As part of his Forgotten Legends series, Jon Teitel chatted with former Wyoming superstar Fennis Dembo. The Cowboys all-time leader in points & rebounds, Dembo led his team to the 1987 Sweet Sixteen, earning himself a Sports Illustrated cover and a 10-year professional basketball career.
CHN) Your oldest sister Zona (one of 10 other siblings) named you and your twin sister Fennis and Fenise, allegedly because “Finis” is French for “the end” and she did not want your mother Clarissa to have any more kids. Is that a true story, and how do you like the name Fennis? It is a true story, as she hoped we would be the last kids, and I love my name. My older siblings had a tremendous impact on me, as they all played sports growing up (although most went into nursing or the military), and I got to play basketball against all my older brothers.
CHN: From 1986-1988 you were a 3-time 1st-team All-WAC performer: how were you able to dominate throughout your college career?
FD: I was just blessed to be in the circumstances I was in and have the teammates I had. I just got to concentrate on the things I was good at, and the others would pick up the slack. It is easy to do a lot of freelancing when you have a lot of talent around you who know their roles.
CHN: What are your memories of the 1986 WAC tourney title game?
FD: We missed a couple of free throws at the end, and I got the rebound with a couple of seconds left, but I missed the lay-up. It was a blessing in disguise: if we had won then we would have gone to the NCAA tourney, but the loss put us into the NIT, which allowed us to play several more games instead of a 1-and-done. (Editor: Dembo scored 28 PTS in a 1-point loss to UTEP after Juden Smith followed his own miss with 37 seconds left to win the game.)
CHN: Take me through the magical 1986 NIT (which you have referred to as the “highlight of your college career”):
FD: We were really blessed and drew great crowds, as the NIT gave us all home games until the finals. We were a young team with many sophomores so we just went out and enjoyed ourselves. Our fans were really supportive, and we grew up a lot.
CHN: You started off by beating LMU:
FD: LMU was coached by ex-Lakers coach Paul Westhead, and was a good team, but we were confident at home. We did not know who we would play next, so we just tried to take care of business.
CHN: You scored 19 points against Clemson, and you jabbed your finger at the Clemson bench after making 2 ft's with 21 seconds left to seal the win. Why the taunting?
FD: It was probably a mix of taunting and being glad that we won the game. I was a young guy who was showing off a little bit, but it was all in good fun, and not mean-spirited at all.
CHN: In the finals, you lost to Ohio St. Did you consider your run in the tourney to be a success or a failure?
FD: We were disappointed that we did not win, but we took it as a chance to get a lot of seasoning and a lot of confidence that we were a pretty good team. The NIT gave us a chance to play against teams from great conferences that were not on our schedule. Ohio state coach Eldon Miller was leaving the school at the end of the year, so the Buckeyes came out and played their hearts out for their coach in his last game. (Editor: Dembo scored 28 points in the loss.)
CHN: Take me through the magical 1987 NCAA tourney that started with a win over Virginia:
FD: We looked at it as a progression. We knew that Ralph Sampson used to play for Virginia, so we felt like we were playing against a lot of history/mystique. It is easier to play non-conference teams because conference teams know your style, and each win that March gave us something to build on for our senior year.
CHN: You then scored a career-high 41 points and made 16-16 ft's against UCLA. You also talked trash all game long to Reggie Miller, who had 24 points:
FD: UCLA was the model program out west, so I really feel like I had to concentrate to win the game. I honestly do not remember talking trash. I knew it would take a special game from someone on our team to have a chance to win, so we still had to hit our free throws FT down the stretch and make some plays.
CHN: In the Sweet Sixteen, you scored 27 points and had 9 rebounds in a loss to UNLV, led by Armon Gilliam's 38 point effort. Was that UNLV team the best you have ever played against?
FD: We honestly felt that we were the best team out west. UNLV was a little more talented across the board, but nothing we had not seen before, as we had lost to Louisville and Pervis Ellison by 3 points earlier that season. We made some crucial turnovers down the stretch against UNLV, which goes to show that the most important parts of a game are the 1st 5 minutes and last 5 minutes of each half. Gilliam was a very talented player and All-American, and he came out and did his job like he had all year, so you have to give it to him. They were #1 in the country for a reason, and we played as hard as we could, but we were not mentally ready to beat a #1 team.
CHN: You finished with 27.8 ppg, which was the highest scoring average of anyone in the tourney. Did you feel like you were one of the best scorers in the country?
FD: I did not feel that I was one of the best scorers in the country (in comparison to guys like Derrick Chievous, Danny Manning, etc.), but I was always confident in my ability. We gained a lot of experience that year, and I was very excited going take another step going into my senior year, but we failed to do so due to some changes in coaching/personnel.
CHN: What are your memories of the 1988 NCAA tourney? You guys lost a wild 119-115 game to LMU led by Hank Gathers & Bo Kimble.
