Editor's note: This feature was written in late May for the launch of 7220sports.com on June 1. We met with Fennis Dembo at his home in San Antonio, Texas, last summer.

SAN ANTONIO – A 37-page police report describes it as a burglary of a habitation.

There were reports of multiple shots fired. Neighbors heard them. Officers swarmed the old white, single-family home on the corner of North Pine Street. Thirteen of them, to be exact.

Lying on the enclosed paint-chipped porch of the east San Antonio house, a young man was doubled over, resting on his left side. From what officers could initially tell, he suffered at least two gunshot wounds. The pool of blood that had formed under his head indicated that the situation was grave, one officer scribed in his notes.




The man, 25-year-old Dominic Martini, was rushed to the local hospital where he was pronounced dead at 3:32 a.m.

His obituary states he loved riding his pedal bike until he discovered the engine. Motorcycles and his black lab, “Rosie,” became his favorite pastime. He played football and baseball back home in California.

Martini was married. He was active-duty, stationed at nearby Lackland Air Force Base.

That’s the part that still haunts Fennis Dembo.

“Regardless of what was going on with him at that time, he has a family he needs to go home to,” a visibly emotional Dembo said inside that same home, where he sat just feet away from the crime scene, nearly 16 years ago to the day. “He doesn’t need to die. That’s how I feel. His life is not worth that. He needs to go home to his wife. He’s a military man with a wife. That’s the most intimate thing about the whole situation.”

Dembo talks about Martini in the present tense. Almost like he still can’t believe what happened that early Easter morning so many years ago.

Dembo admits that sometimes he feels like he has lived two lives.

There was the much-ballyhooed first go-round when he starred on the University of Wyoming basketball team, leading the Cowboys to the NIT Finals in New York City, the Sweet 16 the following season and, before his senior campaign, Dembo, donning a black 10-gallon cowboy hat and a million-dollar smile, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.

He was the WAC Player of the Year in 1987. He earned First-Team, All-Conference accolades his final two seasons. As a senior, he was a Third-Team All-American and broke the school scoring and rebounding records.

His 2,311 career points is still the standard today.

Dembo, known first nationally for his unique name and secondly for his on-the-court antics, became a second-round draft pick of the Detroit Pistons in 1988. During his rookie season – his only year in the NBA – Dembo aided that veteran-laden team in bringing a title to the Motor City.

He was living his dream.

Dembo was a champion. A household name. A winner.

The second chapter of his life started that fateful night in April of 2003 when he was awakened by a family member.

“Buck, there is someone on the porch,” a statement from Stephen Williams, Dembo’s brother-in-law says.

Buck, one of Dembo’s many nicknames, reached for his black, semi-automatic 9mm Luger pistol and made his way to the front entrance of his childhood home. His daughters were in the house. So was his sister, nieces, and nephews. His elderly mother was in her room, just feet from the front door.

Martini was already inside after busting out a large oval piece of glass out of the weathered front door.

“That was tough,” Dembo said, followed by an extended pause and a slight head shake. “It was a changing point in my life. When something like that occurs, it changes your whole perspective on life.

“It changed me.”

According to the police report, Dembo opened fire, striking Martini in the head, chest and arm. Officers found eight shell casings and an empty clip. The gun, registered to Dembo, was found harmlessly lying on the kitchen table.

Dembo, then 37, tried to warn the would-be burglar to leave. Shooting anyone is always the last resort, he exclaimed.

“I would never do that,” Dembo repeated, still in disbelief.

It’s not clear what Martini was seeking that night. Cops believe it could’ve been related to drug activity in the area.

Case No. 03-253391 ends like this: “No charges filed at this time.”

That does little to ease Dembo’s pain.

The next seven months, Dembo said, he could barely leave his bedroom. He avoided that side of the house at all cost, even though his mother had iron bars installed on the screen door. He was terminated from his job at the water department. They even promoted him, he said, but his mind made him basically non-functional. Nothing was normal anymore.

Publicly discussing the incident was not an option for years. His playful banter when discussing his time as a basketball star was quickly replaced by anguish. The moment the subject is brought up his voice no longer carries a laughter with it. His eyes go from bright to watery.

His long, thoughtful pauses between sentences tell the story. Nearly two decades later, this still isn’t a comfortable topic.

“It took clinical help to get over that,” he said.

Dembo, now 53, stopped to compose himself and to wipe the sweat of a humid April night off his brow.

“Time has been more important than anything. As time has passed, I’m able to talk about it. I couldn’t even bring it up. Time heals wounds.”

He mustered up a slight grin.

“You never get over it though. I deal with it.”



A clip from episode 11 of the Roaring Repeater. We talk about meeting Fennis Dembo.


Jim Brandenburg is still worried about his former flamboyant, fun-loving superstar at Wyoming. The head coach, who lured Dembo out of Fox Tech High School and onto the high plains of Laramie in 1985, said the “Electric Man” is not the same. There’s a sadness in his voice, he said.

“It has done serious psychological damage to this day,” Brandenburg said over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas. “It really messed him up. I still don’t think he’s completely over it.”

The kid Brandenburg once knew was full of life, energy, and arrogance.

Not the bad kind, he said. The competitive kind.

Dembo still recalls his first trip to Laramie for his official visit. It was the first time he saw snow. He met the governor. He saw the pride the people had in the program. He already felt like the big man on campus before he even committed. He knew he wanted out of Texas.

Dembo fell on his back into a pile of snow on that trip, he recalls. Flailing his arms and legs in the powder, he made a snow angel. He knew this was his new home.

“Where am I at?” he laughed when discussing his initial visit. “Seriously, I know it sounds corny and not good, but, where am I at?”

Special is the word Dembo used repeatedly when talking about his trip to Laramie. That word would come up another dozen times when discussing the Cowboys rise from college basketball obscurity to becoming one of the most feared teams in the nation.

At first, he had a hard time telling his friends that he had committed to UW. They had no idea who the Cowboys were, what conference they played in or that they had won a national championship in 1943. Dembo laughed, saying his buddies wondered aloud if Wyoming played in one of those dual-purpose gyms with a stage on one side.

There was another big misconception when it came to Dembo’s recruitment.

He said the narrative has always been he wasn’t highly recruited. That may have been true in the beginning, he said, but after he verbally agreed to join Brandenburg in Laramie, heavyweights like Louisville and Kentucky came calling.

Did he ever get the urge to break his promise?

“No. Not once,” Dembo said, emphatically. “Those schools came in late because they missed on other players. I felt like Wyoming was my fit.

“I never made the glamorous choice. Wyoming wasn’t the glamorous choice, but my life has been so blessed that I’ve always made the right choice.”

If there was a hall of fame of names, Dembo would’ve been a slam-dunk, first-ballot selection.

His first name, a suggestion from his older sister, is French for the name “finish,” which is exactly what he and his twin sister, Fenise, were out of the 11 Dembo children.

He garnered other labels in college like “Fabulous,” “Electric Man” and “Dazzling Dude.”

“Dumbo,” “Hot Dog,” “Showboat” and a few other expletives were made famous in venues like The Pit and Moby Arena, among many other road stops in the WAC, which included other hostile environments in El Paso, Provo, and Salt Lake City.

Dembo couldn’t get enough.

Trips to Albuquerque were always fun, he said with his trademark smirk. After every shot he made, Dembo would seemingly always pump his fist or point up to the opposing crowd. New Mexico fans were particularly inhospitable, but that’s what made it so much fun, he added.

He loved shutting down his opponents – and shutting up their fans. Even if that meant getting up close and personal.

“The crowd would get on him and he would just get better,” former UW teammate Sean Dent said. “We always joke about him jumping into the stands at New Mexico. He said he was just going for the basketball. Next thing you know, he’s giving their fans high-fives. That was one of the funniest moments. I couldn’t believe he went in the crowd. We went home and watched the film.”

In many ways, Dembo just took after his own crowd.

Cowboys fans back then were known for a rowdy nature of their own. More than 15,000 crammed into the Arena-Auditorium on most nights in those days. Sports Illustrated even came to town to document the craze around Cowboy basketball. In the November 1987 edition, they penned a feature entitled, “They’re jumping for Joy,” which talks about rowdy fans forcing a team off the court during warm-ups. UW fans also tossed bananas at a rival coach after he called the home team “Gorilla U.”

Dembo embraced the atmosphere inside the “Dome of Doom,” but said his mentality was already well established before he ever stepped foot in Laramie.

It came from the schoolyard. But more so, it was a product of having all those siblings, nine of whom were older.

“You don’t get home, you don’t eat,” he said. “There’s no seconds, so you better be there. It’s tough having older brothers and sisters. They set the tone in the neighborhood. People don’t bother you, but they will test you to see if you have that makeup.”

Toughness was never a question in Dembo’s game. Leadership wasn’t either.

Along with teammates Eric Leckner, Turk Boyd, Jon Sommers, Dent, and others, Dembo led the Cowboys to the NIT finals in 1986, where they eventually fell to Ohio State, 73-63, at Madison Square Garden. Wyoming beat Texas A&M, Loyola-Marymount, Clemson and Florida before falling to the Buckeyes.

The following season, the pressure and the bright lights got even more intense. Dembo, like Dent stated, just got better.

Dembo had a 16-point outing in the Cowboys upset win over No. 5 seed Virginia in the opening round of the NCAA tournament before turning their sights on fourth-seeded UCLA. He saved his best performance for Reggie Miller and the Bruins two nights later.

