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Mike Downey

Fennis the Menace, Prince of Hotdogs, Charges On

March 12, 1987|MIKE DOWNEY

Even in this big salad bar of a world of ours, where yogurt is cool and red meat is for fools, there is always going to be room for an old-fashioned, mmm-mmm good hotdog--particularly one like Fennis Dembo.

Fennis Dembo digs being a hotdog. He thrives on it. If he played in New York, they'd probably name one after him. And to think Reggie Jackson, Der Wienerschnitzel himself, had to settle for a candy bar.

As it happens, Fennis Dembo plays basketball in Wyoming, where the spotlight never reaches. There are people in New York who think Wyoming is the state next to Iowa. Some of them think Yellowstone Park is the home of Yogi Bear.

If any of them ever got a gander at Fennis Dembo, who is the 6-foot 5-inch show stopper of the University of Wyoming's NCAA tournament team, they would regret that he never wound up in the Big East or Big Ten or one of those other big leagues that get their games on national television all the time.

After all, he is the sort of player who illuminates an arena better than the brightest lights can, what with his dazzling moves to the hoop and his high-energy way with the crowds, home or away.

They may not know him everywhere, but they sure do know him everywhere in his conference.

See the kid coming down the aisle at the University of New Mexico, being booed by the audience even though he still hasn't taken off his street clothes? That's him.

See the guy coming onto the court at the University of Texas El Paso, only to be greeted by a bed-sheet cartoon of a giant flying elephant and the single word, "Dumbo?" That's him.

Fennis Dembo doesn't mind. He knows he asked for it. He knows he's a Grade-A frankfurter.

"I think the term is deserved," he says proudly. "It's not a rap or anything. Hotdog is a term people are going to use about me. It fits."

Those who have not been to Laramie lately, or have had trouble finding any Western Athletic Conference games even with the largest of satellite dishes, might get a better chance to see this showman/showboat/showoff (choose one) at the NCAA West Regional, where Wyoming will be involved in a late-night game tonight against Virginia at Salt Lake City. Fennis, anyone?

At this point, there exists a reasonable chance that in Round 2 of this regional, Wyoming will be matched up against UCLA, which would mean that room would have to be made for Fennis Dembo and Reggie Miller to display their personalities on the same court. This could be the first basketball game in history to be scouted by Oscar Mayer.

Hotdogs come and go in this world, but as long as they can back it up, as Fennis Dembo and Reggie Miller--or that other Reggie--have, the world will be a better place. What the heck, we can use the entertainment.

Sure, crowds are going to get on a basketball player's case when he flings a three-point shot into the basket and then gets excited and shakes a fist at the audience and twists and shouts.

Since the day he arrived at Wyoming, Fennis Dembo has had trouble winning over fans with his expressive face and his antics, including some of the conservative types in his home gym. "I'm always going to take some lip," he says.

But he sure did convert a lot of the Wyoming fans, particularly when the Cowboys started winning games. Last season, he led them to four victories in the National Invitation Tournament, before a loss in the title game to Ohio State. This season, his 19.5 points and 8 rebounds a game have carried Wyoming to a record of 22-9 and the WAC postseason tournament championship.

Around Laramie, the junior is being described as the greatest all-around player in the school's history--even going back to Curt Gowdy days.

As for his hotdogging, well, as Wyoming Coach Jim Brandenburg says: "It's not contrived. It's not an act. It's just part of being Fennis. You can't separate a guy from his personality."

The coach has a special fondness for Fennis Dembo because he found and lassoed him in the hometown they share, San Antonio. Brandenburg figured he was home free when the kid, upon visiting the campus in a typical Wyoming winter blizzard, instead of complaining, deliberately fell backward into a drift to make a snow angel. It was not the only impact he would have on Wyoming.

The player's career was almost over before it began, though. One night while being recruited, he was a passenger in the car of assistant coach Kevin McLeod, being driven to the airport for his return flight home. Near a railroad crossing, McLeod lost sight of an onrushing train in a thick fog. He hit the brake just in time.

What a pity if the world had never gotten to know Fennis Dembo, twin brother of Fenise Dembo, whose mother had given birth to nine children before them and adapted the French word finis to make a statement--namely, that as far as having kids was concerned, this would be The End.

Last season, when the final shot of the final game of the conference tournament could have sent Wyoming to the NCAA instead of the NIT, Fennis Dembo put one up that sat on the back of the rim for an eternity before rolling off to the side.

This time, he's going to try to take a dark-horse team as far in the NCAA as he did in the NIT. First, he must get past the first round. After that, Fennis Dembo might have to get past Reggie Miller, in which case he's really going to have to work his buns off.

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