The Deeses of Georgia—Benny from Mount Vernon and Nancy from Alma—are out on the town in Laramie, Wyoming. Wyoming? Well, actually, Lahrmuh, Wyomin', as pronounced by the Deeses, who, since they moved here in April, are never so much understood in Wyomin' as they are believed in.
At this moment they can't even be heard above the shrill carousers in Bud's Bar, a tiny wall in the hole across the tracks in Lahrmuh that most flatlanders couldn't find with a canine search party. You have to listen closely to hear that the Deeses are discussing their move to this unique little college town 7,165 feet above sea level or most any place where either of them has coached a basketball team before.
"Small?" Benny is saying. "You want small? In Alma, the 7-Eleven closed at eight."
"Shoot, you used to leave Mount Vernon to come to Alma just to go out" says Nancy.
November 18, 1987
When Benny, 50, showed up in Laramie to take the job as the Cowboys' head coach, he wasn't really a stranger to the place, having attended the school on a baseball scholarship in the 1950s. This time around he knew enough to bunk down at Foster's Country Inn and to remark as to how he would have to go out and recruit only guys who already had their shots and passports. After Nancy arrived, they found a nice house, a salad bar with croutons and, before long, a buckboard-load of friends. Not to mention Bud's, which is a regular hangout for those nifty Wyomin' Cowboy Joe Club boosters who, among other notable achievements, have been known to 1) drink a tavern completely dry in New Orleans, 2) get kicked out of a football stadium in Provo, Utah (for smoking, not drinking) and 3) chant "We're despicable" at a home basketball game right there in Lahrmuh.
"Wyoming is still the land of the free and the home of the——, honey," shouts a woman named Marge sitting on a pool table puffing on a long, brown cigarillo. It's difficult to ascertain if she is shouting "brave" or "depraved," such is the noise in Bud's. Marge, it turns out, is the wife of the Cowboys' athletic director. "What're you drinkin', Nancy?" shouts Marge.
"You know, this is just like home," says Nancy. "A blizzard would have to blow me down this winter for me not to like Wyomin'."
"It will," says Benny.
"Bud's is just Bud's," says Nancy. "Why, you might see the governor walk in here."
And sure enough...breaking through the revelers, unescorted and unassuming under his wide-brimmed cowboy hat...here comes the honorable Mike Sullivan. "Had to be here. This is a pilgrimage. What're you drinkin', Marge?" he shouts. A pizza appears. Sullivan goes for his wallet. "I'm treatin'," bellows the governor of Wyoming.
Marge's husband, Paul Roach, arrives. He coaches the Wyoming football team. At 60, he is the second oldest coach in Division I. "What're you drinkin'?" he says to the one flatlander in the place. "And what're you still doin' here? How're you gonna explain to anybody you spent a whole weekend on Mars?"
Laramie, Wyoming, might as well be Mars—it's such a desolate, gorgeous place. It's a special place, and this winter—if the cows come home, the winds stay clear, the snow doesn't white-out Benny Dees up to his own white hair and Dees, in his for-once serious words, "don't mess it all up"—Laramie may be the place to witness the finest college team in the land. And to think that until last March all anybody really knew about Wyoming basketball was the guy with a funny circus sideshow of a name.
Whether college basketball's alltime all-name, Fennis Dembo, leads Wyoming's senior-dominated team out from between the Laramie and Snowy ranges to thrash through a tenderfoot schedule, win the Western Athletic Conference and reach the Final Four—as their devoted fans fully expect them to—or they simply disappear into the wilds of the Medicine Bow National Forest, this year's Cowboys are more than just another college five. Carrying Dembo's wild and woolly hot-dog reputation and now Dees's loose, homespun style as twin saddlebags, Wyoming is suddenly both a solid contender for the national championship and yet another reaffirmation of the ever-changing, crazy-quilt nature of college basketball. Who could have imagined that the national spotlight would land on a player and coach who represent a state with barely 470,000 inhabitants, 95 high schools and one lone member of the House of Representatives?