All you need to know about that game came in the form of a headline in the LA Times on March 15, 1987: “Wyoming Puts Fennis-ing Touch to UCLA Season.”

Dembo netted a game-high 41 points, including a perfect 16-for-16 night from the free-throw line in the 78-68 upset win in front of 14,000-plus inside Salt Lake City’s Huntsman Center. It was Dembo’s national coming-out party. He out-dueled Miller with a mythical performance and some legendary trash talk.

The Pokes were Sweet 16 bound.

“He was bigger than life in Wyoming,” McKinney said, adding that Dembo’s demeanor off the court never matched that status. “He was a great Cowboy. Not only was he a great player, he was a really good guy and a popular teammate.”

“UCLA is back, all right. Back home. Missing from the NCAA tournament for four years, the Bruins are gone again, forced to leave Saturday when Wyoming pulled Fennis Dembo out of a Cowboy hat and made them disappear,” the LA Times stated.

“Too often, Dembo was playing against no one,” the article continued. “It isn't often that the Bruins get out-Reggied, but while Miller was getting bumped around by Jonathan Sommers inside, a surprise defensive match-up, UCLA unwisely left Dembo by himself.”

Wyoming’s Senior Associate Athletic Director and color commentator, Kevin McKinney, was in attendance that night.

“It was probably the most exciting game that I have ever been a part of because of how much it meant and the stage it was on” McKinney recalled. “It was Miller and UCLA, one of the most storied programs in college basketball history. Fennis dominated that game. He had his best game in the biggest moment.”

Unfortunately, Wyoming’s Cinderella story came to an end the following week in Seattle when it fell to top-seeded UNLV, 92-78. Dembo finished with a team-high 27 points in the loss. The Rebels went on to the Final Four.

“Just being a Wyoming Cowboy at that time, it was special,” Dembo smiled.

He will forever be linked with Miller. Dembo is OK with that. But, he said, he likes to keep things in perspective.

“Reggie went on to have a great career in the NBA,” he said. “That was just a chapter, a sentence in his life story. OK, he lost that game. I won that game. That’s a greater chapter in my life. I didn’t have a career like Reggie, though.”

Brandenburg left before the 1987 campaign, replaced by Benny Dees. The Cowboys returned seven seniors that season. They were ranked as high as fourth in the nation. This, Dembo said, was supposed to be the team that won a national championship.

Instead, Wyoming went 26-6, finished the season ranked 13th and fell to Loyola-Marymount, 119-115, in the opening round of the Big Dance. Despite having a pair of NBA Draft picks – Leckner No. 17 overall and Dembo coming in at 30 – the team failed to fulfill those lofty expectations.

That still eats at Dembo today.

“We could’ve been the No. 1 team in the country,” he said, looking off into the distance. “The Wyoming Cowboys. Who would’ve ever thought that?”

Fans saw the player, but Dent said behind the scenes, Dembo was one of the best teammates he has ever had. Although he garnered the limelight, he was never above the team. He called him the “humble superstar.”

“We had a game where coach drew up the play in the last seconds of the game,” Dent recalled, saying the Cowboys were trailing by one. “In the timeout, coach called for Fennis to take the last shot. I remember Fennis coming out of the huddle and saying, ‘Eric, I’m going to you. They can’t stop you.’ That tells you how much he needed Eric.

“He knew we needed each other to shine.”

McKinney said he remembers a shy, quiet kid from San Antonio, who would flip a switch when the ball was tipped.

“He was bigger than life in Wyoming,” McKinney said, adding that Dembo’s demeanor off the court never matched that status. “He was a great Cowboy. Not only was he a great player, he was a really good guy and a popular teammate.”

Dembo heard his name called in the second round of the NBA Draft in June of 1988. His first reaction, he said, was a disappointment. Not only did he feel he was a first-round talent, he was going to a Pistons team that just made it to the Finals and had a loaded roster littered with future Hall of Famers like Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, and Dennis Rodman. His new coach, Chuck Daly, was also in the Hall.

“I just didn’t feel good about that,” he said of being picked by Detroit. “Their core was already settled. Turns out, I had no idea what type of attitude and work ethic it took to be a part of that team. I made some mistakes. I have some regrets. There’s things I would do differently.  I learned a lot.”

Dembo appeared in just 31 NBA games. He scored 36 total points and pulled in 23 rebounds in just 74 minutes of work.

He was cut by the franchise following his rookie campaign. But he didn’t leave Detroit empty-handed. The Pistons, who were known as the “Bad Boys,” won their first-ever NBA Championship, sweeping Magic Johnson’s Lakers. Dembo appeared in two of those games.

is not delusional about his NBA career. He simply said, “I wasn’t mentally prepared.”

For a number of years, Dembo said, he didn’t really know how to feel about his role on that team. Reunions and lifelong friendships have eased his anxiety.