FD: Gathers and Kimble did a number on us, but Mike Yoest was the real star with 25 PTS and 9 REB. They just killed us with a bunch of threes. Gathers/Kimble had recently transferred to LMU and had not played on the 1986 team, so revenge was not much of a factor for them. The style that LMU played just fit them to a tee, and we ran into a situation where we needed a lot of discipline, because they ran and shot the ball very well.
CHN: You finished your career as the all-time leading scorer in Wyoming history: did you realize at the time how prolific a player you were?
FD: When I first got there, I looked at the history and the records, so I was conscious of it, but it was not something I was trying to do. The guy whose scoring record I broke (Flynn Robinson) did it in 3 years, so he deserves a lot of credit for that. I wanted my name in the record book in each category, because it would be nice to be remembered as 1 of the guys to have records here, but I tried to be the best all-around player. I was proud that I could be successful while sharing the spotlight with great talent like Eric Leckner (who finished his career as the #3 scorer in school history with 1938 PTS), as nobody tried to hog all the notoriety.
CHN: In the summer of 1988 you were drafted in the 2nd round by Detroit (your teammate Eric Leckner was drafted in the 1st round): did you see that as a validation of what a great team you played on at Wyoming, and were you thrilled to realize your dream of making it to the pros?
FD: My goal was never to make it to the NBA, but I was obviously happy to be drafted and see Eric get drafted. I went through a lot of different thought patterns: I was happy for Eric, but felt that I had been overlooked by everyone except Detroit, so it was a very sweet/sour situation, and very eye-opening to realize that other teams did not think I was good as I thought I was. I got to go to a great situation in Detroit, and would not change it at all. I would have gotten more money if I was drafted higher, but I probably would have spent it all by now.
CHN: In 1989 you won the NBA title with Detroit despite scoring only 36 points all season: were you just lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards?
FD: As nice as it is to sit in your living room and watch your favorite team win a title on TV, it is so much better to be a part of the team itself. There were after-parties, and the city treated us great and gave us a parade, so it was a great experience which I just tried to soak it all in.
CHN: Why did you only end up playing 1 season in the NBA?
FD: I was not disciplined or motivated at the time, so I did not know what it took to be an NBA player. I worked hard in college, but there is so much more discipline in the pros. There is no real training camp: you are expected to come in ready to play on day 1, and it is a lot easier to get motivated when you are a starter in college than when you are sitting on the bench as a pro.
CHN: From 1990-1998 you played in Italy, France, Spain, Argentina, and the CBA: what did you learn from these experiences, and how did they compare to the NBA?
FD: I finally realized that hard work will pay off. When I was in San Antonio, I hung out with guys from the Spurs who showed me what it took to play pro ball, and I learned to maximize my skills. It was tough work overseas because they practice their butts off over there.
CHN: After retiring from basketball, you worked for the San Antonio Water System, and you are now studying civil engineering at St. Philips College: what kind of work do you hope to do in the future?
FD: It is hard, as I am only halfway done with my degree, but I would like to get a masters or PhD and get into the university setting and do some teaching to help out kids. My former Wyoming teammate Oliver Wilson is my inspiration, who passed away in August after a 32-month battle with cancer. A lot of people remember my name and want to help me, so I hope to continue my journey regardless of where it leads me.
** Fennis Dembo's numbers rank right up there with anybody in MWC history (Wyoming is currently a member of the MWC, although they were in the WAC during Dembo's time.) Here are my all-time MWC "fantasy" studs:
Air Force: Raymond Dudley (1990): 2178 PTS (#1), 148 STL (#2), 285 3PM (#1), 39.6 3PM (#3), 2-time All-American
BYU: Danny Ainge (1981): 2467 PTS (#1), 539 AST (#2), 195 STL (#1), 2-time All-American, conference POY, national POY
Colorado State: Pat Durham (1989): 1980 PTS (#1), 851 REB (#1), 109 STL (#5), 171 BLK (#3)
New Mexico: Kenny Thomas (1999): 1931 PTS (#2), 1032 REB (#1), 239 BLK (#2), All-American
San Diego State: Michael Cage (1984): 1846 PTS (#2), 1317 REB (#1), 54.8 FG% (#5), 118 BLK (#2), 2-time All-American, 2-time conference POY
TCU: Corey Santee (2005): 1832 PTS (#2), 575 AST (#1), 155 STL (#2), 243 3PM (#1)
UNLV: Stacey Augmon (1991): 2011 PTS (#3), 1005 REB (#3), 275 STL (#1), 41.9 3P% (#3), All-American, conference POY, 3-time defensive POY
Utah: Keith Van Horn (1997): 2542 PTS (#1), 1074 REB (#2), 206 3PM (#2), 126 BLK (#2), 85.1 FT% (#1), 2-time All-American, 3-time conference POY, national POY
Wyoming: Fennis Dembo (1988): 2311 PTS (#1), 954 REB (#3), 410 AST (#4), 176 STL (#2), 143 3PM (#5), All-American, conference POY