CLEMSON, S.C. - There are plenty of things Itoro Umoh misses about home.
Most are typical. You know, mom and friends and familiar surroundings, especially playing hoops with the guys at Fort Gordon or shopping at the mall. There are no malls, or many stores, for that matter, in Clemson.
None compare, however, to the absence Umoh feels for her younger brother and sister, Timmy and Latrice. She helped raise both while Hattie Umoh, a single mother, often worked two jobs to care for her four children.
"They're my heart," says Umoh, a sophomore guard at Clemson, and one of the top young basketball players in the Atlantic Coast Conference. "All through my high school days it was me, Timmy and Trice. We went everywhere together. If you saw me at the game, you saw them at the game. I guess what I'm missing so much about them, is that they're growing up so fast. I'm kind of disappointed I can't be there watch them grow up."
Despite her insatiable desire for basketball and an accolade-filled career at Hephzibah High and her own social life, Umoh always had a supreme devotion to Timmy, now 12, and Trice, 13.
She filled in at PTA meetings, cooked for them, tucked them in at night, took them to practices and games and wherever else she, or they, needed to be. It was a burden of love and compassion, compounded by the fact that Trice is mildly retarded and Timmy is autistic.
"She's such a great sister," Ms. Umoh says. "They miss her very much, too. When we're on the phone, they always get on and ask, `When are you coming home? When are you coming home?' When she was here, I called her `Miss Mother Hen.' She was always looking after them while I was at work. She was everywhere."
THE SAME CAN be said for Umoh's style on the court.
At 5-foot-7, Umoh possesses roadrunner-like quickness and speed. The graceful athleticism that dominated at Hephzibah is the very thing she struggles with in Clemson coach Jim Davis' rigid team-oriented system.
"She creates so many problems for our opponents," Davis says. "The main thing we've tried to get her to do sometimes is to slow down. She's worked hard at getting herself under control. That's her personality, though. She's so magnetic, so high energy. I love Itoro Umoh the person. Everybody does. She teaches what life is all about. She's just pure joy."
Davis knew he had a find in Umoh from the first.
She was recruited basically by only Clemson and South Carolina, and after changing her mind several times, signed with Davis.
"I knew they'd be a consistent winner," Umoh says. "I wanted to play for a winner."
She played regularly as a freshman and led the ACC champions in assists and steals. The amazing raw potential that was displayed in only glimpses last year has become a more consistent occurrence this season.
Playing both the point and shooting guard positions, Umoh, whose omnipresent smile disappears only while she is on the court, leads the 17th-ranked Lady Tigers in scoring (xx.x), assists (xx) and steals (xx). She was named MVP of the and
"She's so explosive," Davis says. "She's made a great deal of progress. Her play has been important, but with her personality, she's changed the attitude of the entire team."
FROM WHERE DOES Umoh get her rampant enthusiasm, bubbling optimism and generous nature?
"I don't know," she says.
The people whose lives are touched by her heap nothing but praise upon Umoh, who'll be 20 on Feb. 21. They mention all the adjectives reserved for good people, words such as sweet, wonderful, role model, kind, loving.
"She's had every right to get the big head or something, but she never has," Hephzibah coach Wendell Lofton says. "She deserves a halo for what she does and means to people, but she'll never put it on herself. She cares so much for other folk. When I pray for my children, I pray for her, too."
Davis loves sharing the story of how Umoh, then a freshman, would wake up at about 5:30 every morning, click the radio on and start singing.
"It didn't take long for her roommates to tell her to knock that off," he says, "but, you know, nobody could ever get mad at her. That's just the way she is. She's just too lovable. She's a favorite."
A rigorous class schedule and endless hours on the basketball court and in the weight room obviously consume a good portion of Umoh's time.
Yet this young lady, who displays the maturity of an adult and youthful exuberance of a child all at once, still manages to find precious minutes to spend with kids on Saturday at a YMCA or at summer basketball camps or with a throng of admirers following a game.
"The last time I went to see her play," Lofton says, "all these kids came up to her afterward. You know what she did? She got down on her knees and spoke to every one of them and signed their books. She learned so much about life and people helping her brother and sister when she was younger. I'm sure she'll always be like that. I pray she won't ever change."
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