can’t run down to the Joe Craft Center to put up a few hundred shots anymore on a moment’s notice. There are no fancy sets of various weights or complicated machines. Workouts now consist of running outside or using their own body as their weight. Kentucky strength coach John Spurlock has been sending them tips and advice on how to stay in shape, but there is only so much he can do when he’s hundreds of miles away.

Roper said she went out and bought a basketball goal so she could at least find a way to get some shots up. Haines and her mother will occasionally go to the local park if no one else is there shooting. They both mentioned how they feel like kids again, living at home and playing outside as if they have been transported back to middle school.

Riding around her Memphis neighborhood, Roper sees a younger version of herself when she spies a group of kids shooting outside on mangled hoops.

“When you ride past the neighborhoods and see all these kids playing outside and riding bikes,” Roper said before briefly pausing. “I like it because I was one of those kids. My mom had to come looking for me when the street lights came on because I was always outside playing around. So it brings back a part of the childhood memory and also that love for the game. When you’re out there by yourself, counting down ‘3, 2, 1…’ you know? I’ve just kind been taking that and running with it.”

For Haines, planks and pushups have been key. Anything to stimulate her muscles and give her a burn is what she’s looking for. She’s avoiding running, for now, to ensure her once-injured knee remains in top shape. She’s thinking about buying an agility ladder off of Amazon (she admitted that online shopping has hooked her recently).

Roper added that her return home has been a “blessing in disguise.” It’s allowed her to catch up with her mom and family, as she’s put them through constant core workouts, something she says they aren’t too fond of so far. Both Roper and Haines have no complaints about as to why the season was canceled and they understand the lives it likely saved, but that doesn’t make the personal pain any less agonizing.

What nags at them the most is that they didn’t get to end their season their way. It’s the “What ifs?” that taunt them.

“We [Kentucky] had really high momentum. We had a team meeting after the SEC Tournament and everybody was just on the same page,” Roper said with clear conviction in her voice. “We saw where we went wrong in the SEC Tournament. People were watching film, we were all just on the same page going into the tournament. So it’s like dang ‘What if?’ How far could we have gotten? You always have those thoughts… I’m definitely bummed out. I miss basketball so much, I miss my teammates, too, a lot. I hate that I didn’t get the chance to go out and know I was playing in my last game.

“I’m a professional, technically, now. But there was no ending to it.” Haines said about the conclusion of her college career. “You want to end things on your terms, that’s what me and the other seniors were talking about. It’s just weird to not be able to end on our own terms. Not to have that game with the last couple seconds where you’re like ‘Okay this is it.'”

Both players were quick to add they were in favor of the cancelations and they tried to look at the perspective of the people suffering from the virus. Roper even confessed that one of her teammates had flu-like symptoms during the SEC Tournament and that the team was already taking serious precautions. While they were lucky enough to play in the SEC tourney, something their male counterparts did not get to experience, they could sense the end was near.

“It was just the sad reality to face,” Roper said with a slight sigh. 

Right now, all they can do is sit around and wait. Their agencies will create their portfolios and send them out to various teams in various regions of the world to see if they can land them a deal. And those contracts will likely include clauses that take into account the possibility of potential disasters like a COVID-19.

For Haines, the final destination doesn’t concern her. She says she can adjust to any situation she’s placed in. Roper, on the other hand, is a bit different, as she always has been. While she’s open to most destinations, she has two initial preferences: it has to be somewhere warm AND somewhere where she won’t be featured on the next Taken film.

No one has any idea when basketball will return to its normal self, both in the United States and across the globe. So, for now, Haines and Roper can’t do the simple tasks they’ve been so accustomed to during their time at Kentucky. But they are officially professional basketball players. To accomplish that all-important first step in the midst of a pandemic is, to put it modestly, impressive.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Covering all things NBA and UK Hoops. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR