With T-shirts that have big blue letters printed on them, the Denver Nuggets are promoting something definitely out of fashion in the late 1980s: FAT. That's not fat as in William (the Fatman) Conrad, or fat as in adipose (fatty) tissue, but fat as in Lafayette (Fat) Lever, the reedy but massively gifted guard of the Nuggets—and one of the best NBA players never to appear in an All-Star Game.
Rocky Mountain Lever fever began to spread last season, when Fat—the nickname is a shortened version of Lafayette—then a fifth-year pro out of Arizona State, was the league's most potent secret weapon. At a mere 6'3" and 175 pounds, he not only led the Nuggets in rebounding but also outdid two thirds of the NBA's starting centers, including 10 7-footers, in that department. Beyond that, he led the league by racking up 16 triple doubles—hoops shorthand for attaining double figures in points, rebounds and assists in a game. Only a few pros have the size and versatility to get more than a handful of triple doubles. The category was, in effect, created for Magic Johnson, who holds the NBA single-season record of 18, set in 1981-82. Lever's averages in '86-87 were 18.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game. And he was supreme at both handling the ball and stripping it; only three other starting point guards had more steals than turnovers, and Lever beat out all of them in swipes with 201 (against 167 turnovers), sixth best in the league.
Because, as we shall see, Lever's role has changed this season, his numbers have changed a bit. Still, at the end of last week he was averaging 17.7 points and 8.1 assists, and getting 7.7 rebounds a game, virtually tying him with 6'11" Danny Schayes for Denver's lead. He also had six triple doubles. "Fat's our miniversion of Magic," forward Calvin Natt says. Indeed, Lever's season stats rival those of the 6'9" Johnson, the only guard ever to get more rebounds than Lever, 751 in 1981-82, to Lever's 729 last season.
Lever's three-dimensional game isn't built on gimmicks. The passing phase probably comes most instinctively, since he views his teammates as family and loves to feed them. The scoring is the result of incessant giving and going, resolute dashes on the break and clever shot selection to cover for a rather ordinary jumper. Rebounding is a chore Lever took on seriously last year; after Natt injured his Achilles tendon, Lever's total shot up 74% higher than his previous best. He says rebounding is a matter of seeing how the other team reacts. "If they're slow to the ball, then you can outquick them," Lever says. "A lot of it comes down to timing."
And guts, because a little fellow has to watch his step in among the giants. "If a big guy's having a tough time rebounding and a guard is taking most of them away, he'll let you know," Lever says. "He'll try to intimidate you. After about the third time, they usually let you go." But, he adds, "Some of those guys are so big, they hurt you just by accident. When they bring down their elbows, they're on top of your head."
Despite the diversity and unlikeliness of his skills, Lever has remained surprisingly little known to the public. In the all-star voting last season, he finished 10th among the Western Conference guards. His recognition factor is higher now, and last week he ranked second in the same group for the Feb. 7 All-Star Game. That is, his name is being recognized, not his face. Fleer Corp., which produces basketball trading cards, this year has a card with Fat's name and Fat's stats on it, but the mug is that of former Denver guard Otis Smith, who is now with the Golden State Warriors.
Lever's low profile has been largely of his own doing. On the court his moves are efficient and, thanks to his stamina, relentless rather than spectacular. And he shows all the apparent passion of a CPA at a Chapter 11 hearing. "Some guys show their feelings, some guys don't," he says. "I may not, but they're jumping around inside." This no-frills, all-business style has hardly been lost on Lever's peers, though; last season they voted him to the second team All-NBA backcourt—behind the pairing of Johnson and Chicago Bull Michael Jordan—with Isiah Thomas of Detroit.
Off the court the 27-year-old Lever acts just as dignified as he does on it. He's a man of no ulterior motives. He may tell you he adores kids, likes to read and collect comic books and is a pretty shrewd investor, but it won't sound like some self-promotional package. "I can do with attention or without it," he says. "Being without it doesn't affect me."
Last season high-scoring Denver forward Alex English offered to cede his spot on the Western Conference All-Star team to Lever, but the league wouldn't allow it. Several newspapers phoned Lever for comments when he missed out, but he wouldn't call them back. Instead, he went out for pizza with his wife of five years, Charlene—or 'Lene, as Fat calls her—and their three-year-old daughter, Elyse. Says Charlene, "Fat said, ' 'Lene, it's part of the job, it happens.' He was calm. I wasn't. I was mad. I was mad enough for both of us."
