July 23, 2006

Fennis Dembo remains a name to remember

They were virtually impossible to stop during their college basketball careers.

And they occasionally proved nearly as difficult to track down afterward.

The international nature of basketball can make it hard to find some of the elite college stars and familiar names of the last generation. If they didn't go on to long NBA careers, they often left the United States in order to continue playing overseas.

But the Rivals.com staff still managed to find several notable players of the past whose names remained in their school's record books long after they left campus.

Many of the stars are former conference players of the year who delivered big performances in the regular season. Others had their brightest moments in the NCAA Tournament.

Now they're ready to relive their college memories while illuminating us on what they're doing now.

Fennis Dembo, Wyoming
Name: Fennis Dembo
Age: 40
Residence: San Antonio
Claim to fame: Dembo was the leading scorer in the 1987 NCAA Tournament with 27.8 points per game to help Wyoming advance to the Sweet 16. The Cowboys' march to the West Regional semifinals included victories over Virginia and UCLA. Dembo scored 41 points in the 78-68 triumph over UCLA. Dembo appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated's college basketball preview issue the following season. He remains Wyoming's all-time leading scorer and ranks second in career steals and third in career rebounds.

How often he's reminded of his college career: "I still hear a lot of it. People enjoy talking about it. You go to Cancun and people recognize you. I just went down to Progreso, Mexico, over the weekend, and a guy remembered the UCLA game."

Memories of his college career: Nearly two decades after he led Wyoming to the Sweet 16, Dembo's name continues to stick in the minds of college basketball fans.

After all, how many other people do you know named "Fennis?"

"My oldest sister named us," Dembo said. "I had a twin sister, and we were the last of 11 kids. 'Finis' is French, meaning 'the end.' Zona, my oldest sister, didn't want my mother to have any more kids. She thought that was enough. So she just went with Fennis and Fenise (his twin sister's name)."

Although Dembo grew up in Texas, he decided to play college basketball at Wyoming after hearing Cowboys coach Jim Brandenburg's sales pitch.

"He was the coach there at the time," Dembo said. "He came to an all-star game we had at the end of my high school career down in Houston. We talked and set up a visit. I really just enjoyed him as a coach. I visited New Mexico State. I visited my hometown team (Texas-San Antonio) and Baylor.''

Wyoming lost to Ohio State in the 1986 NIT final before making its memorable run to the Sweet Sixteen in 1987.

"We'd played in the conference tournament my sophomore year and came a missed basket from advancing into the NCAA Tournament," Dembo said. "We had a group of guys who were really close. We grew up together. Yeah, you want to make it to the NCAA Tournament, but we just wanted to play. We loved to play the game. We were a really close group of guys.

"Against Virginia, we weren't expected to win, but we thought we could win. That year, Nevada-Las Vegas was No.1 in the country. And you had an Arizona team that was really good with Sean Elliott and all those guys. But quietly, we thought we were the best team in the West. As a group we thought we were. We wanted to play the best teams in the West that were getting publicity, teams like UCLA, Arizona and UNLV. We wanted to see if our thoughts were (correct).

"We never thought about playing on the big stage. It was just us playing. We knew the talent we had. We had a 7-footer down low in Eric Leckner. We had guys like Willie Jones coming off the bench, and a 6-8 defensive specialist in Jonathan Sommers. And we had great guard play. We knew we could match up with teams at any position because we were very talented. You see that now, how these midmajors have a lot of talent. They don't get recruited by the big schools, but they really do damage in the tournament.''

Wyoming's second-round game with UCLA turned into a personal showdown between Dembo and Bruins star Reggie Miller. The two players had met the previous summer while trying out for a national team.

"That's what I was excited about," Dembo said. "We were playing against a team like UCLA, and there was somebody on the other team I'd spent time with, and I'd have a chance to compete against him. He's a great athlete, and you know he's going to come out and perform. Everybody talks about how I had a great game, but Reggie Miller had a great game, too. He had 30-some points before fouling out. There's no telling what would have happened if he didn't foul out.

"Usually when I'm playing, I'd count my points in my head. I'd try to keep up with my rebounds and all that personal stuff. But I knew we couldn't win that game thinking personal. I was just playing and trying to win the game. It really didn't dawn on me, how much I'd scored, until after we won and I saw the score sheet. When we got to Seattle for the next round and I saw the reception I received from the fans at our practice at the Kingdome, that's when I started kind of saying, 'Oh, a lot of people were watching that (UCLA) game.'

