As a kid, the only athlete I knew personally was a gawky, 6- foot-11 basketball player named Craig Raymond. He played for the Philadelphia 76ers, and my mother, who decorated houses, found him as a client. I was thrilled. Never mind that he was the last man on the Philadelphia bench, or that he played only when the team was winning by 25 points or losing by 30. He was a pro. One time he came to our house, and I asked him, meekly, if he would dunk a basketball on my small backyard hoop. I remember to this day how the rim shook with his strength — my rim, he had dunked it! “Wow,” I whispered to myself, goose- bumpy with delight.

So I have a thing for 12th men, I admit it. Don’t we all? The 12th man is the NBA’s symbol of dreams, the guy hanging on by his fingernails, the last player to hop the train as it pulled out of the glory station. He may be furthest from the coach, seat-wise, but he is the closest to us. Why do we cheer so loudly when the 12th man rises from the bench and peels off his sweats? Because he is getting a chance. We cheer for for all of us who never had one.

Basketball has given us some great 12th men, and Detroit has had its share. There was Chuck Nevitt, the angular clown, all 7-5 of him. Or Darryl Dawkins, he of his own planet, Lovetron, and flavor, Chocolate Thunder.

And now there is Fennis Dembo. A perfect name. A perfect disposition. And a perfect face — big eyes, baby smile, shaved head. Lovable. Above all else, the 12th man must be lovable.

“What could you do,” Dembo was asked at practice Sunday, as the Pistons readied to play Milwaukee in the second round of the NBA playoffs beginning Wednesday, “if they suddenly made you a starter in the next game?”

“Nothing!” he said, his eyes bulging. “I’d be frightened to death.” Survival without sparkle

Now, such honesty is refreshing, especially in an age where every player seems to fell that he, and only he, can do it all. But Dembo, who arrived from Wyoming with a flair for flash, has learned how to survive without sparkle. Humbled, perhaps, by the stockpot of talent in the league, he sees the NBA as something you have to prepare for, a big exam, and he is at least a year or two away.

So for now, he learns — and he cheerleads. He leaps off the bench. He slaps high fives with the nearest teammate. He yells, “Way to play!” “Get tough!” when the starters take the bench during a time-out. Remember the slam dunk by John Salley over Boston’s Robert Parish that all but ended the that playoff series last week? Dembo inspired that.

“Fennis was always cheering for me to geek somebody,” Salley explained,
“that’s what he used to do back in college. You know, slam it, then give him the geek face. So when I did it, I stuck my face in front of Parish, just for Fennis. He’s been cheering us on all year.”

This geek’s for you.

Now if you think it’s easy watching someone else do your move, or cheering for someone else to score your points, well, then you’ve never played basketball. Two seasons ago Dembo was a hero in Wyoming, a Sports Illustrated cover, a cool Cowboy with a fanatic following. In college he used to taunt opponents with jibes of “That’s one! There’s more where that came from!” He lit up the nets. Averaged 20 points a game.

Now he is the last player on the first-place team, the tail end of the comet. Not only are the Pistons valley-deep with talent, but Dembo needs work on his defense, and this is a defense-crazy group. So he finds his seat at the end of the bench, and he honors the ghosts of 12th men like Nevitt and Henry Finkel and Swen Nater — and Craig Raymond.

“You know, I never think of myself that way,” Dembo says, watching his teammates warm up on the Palace floor. “I never think of myself as the 12th guy, even though I am. I have so much confidence. It’s just the situation that I’m in right now.

“The talent in this league is tremendous. I don’t think I ever realized that until I got here. And now in the playoffs? Wow. This is intense! Looking to be No. 11

During the first part of the season, Dembo could recite his stats: “Four points, eight minutes, three fouls.”

Now, he says, he has lost count. He knows he’ll only get in if the game is decided, one way or the other, so how critical can the statistics be? What counts now, is education. “Joe Dumars made a good point the other day. He said in college, you only play with maybe two or three good guys, so you can let it all hang out, and you don’t have to think. But up here, everyone was one of those star guys. So it’s only the ones who think that will excel.”

That is the mission now. That, and an NBA crown. Dembo says he feels every bit a part of the Pistons’ playoff effort, and will not hesitate to slip a championship ring on his finger should the opportunity arrive. After all, they also serve, those who stand and wait. And cheer. And give the geek face. CUTLINE: Fennis Dembo

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