To get anything meaty on Fat, you have to go to 'Lene. "The man has no ego," she says. "I have to have it for both of us." Charlene met Fat through a mutual friend when she was a nursing student at Arizona State. She says he's serious about his work and that he's a cutup with Elyse; that he's keenly attuned to those who know him, though hard to get to know; that he's community-minded, but he will deny his identity to a fan at a J.C. Penney store. Given all that, it was hardly surprising that when Lever spied the one pro he admired while growing up, the ultracool former Knick Walt Frazier, in a New York hotel lobby recently, he was too embarrassed to introduce himself. Charlene says, "Fat's not shy, really. He's just a private person."
Fat was the second of three sons born to Elmer and Willie Lever in Pine Bluff, Ark., though Elmer, a lumberjack, never lived with the family. (Elmer died five years ago; Willie died last March.) A family friend suggested the name Lafayette, but Elmer Jr., Fat's younger brother, had his problems spitting out all those syllables. "It started out Fett, then it got to be Fat," says Elmer Jr., now a microchip maker in Portland, Ore. "But as long as I've known him, he's really been bones." In 1970, Willie went west to look for work, and her sons, who had lived with their grandparents in the interim, joined her in Tucson a year later. It was there that Lafayette effectively ditched his given name; it was just too long for a kid rushing to sign in at the Boys' Club.
Willie worked for a time as a nurse's aide, but an automobile accident rendered her hands nearly useless and made it hard for her to keep a job. The family struggled but always stuck together, moving from one friend's house to another in the southwest section of Tucson. "Fat preferred to be by himself usually," Elmer Jr. says. "He did what he wanted to do and went all out for it." Comic books were one escape—Archie, The Sad Sack, Beetle Bailey. "They're a way to get away," says Fat. Basketball was another haven and still is.
As a kid, Fat became close to Roland LaVetter, a warm, talkative man who became his coach at Pueblo High and who's now Elyse's godfather. "It felt good to be close to him," Lever says. "I got into basketball because he molded the team into a family and made me feel wanted."
"When I met Fat he was 10 years old, but he was 20 in life-style," recalls LaVetter. "In school he did three things—went to classes, went to practice and went home." LaVetter put Fat to extensive use on the court, and was instrumental in developing the diversity in his game. He would play center on defense and run a four-corner attack from the point. He powered Pueblo to back-to-back state titles and, as a senior, was named the state's player of the year.
At Arizona State, Lever toiled happily in the shadows cast by big and big-time players like 7-foot Alton Lister, now of the Seattle SuperSonics, and 6'11" Kurt Nimphius, now of the San Antonio Spurs. In the backcourt he played alongside Byron Scott, now of the Lakers. Lever wasn't the star in this group, but as in high school he displayed a flair for doing what had to be done, and he certainly impressed the NBA scouts. The Portland Trail Blazers spent the 11th pick of the 1982 draft to land him, though Arizona State coach Ned Wulk wasn't too sure how the solid but unspectacular Lever would adjust to the pros. He figured to be a backup to Darnell Valentine. By 1984 Portland was a bit down on Lever's shooting (his career field goal percentage is 44.6) and dispatched him along with Natt and center Wayne Cooper to the Nuggets for forward Kiki Vandeweghe.
Lever was scarcely ready for Denver's wide-open ways after two years of regimentation with the Trail Blazers. "In Portland, if I was going fast they thought I was out of control," Lever says. "Here it was just the opposite. You don't go 25 [mph], you go 55 or 85." Denver coach Doug Moe likes his lead guard to force the action, to disrupt the opponents' defense. But Lever's attack—a blend of Portland's influence and his own conservatism—was controlled. "In some ways, he was just too good a point guard for us," Moe says. Luckily for Lever, he was also Denver's only point guard back then. Both player and coach adjusted. They have adjusted even more this season, with Lever splitting his time between point and off guard.
In their two-bedroom home in suburban Aurora, Fat and 'Lene lead a simple life structured around Elyse. Fat has a share in a summer basketball camp with Natt, and he's always on the lookout for real estate deals. In the off-season the Levers live in Phoenix, where Fat confines his triples and doubles to bogeys on the golf course and takes a few business classes. A special education major with a B-minus average in college, he needs to fulfill a student teaching requirement to earn his degree. He's not sure he'll get it, but he's certainly ready to volunteer for any kids' cause—Easter Seals or the Special Olympics or a school that wants a guest speaker.
Lever, in turn, is finding plenty of folks in Denver who volunteer to wear those T-shirts. He designed them himself before the season, paid a few hundred bucks to have them made up and gave them to friends and teammates. Lever begins to describe his decision to have the shirts done as a business matter—the Nuggets have bought some to sell—but then he admits that, after always having seen himself as "a second fiddle," he may finally think himself worthy of attention. Now he feels secure enough to try a gimmick like the shirts. "I guess it was a chance I was willing to take to become better known," Lever says.
Of course, those in the know already think Fat's a heavyweight.