Jaida Roper’s purpose has always been bigger than basketball.
The former Kentucky Women’s Basketball player knows what it means to overcome a life challenge that seems too extreme to come back from. Those obstacles molded her into a four-year player on a talented Divison I program. Now, the lessons learned from her time in Lexington are bleeding into her new path as an entrepreneur.
Roper is the proud owner of a brand new clothing line called The 6ixth Man, where she is selling more than clothes. Through it, she’s trying to make an impact in the lives of the younger generation. Her journey to where she is today provides her with a perspective that not many have.
When Roper graduated from the University of Kentucky this past spring, not long after the threat of COVID-19 ripped away the final moments of her senior season and a chance to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, she–along with most of society–was immediately presented with an obstacle no one had ever experienced before: navigating through a pandemic. Trying to figure out the next steps felt useless when so much of the future was (and is) still unknown.
Roper has battled unforeseen obstacles before – albeit none as confusing and upending as the coronavirus – and is the living embodiment of what it means to put your head down and go to work. Before the Wildcats came calling, she was an underrated recruit out of her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. A successful AAU summer during her final year of high school and a previous connection to UK assistant coach Amber Smith caught the eye of head coach Matthew Mitchell. As she went up in age, so did her numbers, and by the time she was a senior in college, Roper was the lead point guard for a top-20 team in the country.
But as we said, her life is bigger than just basketball.
Nearly two years ago, Roper’s older brother, John, was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident at the young age of 25. Not only were the two brother and sister, but they shared a special bond, one that still carries on to this very day. Dealing with the death of a loved one differs from person to person. For Roper, she dealt with it the only way she knew how: by using it as fuel to push forward.
“He is part of my ‘Why?'” Roper told KSR, referring to her late brother. “Why I wake up every morning and why I keep growing. Everyone has their own reason why. He’s why I try so hard to accomplish what I’m accomplishing and why I continue to go today.”
While the coronavirus has put her basketball plans on a temporary pause, she’s found another way to accomplish her goals. Pursuing professional basketball is her passion, but it’s not necessarily her dream. Roper wants to help people, specifically Black people and minorities, who aren’t used to having people around them tell them they can succeed in life. As someone who was once in a position where she never believed there were multiple routes to success, Roper has learned that to be the exact opposite of the case.
“Being Black is something that not everyone knows how to feel about,” Roper stated. “Some people I feel like aren’t comfortable being Black around other people, and I want to put out that I am proud to be Black; I am proud to be in the skin that I am in. And what I want people to understand is that just being Black-owned doesn’t mean I want to count anyone out. I want to inspire all, but especially the minority groups, the Black people, because I just see so many people who think that what’s in front of them is forever. People who are in Memphis, they see Memphis and they think ‘I’m stuck here forever’, and that’s not true. They don’t have that motivation because they haven’t seen anything other than that, so they’re kind of stuck in that mindset that they’re stuck. With how the world is, Black people are seen as a second option, as a lesser race, and I just want that narrative to disappear. That’s why I’m really proud to be a Black businesswoman.”
Roper referenced a quote from basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley that talks about Black youth, and how they are “brainwashed” to think they can only succeed through “basketball or entertainment.” She clung to that sentiment, especially since she once thought the same thing. That’s why she chose to pursue basketball in the first place.
“As I grew up and learned more and more and more, that’s completely untrue. There are so many ways to become successful. There are different views of what success looks like and having a lot of money doesn’t mean you’re successful. There are more ways for Black people to become successful other than sports and entertainment.”
Now she simply views basketball as a passion, not her purpose. As a result, she’s started The 6ixth Man, which goes far beyond t-shirts and shorts.
“The 6ixth Man is really about taking on whatever life challenges you with,” Roper said about the brand. “Everyone has their own journey and everyone has their own purpose. Whatever journey you’re on, it’s going to come with challenges. Nothing is going to come with a clear path; you’re always going to have challenges. And how you face that challenge, how you take that challenge on is what I want to promote with The 6ixth Man; the mindset, the mentality you need to face these challenges. We’re in a generation right now where everybody wants a microwave result; everybody wants something that’s going to come quick or come easy, and that’s not how this life works.”
Roper learned that the hard way.
Her brother would have been her agent throughout these new business ventures, something Roper said he constantly brought up when they were kids. John didn’t know what Jaida was going to be recognized for, but he knew she was going to make it somehow. It’s how the name of the brand, The 6ixth Man, came to life, playing off of the 1997 film The 6th Man, which Jaida and John watched endlessly throughout their childhood, starring Marlon Wayans and Kadeem Hardison.
The premise of the movie is centered around two tight-knit brothers, Antoine and Kenny, who play basketball growing up. One of the brothers, Antoine, ultimately dies due to a heart attack, forcing Kenny to go lose a grip on his life. Antoine later comes back as a ghost, overstepping his boundaries with Kenny by trying to run his life as if it were his own. At the end of the film, Kenny comes to grasp the notion that, even though a person of your past can live with you, you need to do things on your own to find your way through life.
‘That was a real deep meaning behind The 6ixth Man,” Roper said about the movie and its connection to her brand. “Because I did lose my brother, and we were super close. When that happened I was of course distraught, but this is my own way of finding my own, living through my own.”
The name is ambiguous, too, obviously connecting to the basketball term “sixth man,” a title generally given to an athlete who has worked hard to get to where they are but without all of the recognition that comes with being a starter.
“At some point in time, that sixth man was underlooked, underappreciated, and probably didn’t get all the instant gratification that they deserve.” Roper continued. “But that didn’t make them change. They just accepted their role and worked as hard as they could, and now they’re recognized as the sixth man. And that’s what you have to do in life. You’re not always going to get instant gratification, you’re not always going to be appreciated as soon as you arrive, and it’s not always going to be instant fame.”
Her brand is a lifestyle, a mentality that you need to have faith in.
Some of the designs written on her collections include phrases such as “Keep Dreaming” and “Stay Sleep,” imploring others to stay on their path and ignore the outside noise. Roper knows that the obstacles presented don’t just disappear, and oftentimes, they only increase in size and difficulty, as does your recognition. But that’s why she’s not limiting herself to just a clothing brand. She has a podcast on the way, too, that will feature a diverse set of weekly guests with the aim to influence young Black women into breaking away from what might be considered “normal.”
“People who don’t get told ‘Yes, you can do it’ and don’t have that support, I’m looking to do that,” Roper said about her goals with starting the podcast.
Roper has big plans in the city of Lexington, too, but nothing she wants to give away just yet. The early success of her clothing line is a fantastic start – the website sold out of stock just two days after the initial August 4th release date, the same day that John would have turned 27 – but it’s still just the beginning.
“I’m at the building blocks right now, but the sky is the limit,” Roper gleefully announced.