Just in time, too. After declining energy prices jolted the state's economy in 1986, the Wyoming basketball team's surprising run to the NCAA's Sweet Sixteen last spring—especially the Cowboys' 78-68 upset of UCLA in which Dembo scored 41 points—lifted the spirits of natives all the way from Chug-water to Thermopolis.
Wyoming has the smallest population of all the lower 49 states, and Laramie, home to 24,410 citizens, is the kind of town that has a horse-drawn cart that clip-clops through the streets carrying a taxi sign. Provincial? The university's recent decision to erect a statue of Steamboat, the famous bucking horse whose profile decorates the state's license plates, ended a 35-year controversy over which way the horse's rear end would face. Moreover, the school is the only four-year institution in Wyoming. When folks drive 10 and 12 hours round-trip from every corner of the state to fill up the Cowboys' Dome on the Range, that 15,000-seat arena which is perched majestically atop a grassy knoll becomes Wyoming's sixth largest city. "Is it any wonder this whole state lives and dies with the Cowboys?" asks Wyoming sports information director Kevin McKinney.
In 1943, Wyoming won the NCAA championship, held that year in Madison Square Garden, then stayed around to whip NIT champ St. John's in a charity exhibition, manifesting, according to Wyoming's student newspaper, The Branding Iron, "the fighting spirit, will to win and cool courage which will win the war for America and her allies." But since the Wyoming football team's appearance in the 1968 Sugar Bowl, the state's cowboys and girls had not had much to cheer about until last spring when 6,000 of them strong (if not sober) yahooed into Salt Lake City and Seattle for the 1987 NCAA preliminary rounds. "We may not be Final Four in hoops," McKinney burbled after the Cowboys' 92-78 loss to Nevada-Las Vegas, "but we're Number 1 in hops."
For nine years the Cowboys were coached by a Texan, an angular, stern-faced fellow named Jim Brandenburg, whose speciality was to take tall, white, unheard-of high school players and make them over into rough, tough lane-busting hombres. Brandenburg's teams were conservative, zone-oriented, physical crews who got after it. As did their fans. One visiting coach pulled his team off the floor at Laramie before the game. "Gorilla U," another rival coach called the school. The Cowboys' fans pelted him with bananas.
Brandenburg was a builder rather than a maintainer. He didn't like the pressures inherent in coaching from strength. As his team got better and expectations grew, he got testier. Last season, after a three-game losing streak, he didn't speak to a close colleague for days. Brandenburg had been looking to change jobs for several years, but folks were taken aback when the boat lover and former merchant marine departed Laramie for what may be his retirement post at San Diego State. Brandenburg left behind a versatile, veteran dream of a team that had won 48 games over the last two years and reached the finals of both the NIT and the NCAA regionals. The seniors—four are starters, two more are among the top eight—who were on the brink of national championship contention, were distressed by Brandenburg's decision. "Like a death in the family," says guard Twalure (Turk) Boyd. "Then Coach Dees came in with his personality and his up-tempo style of play and I think he caught us right there."
"Bang, he fit right in," says Dembo of Dees. "It was like he'd been with us all along, like he was an assistant here or something. We'd seen him coach New Orleans in the NCAA tournament, and his guys beat Brigham Young, which we couldn't do. Then when we found out he was a Wyoming graduate, we knew he'd have the pride."
Even with his Cowboy background—Dees enrolled at Wyoming after attending junior college in Georgia and was graduated in 1958—he was tapped for the position only after Southwest Missouri State coach Charlie Spoonhour turned it down. In the past, Wyoming had hired coaches with little regard for how they might fit in at a place that some outsiders consider the end of civilization. As a result, seven football coaches, many of them with Southern accents, have passed through Laramie in the last 17 years. Auburn's Pat Dye, for one, began his single-year term at Wyoming by announcing he didn't like rodeo.
