Dembo's scoring average has escalated from 13.5 to 17 to 20.3 in his three seasons, while his rebounding has held steady at around 7.4 a game. Last season he made 78 of 184 three-point shots and also displayed a fine sense for the pass, specifically to Wyoming's other potential first-round draft choice, the powerful 6'11" Leckner. Though he has played mostly small forward, Dembo can bring the ball upcourt against pressing defenses, penetrate—the works. NBA scouts project him as an off guard. "Maybe the best coming out," says Seattle SuperSonics assistant coach Tom Newell. "Fennis is right there along with Danny Manning and Rony Seikaly, 1-2-3. He has the great range, he competes so hard and he's a terrific big-game guy."
On the road, Dembo is subjected to constant verbal abuse. In fact, he may be the most disliked opponent on campus since Brian Bosworth, whom Dembo calls "one of my heroes." As a freshman playing at Albuquerque, Dembo leveled a New Mexico player under the hoop and was signaled for a foul, after which he pointed and yammered at the crowd. Unforgiving Lobos fans still throw cups and debris at him. In El Paso, DUMBO signs and elephant heads greet his every appearance.
"Showboat, Hot Dog—I'll take any name they give me," says Dembo. "They're all compliments. The fans love to hate me. But they don't want to do me no vitally harm. I fist 'em or talk back at 'em, and they got something to go home with. They're saying, Fennis did this and Fennis did that and Fennis heard us. I made their game.
"My favorite place? I dove into the crowd at Albuquerque last season. No chance for the ball, but I just did a swan dive, spread eagle. The fans were looking forward to me swooping in there, of course. And what did they do? They high-fived me like I'm a long-lost bro. I got to give the edge to Albuquerque."
Dembo's monologues in the heat of action invariably begin with something like "Let's see what you got" or "That's a three, and there'll be more." But surprisingly, only once have Dembo's antics resulted in fisticuffs. Last season he was thrown out of a game at Air Force for fighting, although 6'6" Cowboy enforcer Jon Sommers was the one who effectively ended the brawl with a one-punch knockout of an unfortunate Falcon.
Dembo, in the meantime, suffered his comeuppance over the summer when, as a member of the U.S. Pan American team, he experimented with his jive routine in a scrimmage against the Indiana Pacers' Chuck Person. "I was woofing, 'You can't score off me,' when the man's eyes lit up and he went to work," says Dembo. "I'm not lyin'. He hit about seven in a row. All three's." Dembo shot miserably during the Games and was no factor in the team's championship game loss to Brazil. "I never did get concentrated. We all thought we'd win on talent alone," Dembo says. "We learned a valuable lesson."
Dembo, a criminal justice major, has matured considerably in a school, town and state virtually devoid of blacks. "It was different at first, but I've tried to mix into the white culture," he says. "Sometimes here I'm the only black. I mean, I'm vivid. Not because I'm Fennis Dembo, but because I'm the only one. When I miss class, it's like they know I'm gone.
"But the big positive at Wyoming is that we're all heroes, notables everywhere we go. White or black. Stars or not. Just seeing the town, you wouldn't expect that. I stress the celebrity thing with recruits because it's important. The support, even in the bad times, comes from everywhere in the state. A lot of players don't go past this level. All the glory ends right here. That's something to consider."
Dees surely was consulting a similar muse recently on another foray into the high plains. As he drove along, he was considering whether to redshirt the Cowboys' backup center or a valuable swingman or one of the junior college transfers among Wyoming's sudden mother lode of talent. He decided against it.
"My biggest job is to keep the pressure off these kids," Dees said. "The state is piling it up. But we can be there when the dust settles. Maybe we'll need a last-second shot to keep going. But, hey, there aren't many times you get a chance to win the whole thing. Especially when you're in Wyoming. So, hey, we're goin' for it."