Transfer portal: two words that have become staples in conversations in collegiate athletics. The hoped-for outcome is to help student-athletes find the best place to study and play if the initial choice doesn’t work out.
Umoja Gibson, a senior on the OU men’s basketball team, started his career at North Texas. Umoja was named player of the year after his senior year in high school. He ended up at North Texas, where his dad played football.
An injury ended his first year after two games. He started 23 of 33 games as a redshirt freshman, then started every game as a sophomore. He helped UNT to a Conference USA regular season title, earning second-team C-USA honors. With that success, he knew something was missing.
“I wanted to play at the highest level possible,” Umoja explained. “The transfer portal gives you a way to reach that dream. I heard from a lot of schools after I entered the portal. OU contacted me and it seemed like OU was the best option. I hoped to play point guard. That didn’t, but I am so happy here. It’s the best fit for me.”
What Umoja didn’t plan for was a coaching change after his first year at OU. The best fit has gotten even better in his second year. At Kansas State, a 78-71 OU victory, Umoja nailed seven three-pointers on his way to 29 points. He was the leader on the court and helped OU get a win over the Wildcats in Manhattan for the first time since 2012. He was named to the 2022 All-Big 12 Honorable Mention team.
Finding the best spot for himself is something Umoja has lived with for most of his life. At a young age, he and his family moved in with his grandparents. It was a very tight fit as his grandparents, his own family, and his aunt and uncle, plus their kids, called the 1.5-bedroom apartment home. Umoja watched how his grandmother managed the situation.
“She taught me how to treat people by the way she treated them. She treated everyone with utmost respect. I learned that was the way to be.”
A natural in sports, Umoja always had a ball in his hands. “I had to have a ball in my hands. I might have been the smallest kid at the ‘Y.’ I was excited about doing something better than others. Granny loved to watch me play.”
It doesn’t take long to realize something else Umoja learned from his grandmother. Aubrey Dean DeGrate, Umoja’s granny, taught her grandson the value of hard work. While he lost his anchor when she died in April 2021, he is living out her legacy every day at OU. He hustles for every loose ball, stays active on every defensive possession and shoots every shot like it is the game winner. He isn’t the tallest or the fastest player on the team, but no one will outwork him.
“I watched her get up every morning and walk to her job at the laundromat. She didn’t complain about it or tell anyone she did not have a car. She just did what she had to do to make things work,” Umoja continued. “That’s what I try to do.”
Named second team Academic All-Big 12, Umoja heard high school coaches emphasize paying attention to academics. Those reminders still play through his mind.
“I want to play basketball as long as I can, then return to my hometown with two OU degrees. I want to work with kids,” Umoja added. “I want kids to see that. They have every reason to do what I have done. I am proof it can be done."
It’s important lessons that Umoja has learned—find the place that is the best fit for you and goals become reality when you work hard.