The mental aspect of sports has always been a tricky and touchy subject.
Lately, the topic has become much less taboo, but one that is still being discussed with far more questions than answers. The more it’s talked about, the more solutions will follow. Part of the issue is finding the right people that can talk about it from a real, human perspective.
Jaida Roper has a few different approaches to tackling the battle of being a student-athlete and the mounting pressure that comes with it. Figuring out how to approach this sensitive and oftentimes personal subject can be the most difficult part. Roper, however, is already on the right path.
Even though there’s a 14-inch difference from her real height, Roper’s “6-foot-8 mentality” has allowed her to grow as a person and a basketball player – and she’s needed it, too. Not many people experience in their lifetime what Roper has over her four years in Lexington.
Leaving her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee to play basketball in Kentucky wasn’t in the plans even a few months before she made her decision. There was another school that called upon her services, but unusual circumstances changed her course. Four years later, Roper will graduate as one of, if not the most important players to ever come through the Matthew Mitchell Era.
“We would be here all night if I fully explained that,” Mitchell said earlier this season of Roper’s overall contributions.
Her impact cannot solely be measured by looking at a box score or her physical height. Roper stands at just 5-foot-6, one of the shortest players on the team alongside Chasity Patterson (5-foot-5) and Kameron Roach (5-foot-6). Overwhelming athleticism and raw natural talent are not among Roper’s strengths, and she’s quick to admit that herself. But she’s even quicker to boast about the dedication that eventually earned her those qualities.
It took Roper four seasons of consistent progress to become a full-time starting point guard for an SEC program. Not only was Roper playing at a high level in relation to her teammates, she was also playing at a high level in arguably the top women’s basketball conference in the country.
Since her freshman season, Roper’s statistics have improved in nearly every category, from minutes played to points scored and assists recorded. Her scoring has jumped from 2.6 points per game her freshman season, to 4.9 as a sophomore, 6.8 as a junior, and a career-high 7.8 as a senior.
She led the team in assists this past season with 102 on the year, 26 more than the next highest Wildcat. Her trademark rainbow three-pointer that nearly grazed the rafters inside Memorial Coliseum became a crowd favorite. It also helped that she was making that shot over 34 percent of the time during her tenure at Kentucky.
No longer was Roper a backup point guard in-waiting, as she was in her first three seasons behind Taylor Murray and Makayla Epps, two of the program’s all-time elite guards. It took Roper 11 games into the 2019-20 season to finally earn the starting role.
But once she grabbed ahold of it, she never looked back.
As the season progressed, Roper began to control the offense. With or without star sophomore Rhyne Howard on the court, she knew what her team needed to do in order to play winning basketball. The system ran through Howard, but Roper was the one controlling how it all played out.
There wasn’t another player on Kentucky’s roster that could run a fastbreak with Roper’s precision; head always up, eyes shifting back-and-forth. We didn’t see it as much during her senior season, but she was known to whip out the behind-the-back pass. Decision-making became one of her strongest suits. The term “eyes in the back of her head” applies to Roper.
She learned how to turn her small stature into a strength, drawing more offensive fouls than any of her teammates with 15 of Kentucky’s 46 drawn charges from this past season. Putting your body on the line is a skill reserved for only the toughest hoopers. It takes guts, courage. Roper didn’t just acquire those traits in one day; she worked for them by believing that’s the person she could and would be.
“I feel like it goes much beyond just the stats,” Jaida Roper told KSR, sitting inside an empty and echoing practice gym at Memorial Coliseum. “The 6-foot-8 mentality is that no matter what, you’ll find a way. Not falling into the hype of you have to be a certain height or certain size to do what you do. Anybody can do it. I like to think of it as, I will try to outwork you, I will try to outsmart you, to do whatever I have to do to get my team in the best position to win.”
Roper could have quit early on, long before she found her way to the Bluegrass State.
