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Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Life not as easy as hoops for Dembo

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

He stayed holed up in the house, too afraid to even go to the front yard.

That part made sense. He had every reason to be afraid. Some stranger had come through that front yard and through the front door, intent on robbing his home.

But he didn't talk to anyone. Worse, he didn't want to.

That's when Fennis Dembo knew things weren't right.

Dembo
Dembo had more than just a great name. He was named to the All-WAC first team three times.

Twenty-two years ago his grinning face jumped off the cover of Sports Illustrated, the magazine tabbing the guy with the unforgettable name and game as "A Dazzling Dude."

He was the toast of college hoops, fresh off an improbable run in the 1987 NCAA tournament, during which he averaged 28.0 points, dropped 41 on UCLA and led Wyoming (Wyoming?!) to the Sweet 16.

Dembo was brash and engaging, a fitting personality for a guy lugging around a name that constantly demanded explanation (he and twin sister Fenise were the 11th and 12th children in the Dembo family; big sister Zona wanted to make it clear she preferred they be the last, so she suggested they be named after the French word for finish, 'finis.')

And now the man Reggie Miller couldn't stop from trash talking or from scoring wasn't talking to anyone.

"It was tough, so tough,'' Dembo said. "I just stayed in my room.''

When the intruder walked into the San Antonio house Fennis shared with his mother, Dembo met him at the door with a gun. Terrified and in the dark on the wee hours of that Easter morning, Dembo told the man to stop. When he didn't, Dembo fired, killing the would-be burglar.

That was more than six years ago. Today, thanks to counseling and time, Dembo can finally talk about the incident -- he was never charged -- and sounds like the fun-loving kid who captured a sport.

His easy laughter filters across the phone line and he is at once amusingly self-deprecating and perceptively honest about himself. He knows a lot of people look at him as a man who wasted his talent, a naturally gifted player whom one NBA team's GM said was every bit as good as Rony Seikaly and Danny Manning, that instead barely ended up with a sniff of the NBA.

And the thing is, he doesn't disagree.

"I have a lot of regrets, a lot,'' Dembo said. "I wish I had put the time into the game like I needed to. I wish I had worked harder. It came too easy to me. I remember [Wyoming] coach [Jim] Brandenburg saying that to me. We were working on drills and he said, 'Just because a lot of these drills come easy to you, doesn't mean you don't have to work on them.'

"But I didn't understand that. I didn't understand, yeah, I could shoot the ball but that didn't make me a great shooter; yeah, I could dribble the ball but that didn't make me a great ballhandler.''

But lest his life sound like some sort of Greek tragedy, Dembo is here to say it is now and was then anything but.

If that dark time after the 2003 shooting has offered him anything, it is peace and perspective. You toss an airball, you get over it and move on.

"The bottom line, he's always had a great soul," said Brandenburg, now retired in San Antonio. "He's never been a street kid or a gangbanger and he grew up in a neighborhood where he could have been that. He's just a kind, nice person."

Barely recruited out of high school, he got lucky when Brandenburg, a former high school coach in San Antonio, invited him to Laramie. Dembo remembers snowmobiling on his visit; it was the first time he had seen snow. Mostly he remembers feeling in his gut that Wyoming was the place for him.

Embraced by a home crowd who loved his personality, he was a lot less popular in visiting gyms, where opposing fans thought he was a showboat. He once brazenly dove into the stands after a loose ball he knew he couldn't reach, just to swan dive into New Mexico fans at The Pit.

"From the outside you'd think this kid was just a hot dog," Brandenburg said. "He was anything but. That was just his personality. He was a live wire.

"I'm not sure I've ever met anybody in all my time in college basketball and I mean this -- not (Bobby) Knight, no one -- that walked into a room and drew every eye and all the attention to him like Fennis did. He brightened every room he ever walked into."

Fennis Dembo
Dembo, seen here with Brent Musberger, became a household name with his unforgettable performance in the 1987 NCAA tournament.

As entertaining or annoying as his antics could be (depending on what side of the court you were sitting on), Dembo backed it all up with the kind of numbers Paul Bunyan might have put up had he played basketball.

He left Wyoming as the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, with 2,311 points and 954 rebounds. But it was in the 1987 NCAA tournament that he left his mark.

The 12th-seeded Cowboys earned their first tourney ticket in five years and proceeded to upset Virginia in the first round, 64-60. Dembo had 16.

And then it was on to play UCLA and Miller, the high-scoring jabbermouth not unlike Dembo. The two met and roomed together during the world championship trials. So while some of Dembo's Wyoming teammates were impressed with Miller's mega-wattage star power, Dembo wasn't.

He eagerly went toe-to-toe with the Bruins, outdueling Miller 41 points to 24, including a perfect 16-for-16 at the free-throw line, brashly winking at Billy Packer as he ran by the press table during the game.

The Cowboys' run ended at the hands of UNLV in the Sweet 16, but not before Dembo dropped another 27 and cemented his place as a player to watch the following season.

Originally slated for a regional cover on Sports Illustrated, the magazine instead went cross-country with Dembo for its annual college basketball preview.

"I got a call from a friend of mine in New Jersey who said he saw me on the cover of Sports Illustrated,'' said Dembo, who still has a ton of copies of the magazine, some collected from friendly fans who send extras when they mail one for an autograph. "I thought, 'In New Jersey?' That's when I knew it was crazy.''

Wyoming didn't enjoy the same sort of Cinderella run in Dembo's senior season. Bo Kimble, Hank Gathers and Loyola Marymount ousted the Cowboys in the first round, 119-115.

The Detroit Pistons drafted Dembo in the second round. Though he played sparingly -- scoring only 36 points in his entire rookie season -- he earned an NBA championship ring.

What he didn't get, though, was what he needed to do to stick in the league, at least not fast enough. He admits he was out of shape when he got to camp but was convinced his natural talent would be more than enough to keep his spot. Instead the Pistons released him the next season.

"By the time I saw guys and realized you had to work in the summer, you had to work out on your own and really just work on your game, the NBA had done passed me by,'' Dembo said.

With a no-cut clause in his contract, Dembo refused to let Detroit trade him in his second season -- this even after head coach Chuck Daly told Brandenburg that Dembo, outnumbered with veterans at his position, would never play for the Pistons.

"He was stubborn," Brandenburg said. "He kept saying, 'I can make this team,' even after I told him that he couldn't, that Chuck Daly already had made up his mind."

He enjoyed a decent career in Europe and in the CBA before finally retiring from the professional ranks in 1998.

Dembo
Dembo is back in school, attending classes at St. Philips College in San Antonio.

Dembo hasn't played basketball now in almost five years, hanging up his sneakers for good when his body couldn't deliver what his brain was asking.

Dembo never finished his degree at Wyoming, leaving shortly after that final NCAA tournament appearance. When he stopped playing ball, jobs were hard to come by. He worked for a while as a prison guard in Alabama, but after separating from his second wife, he moved back home with his mother and worked at the San Antonio Water System as a maintenance man.

His job there spurred an interest in engineering and he started taking courses on the subject a few years ago. Just this year, he enrolled full-time at St. Philips College.

When it comes time for in-class introductions, Dembo's curious name often sends fellow students scurrying to their laptops for information.

"Most of the teachers, they'll know who I am, but the kids, they have to go verify it,'' Dembo said. "So they jump on their computers because there's WiFi right there in the classroom and then it's a thousand questions. I don't mind at all. It's great talking to people.''

He didn't say "again" at the end of that sentence. He didn't have to.

The thrilling sound of his laughter said it for him.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.