It's difficult to imagine, though, how Dees, a short, plump, frosty-haired cartoonist's dream who could charm the hide off a buffalo, would not fit in. At New Orleans he recruited the daylights out of the jucos, revived a floundering program and last season coached one of only three independents given NCAA tournament bids. During the pregame introductions at the NCAA regional in Birmingham, Dees's Privateers not only boogied out with the newest rage of low fives but they did it backward. "Long as they play hard, I don't care if they crawl out there," said Dees.
Before going to New Orleans in 1985, Dees was an assistant at Alabama, where for four years he directed the defense for Wimp Sanderson. The Tide made the NCAA tournament all four years, in spite of one player of whom Dees said, "If his IQ was any lower, we'd have to water him."
Upon arriving in Wyoming, Dees took his one-liners on the road and pressed the flesh in places like Crowheart, Lonetree, Saddlestring and Ten Sleep. He visited them all—37 towns in eight weeks. "Ten Sleep is an Indian name designating how many travel nights there are between Idon'tknow and Ihavetofindout," Dees says. "One night I went to this ranch in Meeteetse and 200 people were waiting for me. I'm tellin' you, this team is the biggest celebrity in the territory. The Cowboys absolutely own this big ol' state."
Dees was hardly around Laramie long enough to meet with his players, but they were already impressed. Center Eric Leckner said Dees "will be Wyoming's best friend." And the word quickly went out among the ranchers: He's a great guy. Now if he can only coach....
While directing the Georgia Tech women's team in 1980, Dees met and competed against a West Georgia coach named Nancy Carter. Recalling the game their teams played that season. Dees says, "I kicked her ass by one." Two years later they were married. When they were at Alabama, Nancy told Benny to recruit a guy "who was even fatter than I was." says Benny. Dees declined, so Charles Barkley went to Auburn. "Now I'm the only coach in America who has to drive home listening to his wife tell him he should have taken the press off," he says.
Meanwhile, the Dees clan has settled into Laramie. While Jennifer and Johanna—Benny's teenage daughters by his first wife, Marie, who died in 1980—are teaching their new friends in Laramie to say "y'all," Benny and Nancy's three-year-old son, Josh, is already a wild westerner. "Kid'll be in prison before he's six," says Dees.
A new coach's first priority is dealing with a returning star. Though Brandenburg recruited Dembo out of his own hometown of San Antonio, the coach was not always in sync with his prized player. Dembo, a 6'5", 215-pound forward, had a mind, not to mention a mouth, all his own. But Dees has been down that road before. New Orleans's Ledell Eackles would run beside the scorer's table during games, asking, "How many 'bounds I got?"
Notwithstanding his fist-waving and jive-woofing at opponents, Dembo is an extremely smart, unselfish player whose marvelous name has finally been overshadowed by his athletic skills. The kid would be an All-America even if his name were Dennis Fembrough.
The standard story of Dembo's christening is accurate enough. His older sister Zona suggested that mama name her 10th child after the French word finis, hoping that she was indeed finished having babies. When the boy arrived with a twin sister, she became Fenise and he Fennis—and mama was indeed finis. Fans of Dembo's, however, have come up with other versions of the naming, including Biblical and animal ones; recently a Howard University coed, who had researched a term paper, called to inform Dembo that the name Fennis has an African connection.
Back at San Antonio's Fox Tech High, Dembo had been a late bloomer, but his on-court personality may have been what really turned off the big-name schools. "Wait a minute," Dembo says. "All the talking and waving I did just came natural. You got to set the tone for a game. I just pump myself up. Not to hurt nobody. For a while here, I think people misunderstood me. I probably did more cheerleading than playing. But I figured if I sit home and clap for Michael Jordan on TV, why can't I clap for myself? Making baskets is an art form. Three-pointers, drives, dunks. The crowd goes crazy. I wave my fists to acknowledge them. Hey, basketball ain't nothin' but a show anyway."
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."
Obviously, right down to the Fennis...uh, finis.