Tucker: Fennis Dembo still ‘Dazzling Dude’ but hurting
SAN ANTONIO – It started with a bear hug.
Then a cold beer.
Then Texas barbecue.
Then a diamond ring.
All within the first 10 minutes.
No, this wasn’t an amazing first date, this is apparently what it’s like when you go to Fennis Dembo’s house. In my experience, anyway. The Dazzling Dude was all that was advertised. He was funny, flamboyant and quick to tell a good story. His smile, it was infectious. The way his eyes lit up when he talked about the old days was a site to see.
Fennis couldn’t wait to head down to the local cantina, just a stones throw away from his home, in the shadows of downtown San Antonio. He got the fried chicken and an IPA. Each piece he held up to his mouth I couldn’t help but notice the ring he let me wear when I first entered his house.
It says “World Champion” on it. It has the NBA championship trophy on it. All gold.
Yes, Fennis is still very much the showman many Wyoming fans got the privilege of watching at the Arena-Auditorium in the mid-80’s.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them. I was only four years old when Dembo, Eric Leckner and the gang took down Reggie Miller and UCLA to advance to the Sweet 16. But I heard the stories. Oh, did I hear the stories. And I’ve watched plenty of grainy YouTube video, too.
Plus, when I saw Miller at the NCAA Tournament in Tulsa a few years back, I had to mention that Dembo owned him. He got a kick out of that.
I was told the tales about the throngs of Cowboy fans in Madison Square Garden for the NIT the previous season. The celebration after knocking off Clemson to get to the Big Apple. Outlasting a tough Virginia team and eventually failing to meet lofty expectations in 1988. Yes, I heard them all. And couldn’t get enough.
That’s why I had to meet Fennis Dembo.
That, and that other part of his life. Life after basketball. Life after April 20, 2003.
I wanted to hear his story. I wanted to hear his side. How has it affected him? Is Wyoming’s hero OK?
After about five hours of chatting I concluded that -- it’s complicated. Dembo knows that best.
After he shot and killed a home intruder on that early Easter morning, his life has never been the same. His coaches notice it. So do his former teammates. So, do I.
Who could blame him?
This man said he wouldn’t hurt a fly, and I believe him. He is gentle, polite, appreciative and quick to dish out praise to everyone but himself.
Of course, most who read Dembo’s tale will come to this conclusion – “Good, I would’ve done it, too.” But, when you look into the eyes of a man who actually did pull the trigger, there is no pride behind that fateful decision, just regret. Lots and lots of regret.
I found myself feeling really sad for Fennis. Each time he answered a question about that night, I pressed even further. “But Fennis,” I would say. “You had to do what you had to do to protect your family.”
He doesn’t agree. His conclusion, 16 years later, is that he should’ve called the police. He should’ve ushered his family out the back door. He shouldn’t have fired. He says he never felt his life was truly threatened.
“But Fennis …”
He wasn’t buying it.
This man is hurting. He says he’s fine and moving on, living a happy life. I believe him, to a degree. But what about on those lonely nights? What about when his mind starts to wander? What about when he reads things like this, rehashing the worst memory of his life?
Fennis got frustrated with me. I don’t blame him.
I wasn’t trying to pry as much as I was trying to convince him that he did the thing 99 percent of people would’ve done at 3 a.m. when someone is breaking into your home. It’s supposed to be a safe domain. One that served as a roof over the head of his daughters, sisters and mother that night.
And him, for that matter.
Time. That’s been his remedy since that night.
Fennis is special. He’s special to his family, his community, and an entire state to the surprise of his friend, Pamela Brown. She was shocked to see my graduation photo. At my party that day, I was wearing my brown Wyoming No. 34 jersey. Fennis looks much better in it. She was nice and disagreed.
Fennis lights up when he talks about his teammates and the fans that made his four years in Laramie so special. There was true emotion behind his words. Coming to Wyoming was one of the best decisions of his life.
He reflected on a time during his freshman year when he would stare out the window of his McIntyre Hall dorm off Grand Avenue. He wondered what he was doing here. He wanted to go back home to Texas. His mother squashed those plans quick.
He’s still grateful for that phone call. After he hung up, he made the decision to be the best player he could be. He didn’t disappoint.
I have a feeling he was so open with me because he felt like he was talking to Wyoming’s fans. He wants them to know what he’s gone through. He also wants you to know how appreciated you are.
Before I walked out of his house that muggy April night, Fennis offered me a sincere thank you for coming to his hometown to interview him. It meant a lot. It made him feel like he wasn’t forgotten.
It meant a lot to me, too, Fennis.
Never forget, an entire state has your back.
Contact Cody at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at CodyTucker_7220