"During the news conference (before the UCLA game), Eric Leckner was from California and I guess he really had a vendetta. He was thinking he was better than Jack Haley, the center on their team. He was really jacked up about it. We were all pretty jacked up. He had a little extra motivation because he was from California and the Los Angeles area. When we had a press conference, he was telling the news people and everybody, 'Hey, I'm the best center out here.' He was really looking forward to the challenge of playing against Jack Haley.

"That game was nip-and-tuck. That 10-point (margin) fools you. The game was very much closer than that. I think we scored maybe six points at the end that made it look like a double-digit game when it wasn't. The game went back and forth.

"Reggie plays his game. He did it his whole career. He did it at UCLA and he did it in the NBA. I was just trying to play up to his standards. He came out hitting long 3s, and I knew I had to do something. If he had 30 points and I had 15 or 10, that could be a big difference. I had to contribute to my team the way he was going to contribute to his team.''

Wyoming's Cinderella run ended with 92-78 loss to Nevada-Las Vegas in the West Regional semifinals.

"They had mature guys on their team with Freddie Banks, (Mark) Wade and (Jarvis) Basnight," Dembo said. "They were a very experienced group. I remember we were winning at halftime. I was celebrating as I walked to the locker room, and Mark Wade said, 'We've got one more half.' They just started wearing us down. They were more talented. We had a lot of talent, but that UNLV team was very talented."

Even though Wyoming didn't make the Final Four, Dembo had made quite a name for himself. That became apparent when he appeared in full cowboy gear on the cover of Sports Illustrated's 1987-88 college basketball preview issue.

"They were going to go to regional covers with (Indiana's) Keith Smart, (North Carolina's) Jeff Lebo and some other people," Dembo said. "But they decided to do it nationally with my picture. That's what really set it off right there. I didn't buy any copies because they sent me enough copies. That was really nice of them. They gave me like three or four plaques of it. I got a chance to give some family members one. My mom has one."

Wyoming returned to the NCAA Tournament that season and lost to Loyola Marymount in the first round.

When Dembo looks back on the highlight of his college career, however, he doesn't mention either of the Cowboys' NCAA Tournament appearances. He instead talks about making the NIT final his sophomore year.

"I don't care what you think about the NIT," Dembo said. "We had a chance to win a whole tournament. That's what I always played for. We enjoyed the attention (in 1987), but we weren't satisfied losing in the third round. The attention is great, but your ultimate goal is to get to the finals and have a chance to win it all. That (NIT run) really jump-started us as a group. It got our fans excited. We had a big following that came to New York. That next year, we made the Sweet 16 and got all that notoriety. Then they put me on (the cover of) Sports Illustrated from out in Wyoming where we don't get much attention. That all started with the NIT and New York City.

"At the time, the NIT hadn't really lost its gloss. It wasn't tarnished yet. People look down on it now, but if you're a young team, that's a great experience and a building block."

Pro career: The Detroit Pistons selected Dembo in the second round of the 1988 NBA Draft. He averaged 1.2 points per game for the 1988-89 Pistons team that won the NBA title.

"I was just so lucky to be in the right place at the right time," Dembo said.

But that was the only season he would play in the NBA.

"You have to work on your game because everybody's talented at that level," Dembo said. "I was very immature. I didn't know what it took to be in that type of league. I had the talent, but it's discipline and work ethic that separates people. I didn't put anything into it. That's the quickest way to the exit, and that's what I got."

Dembo continued to play professionally in Italy, South America, France and in the United States with the Continental Basketball Association's Rapid City Thrillers before retiring in 1998.

"By that time, I had caught on,'' Dembo said. "I was working hard. I knew what it took to prepare yourself to play a basketball game to the best of your ability. I'd matured by that time. It gave me a chance to play and not worry about anything but wins and losses."

What he's doing now: Dembo works for the San Antonio Water System and is back at school studying civil engineering.

He had studied criminal justice at Wyoming and worked in juvenile justice for a few years before deciding to pursue a career in engineering. He eventually would like to open his own engineering firm.

"Since I'm not playing basketball, this is my challenge," Dembo said. "This is my sport now. I just like putting it all together and making something work. When you play basketball, all the pieces have to come together to make it work. It's the same thing with building something."


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