LARAMIE – Even though it’s been more than 30 years since he last donned brown and gold, the energy and passion that made Fennis Dembo a fixture in UW lore is still apparent as ever.
During his days on the court, Dembo, the leading scorer in University of Wyoming history, was known for his confidence and jubilant nature; that attitude and play earned him the nickname “The Electric Man.” Basketball was fun for Dembo, and that attitude was contagious.
His time at UW was the stuff of legends – a three-time, first team All-Western Athletic Conference (WAC) selection, the 1987 WAC Player of the Year, a third team All-American selection by the Associated Press, among other honors.
No one had a better time playing basketball than Dembo, teammate Sean Dent said. And he’d be the first to let you know.
“He was always pumped up and having fun. That was the most important thing. He was always having fun,” said Dent, who played with Dembo for three years at UW. “And it made everybody else have fun.”
Friday afternoon, Dembo walked off his flight and into the waiting area of the Laramie Regional Airport and found nearly 15 former teammates, family and friends waiting to greet him on the eve of his number retirement ceremony at Arena-Auditorium. Dembo stood there momentarily, luggage in hand, and beamed at the room; he then began excitedly hugging each and every person who had come to greet him.
But after the “hellos” faded, Dembo, seemingly never at a loss for words, was just that. The scene he unknowingly walked into at the airport hit him on a different level. Sure, seeing his No. 34 get lifted into the rafters this afternoon at halftime of Wyoming’s matchup with New Mexico and seeing thousands of fans holding a bobble head in his honor will put his stomach in knots.
But having more than a dozen people waiting for him the moment he stepped off the plane? That was an alley-oop Dembo never saw coming. It’s the exact reason, though, that he loves Laramie: Three decades after finishing his Wyoming career, the people who surprised him Friday, though unexpected, are precisely the ones he’d want to see less than 24 hours before his big moment.
“This is what it’s all about,” Dembo said. “It’s touching. You go through all these ups and downs in a game of basketball … and to have lifelong friends like this, it affects you differently in your stomach, your heart. … This is my family."
Dembo finished his UW career as one of the most decorated athletes in school history – 2,311 points and 954 rebounds, both school records – and is perhaps best known for leading Wyoming’s surprise run to the Sweet 16 in the 1987 NCAA Tournament. That season, the forward averaged 27.8 points per game during the tournament, which included an upset over a Reggie Miller-led UCLA squad in the second round. The Cowboys later lost to UNLV in the Sweet 16. Dembo also led the Pokes to the NCAA Tournament in 1988.
Dembo averaged 17.9 points per game in his career, including better than 20 points per game as both a junior and senior. He also appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in November 1987, where he was famously dressed as a cowboy. He was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the second round of the 1988 NBA Draft and played one season for the team, winning the NBA championship in 1989.
Dembo was inducted into the Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame in 1993. He will be just the second Wyoming player to have his number retired, the other being guard Kenny Sailors.
Though there is a pantheon of memorable moments to sort through, the one Dembo remembers most fondly in his UW career is not the NCAA Tournament triumphs of 1987. Instead, it is his sophomore season, when the team went to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) after just missing out on the NCAA Tournament.
A trip to New York for the tournament and playing at famed Madison Square Garden put Wyoming basketball on the map. Without that run to the tournament finals, there are no magical 1987 or 1988 seasons.
“That was the start of everything. Going to New York, getting exposure. I think that’s what really took us to the next level,” Dembo said.
What does Dent, the point guard on those legendary UW teams, remember best about his former teammate? After a brief pause, Dent, clad in a bright yellow No. 34 jersey shirt at the airport, found the perfect summation.
During one game, Dembo had started 0 of 10 from the field. At long last, he threw a prayer off the backboard from the top of the key that mercifully found the bottom of the net. Dent will never forget what Dembo proclaimed next.
“He turned around and said, ‘I’m hot. Give me the ball,’” Dent, who was inducted into the UW Hall of Fame in 2018, recalled with a laugh. “And he ended up with 30.”
Dembo now lives in San Antonio, where he grew up. The last time he made it out to Laramie was 2017, when he watched former star UW quarterback Josh Allen play in person. Among the people who came to greet him at the airport Friday was his older brother, Robert Dembo III. Robert, who lives in Houston, said he tries to see his brother every month or so, and constantly keeps in touch on the phone.
Fennis’ jersey retirement is, coincidently, Robert’s first trip to Laramie. But Robert has his own memories of his brother’s collegiate career. He fondly remembers driving to Wyoming road games in El Paso and New Mexico with the family in the days of the old WAC.
To be able to see his brother reach UW immortality firsthand? It’s beyond comprehension.
“That’s a profound achievement that we’re witnessing,” Robert said. “And I’m very happy that I’m here to share it.”
Fennis Dembo said his famed Sports Illustrated cover is still a popular topic of conversation with people – he admits he had no idea his cowboy-clad photoshoot was going to be a national cover until Dent, a New Jersey native, told him he saw the cover on a trip home and told him about it at practice.
The memories of UW and Laramie are plentiful for Fennis Dembo; the basketball games make up just a portion of that overall experience. At its core, the people who met him at the gate Friday are the reason he holds the school in such high esteem and keeps coming back.
“Just this reception, and then something like that that’s going to happen tomorrow … I don’t know how my stomach is going to feel,” Dembo said. “This is so much more (than I expected). It’s crazy. But it’s wonderful.”
Dent is among those who believes Dembo should have had his number retired much earlier. After all, his former teammate is the reason people know about UW hoops, he said. But Robert Dembo III has a profound insight on the timing of his brother’s momentous occasion: It was just meant to happen this way.
“This is my philosophy: The stars have to be aligned right for something like this to happen,” Robert said. “And the stars are in alignment.”