Her story was supposed to begin at Louisiana Tech, the program to which she originally committed as a senior at Houston High School in Memphis. However, her future head coach was unexpectedly ousted in April. By May of that same school year, Roper found her way to Kentucky.
“That was a difficult time for me,” Roper said. “Could you imagine? Senior year of high school, everything was normal, set in stone where you were going, then all of the sudden, things change.”
It was April 2016 and Tyler Summit, then the head coach of the Louisiana Tech women’s basketball team, had just resigned a mere two years after being hired. The son of renowned and legendary basketball coach Pat Summit (who would pass away two months later after her long battle with Alzheimer’s) was pressured by the athletics department to remove himself from the University for having an extramarital affair with one of his players.
Just like that, Roper was stuck in “basketball limbo.” At that moment, she had no home. Until Amber Smith came calling.
Smith is currently an assistant coach on Matthew Mitchell’s staff and played point guard for the Wildcats under Mitchell from 2008-11; she ranks sixth all-time in program history in total assists. At the time of Summit’s resignation from Louisiana Tech, Smith was an assistant coach for the Lady Techsters. Following the scandal, Smith found her way back to Kentucky thanks to current associate head coach Kyra Elzy.
Elzy asked Smith if she wanted to come back and work at her alma mater following what happened at Louisiana Tech; Smith couldn’t turn down the opportunity. Her first job under Mitchell was in player development, but she was promoted to assistant in 2018, in part due to how she helped bring along an underrated, smart high school senior stuck in a bad situation.
Smith recruited Roper out of the AAU circuit while working at Louisiana Tech under Summit. Smith and Roper made connections at random summer tournaments and instantly bonded over their similar abilities as point guards. It was Roper’s first summer on the Nike EYBL circuit, too, and she was still on the rise despite playing as a senior.
“I thought [Jaida] probably could have went bigger, but chose us [Louisiana Tech] based on the relationship I had built with her and our coaching staff,” Kentucky assistant coach Amber Smith told KSR. “She was talented, smart IQ, heady point guard and those are the kinds of point guards I like as far as ones that I think can help programs be better year after year.”
Ultimately, Roper did go bigger. When Smith made the move to Kentucky, she brought her new favorite point guard with her.
The biggest key to selling Roper on both Louisiana Tech and Kentucky was, according to Smith, the relationship and strong bond they were able to establish. It wasn’t about playing time or how many points she would score, Roper was focused on being surrounded by people that she could trust.
At the same time Roper was leaving Louisiana Tech and finding her way to Kentucky, the Wildcats were going through a spell of unfortunate events that saw several players, coaches, and recruits all leave the program in disconcerting waves. It was a mass exodus of talent that Mitchell is still recovering from, but a situation he said has changed him for the better. At the time of Roper’s arrival on campus, Kentucky Women’s Basketball wasn’t in nearly as good of shape as they are now. The trust she instilled in Smith and Mitchell allowed her to be the unseen face of a rebuilding year.
“We believed in him, we believed his standards, his morals, and that he was a good guy and it’s true,” Roper said about Mitchell. “He is a great guy, he is a great coach, and I still believe in him.”
“I wouldn’t have come here [to Kentucky] if it was negative, detrimental, a bad environment,” Smith said. “And I wouldn’t have brought Jaida into that environment as well.”
It took time for Roper to develop, and Smith played a big part. Roper’s season-high as a freshman was just eight points in a game against Georgia. She played over 20 minutes in just four games as a rookie, taking a backseat to older and more talented guards like Epps and Murray.
The beginning of Roper’s sophomore season saw early improvements, as she scored in double-digits through six of her first 10 games that season. However, by the time the SEC schedule got into full swing, she was struggling to play more than 10 minutes off the bench.
Then, in the summer heading into her junior season, something clicked; her mentality on how she would approach basketball – and even life – completely changed.
“She was in the gym working out with people back home, people here, trying to get better,” Smith said about Roper’s offseason following her sophomore season. “So, I think something clicked. I don’t know what it was but I loved it. I didn’t ask any questions, I just said, ‘Okay, let’s work.'”