“When I was going through it, I didn’t feel I was part of it because I wasn’t playing,” he said. “Looking back, I know I was a part of it. The way the guys treat you – it feels good.”

He has the jewelry to prove it.

Dembo stood up and walked to the back of his house. Moments later, he reappeared with his championship ring. It’s gold and features the NBA trophy, encrusted in diamonds. It says “Dembo” on the side.

His office is a shrine of relics. There’s the obligatory championship Wheaties box, a plaque from the Pistons’ “Fennis Dembo night,” and a basketball signed by the team. His Wyoming jersey, encased in glass, sits above his desk. There are newspaper clippings and old photos, including one of him shaking hands with then-president George HW Bush during the Piston’s White House visit.

And, of course, there’s the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“Basketball was just a vessel of touching other people’s lives at Wyoming,” he said, referring to his teammates, the fans, and even the cheerleaders that appeared in photos in that article. “I was the focal point, but it brought exposure to a lot of people. It showed what being a Wyoming Cowboy was all about.”

Today, Dembo occasionally hears, “hey, you’re that guy.” He’s no longer an athletic phenom, though he still looks like he could put up 50 in a pick-up game. He lives a simple, quiet life in the shadow of downtown San Antonio. In that same childhood home, one mile east of the Alamo.

There’s no more cheering. The fame has worn off. Dembo, he said, never strayed too far from the “real world” even when he was at the top of his game. That has proved to be imperative. Five days a week, he wakes up well before the sun and buttons up his blue, long-sleeve dress shirt with “VIA” above the left pocket.

He’s a city bus driver.

It’s a humbling job.

“People ride the bus to go grocery shopping, to go to work, to pay bills,” he said. “Every day they do this. We are so spoiled. People feel like they are too good to ride the bus. It really keeps things in perspective for me.

“The people on the bus -- they are beautiful.”

It used to bother Dembo when he was recognized by passengers. He knows he had a chance to make life-changing money. He made a living in the game, playing in Europe and the Continental Basketball Association, but not enough to retire.

“People would say, ‘That’s Fennis Dembo. Didn’t you play in the NBA?’” Dembo grinned. “I would say, ‘Yep, but I have bills to pay.’ People tell me I should be on ESPN announcing. Well, I’m not. This is what I have to do.

“The older you get it doesn’t bother you as much.”

Dembo is engaging and quick to crack a joke. That hasn’t changed. He’s still an avid basketball fan. There’s an NBA playoff game blaring on the big screen in his house. Occasionally his focus doesn’t allow him to take his eyes off the 60-inch screen. He still keeps an eye on the Pokes, too.

Dent said if it wasn’t for Dembo, former teammates might have lost touch over the years, but he keeps them all in the loop, mainly through group texts. Dent calls Dembo “the glue” of the team still to this day.

That’s why when Dent heard about Dembo’s home invasion, he was concerned for his friend.

“My intentions in life is to never bring no harm to nobody,” he said. “Yes, I want to protect my family, but I don’t want to hurt you to protect my family. I want my family to be safe. I want to live my life. I would never want someone to not wake up the next morning.”

“We, as teammates, noticed a difference, but we weren’t going to force him to talk about it,” Dent said. “We waited for him. It hit him really hard. That incident changed his life. It’s just been in the last couple of years that he has opened up. He never wanted to talk about it.

“We always tell him that whatever he needs, we are there. You know it’s still there, but he’s coming along.”

Dembo insists that he is indeed moving on.

When he reflects on that night, he says things should’ve gone so much differently. He said he should’ve called authorities. He said he should’ve taken his family out the back door. He didn’t.

“That’s the decision I made at the time,” he said. “I look back – I don’t feel like I was threatened. I don’t even own a gun no more. And it’s because of that night … If I had it to do it again, I would’ve let authorities take care of it. I wouldn’t have done what I did.”

Dembo said he hasn’t reached out to Martini’s wife. After a long pause, he said he wanted to but never did. The pain and guilt that still exists is apparent.

“My intentions in life is to never bring no harm to nobody,” he said. “Yes, I want to protect my family, but I don’t want to hurt you to protect my family. I want my family to be safe. I want to live my life. I would never want someone to not wake up the next morning.”

Dembo knows that moment doesn’t define him. Neither does his bus-driving job, the cover of a national sports magazine or a shiny ring in a safe.

He strives on memories. He hopes he brought joy to people’s lives.

Joy is slowly creeping its way back into his.

“It’s going to be a happy ending because I’m blessed,” he said. “I have my bad days when I don’t feel too good about life, but I know to keep fighting. The people who remember you keep you pushing forward. When people remember you, that keeps you moving. They have no idea what an effect that has on my life today.

“I’m going to keep fighting and moving forward.”

Contact Cody at cody@7220sports.com or follow him on Twitter @CodyTucker_7220