Roper has always had an expressive, enjoyable, and entertaining presence around her. She didn’t have to work for that, it’s just who she is. She’s a lovable fan favorite because of how genuine she is both in front and behind the scenes. What you see from Roper on social media or in pregame warmups is exactly who she is off the court.
Right before tipoff of each game this past season, the Kentucky Women’s Basketball’s Instagram account was flooded with videos of Roper dancing in warmups or doing her signature “It’s Gameday” snippet, where she sneaks up to the camera before simply uttering the words “It’s Gameday” with a wide-grin stretched across her face.
Sometimes you would see Roper working with teammate Rhyne Howard, doing light dribble and passing drills near halfcourt as they calmed themselves ahead of the opening tip. Or you might have seen her and teammate KeKe McKinney showing off their best dance skills while music bounced throughout Memorial Coliseum. McKinney and Roper are tabbed as the “fire and ice” duo for a reason, and it’s not just because of their hairstyles. Roper creates special bonds with people that match her energy.
Dedicating herself to the process of basketball, however, was a whole different story. Roper was born into her personality, but not into the body of a starting SEC point guard. Her “6-foot-8 mentality” stems from the late Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality,” a phrase that doesn’t have a strict definition, but is more of a way of life. It’s about becoming immersed in something, diving into an obsession.
“It’s way beyond basketball,” Roper said about Bryant and the Mamba Mentality. “Any person who never even touched a basketball probably felt when Kobe died because of how inspirational his work ethic was. His mentality, it’s just something that can’t be — you can’t fake that stuff. He was in it and you could tell he was in it and I feel like everyone should strive to do that; find something that they love and dive in it like Kobe.”
“Every time I went through something, every trial and tribulation, I always reflected on that Mamba Mentality. You can fight back, nothing is strong enough to beat you. You can overcome literally anything you put your mind to.”
As a junior, Roper’s production steadily improved. She began to average over 20 minutes per game and her true presence as a floor general was starting to shine brighter each game. Behind-the-back passes were being placed with pinpoint accuracy and with an even higher degree of confidence. She took it to the next level as a senior.
Roper wanted to drive and attack the basket just as much as she wanted to run the fastbreak. The mid-range floater became her go-to shot. Roper didn’t miss one of her final 27 free-throw attempts, the second-longest streak in program history (Roper says she copied Immanuel Quickley’s tactic of closing one’s eyes and taking a deep breath before each free-throw to gather their thoughts and clear their mind). This is who she became at Kentucky: an offense-running, freestyling, hard-working point guard. It wasn’t until Taylor Murray gave her some useful advice that she assumed the position she rightfully earned.
“Tay Tay [Taylor Murray] was super fast and I was like, ‘Alright you guys are much faster than me. How do I… Where do I fit in?'” Roper added. “Tay Tay said, ‘Jaida, you’re smarter, you’ll figure it out’.”
And she did figure it out. All of the hard work from the last four years paid off on one chilly night in December when the ladies were playing one of their two games at Rupp Arena for the 2019-20 season. Against Winthrop — one game before an epic showdown against a top-10 Louisville team — fans watched as Roper poured in a career-high 30 points, missing just one field goal attempt all night.
In 29 minutes, Roper shot 12-13 from the floor and 3-4 from beyond the arc. She also added three rebounds, four assists, and two steals to her already impressive stat line. The edges of Roper’s lips were nearly touching her earlobes in the postgame press conference.
“As a kid, you have dreams of that game where you’re hot on fire and in front of a crowd like Rupp,” Roper later told KSR. “That’s one of those times that’s like, ‘Wow I worked for this’. It was one of those examples of just putting in — I deserve that, I felt like, and my teammates, they were super happy for me and it was just an overall good feeling of everyone being proud of you and being happy for you.”
Scoring 30 points in Rupp Arena is a dream for many people. Roper didn’t know that’s what she would be working towards when she arrived in Lexington, which only adds to the intrigue of her path. Sometimes greatness happens unexpectedly, but never without good reason. Her growth as a basketball player is what coaches envision when they bring in potential four-year players.
But that growth over the last four years hasn’t been limited to the hardwood. She’s made it a point to grow as a person. Roper wants to make more connections on a human level, starting with her teammates.
“I feel so much closer to my teammates,” Roper went on to say. “We go to brunches, I’ll send out texts, like I checked on Rhy [Rhyne Howard], like just mentally, not even how is your body feeling, how are you doing? Is anything heavy on your heart this week? I know after Kobe’s situation we all sent a text message letting everybody know just, ‘I love you’, you know? Some things that you pass up on a daily basis but that you shouldn’t really pass up.”
Roper is set to graduate this May with a degree in Psychology, and it’s no coincidence her major is linked to her obsession with prioritizing her mental approach. She wants to continue down that career path once she leaves Kentucky. She has a unique experience that not many can relate to — for several reasons — and it’s a story she can share with others who come from a similar situation.
In August 2018, right before the beginning of her junior year, Roper lost her only sibling, John, in an automobile accident. At just 25 years old, her older brother was killed while driving a motorcycle. Jaida was only a couple of months away from the season opener when the horrific news broke.
Of everything she had endured up until that point in her life, this was the most difficult. Roper could have broken down and given in to the brutal reality that was her new life. But she’s not wired that way. She doesn’t know how to do anything other than push forward with a smile on her face.
Her passion for the game grew larger. Her work ethic in the classroom and the gym never wavered.
“The way she has taken [her brother’s death] and grown from it and not let it hold her back in any way,” UK senior Taylor Savage, one of Roper’s best friends who also runs the Kentucky WBB Instagram account, told KSR. “I think that is truly something amazing. She took it and found a way to grow from it and she handled it so gracefully and so beautifully. She didn’t let that hold her back, instead, she used it to motivate her on the court, in the classroom, about to graduate. Not many people can even say they graduated from college and she’s going to graduate with honors. Jaida, just overall, she’s got it.”
Roper transforms heartbreak into motivation. As far as she’s concerned, that’s the only option. When she was little, she always thought she was going to be an actress or someone famous. And in reality, she wasn’t that far off. She’s still going to be able to make a significant impact on the future lives of others. She can motivate others through what motivates her and she has the platform to do so, even though she never made it on to the “big screen.”
“Working with teams, working with individual players, how to be more consistent on the court, also what they’re dealing with off the court,” Roper said about her future plans. “I feel like that’s really big. Even for me, I have to try to separate what I’m doing off the court plus doing on the court. That’s what I would really love to do.”
She has ways to reflect on those off the court issues, too, whether it’s through her “6-foot-8 mentality,” the Mamba Mentality (Roper named her first puppy ‘Kobe Bean’ after Bryant), or her own experiences. She thinks about life as a whole instead of the day-to-day griefs. There is a bigger purpose that she is meant to serve.
“I always like to represent Memphis so much because there are kids over there that probably will never get this opportunity that I’ve had,” Roper added. “And with that, I want them to believe that it’s possible. You know even me — undersized, not the most talented, but a hard worker and motivated — just to instill belief and that you can make anything out of nothing.”
Roper is less than a couple of months away from graduating, but she won’t have the chance to finish off her college career in proper fashion. The coronavirus pandemic canceled the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, creating madness before the play-in games even began.
It’s fitting, almost, that Roper has to overcome one more dramatic event during her seemingly never-ending, yet quick college career. While the pain of missing out on her final postseason won’t go away for a while, it’s only going to provide her with another stepping stone to reach her end destination. Not many people thrive on life throwing them to the woodshed, but Roper has made a living off of it. She attacks her mental health head-on, instead of shying away from the contact.
“She squeezed every single bit out of this opportunity,” Mitchell said earlier this season about Roper’s time at Kentucky. “We wouldn’t be nearly the team that we are without her.”