Fat Lever: Denver’s Golden Nugget, 1988

[Fat Lever was a great NBA player in the 1980s and 1990s. But he was always a pretty ho-hum interview. “Lever, under the best of circumstances, is not great copy,” Lloyd Herberg of the Arizona Republic once wrote. “He is seemingly a quiet guy who is not outgoing or the gregarious type, the sort of person who avoids publicity and values anonymity. Charles Barkley he isn’t.”

In this article from the March 1988 issue of Basketball Digest, the then-Rocky Mountain News reporter Kevin McCullen gets Lever to open up about his NBA career. Though he was considered a permanent fixture in Denver when this article ran, Lever was traded off to Dallas by 1990. But whether Denver, Dallas, or his earlier stop in Portland, Lever remained pretty much the kid from Tucson’s Pueblo High School. 

“Without a doubt, everything I learned—and not just in basketball, but in life, too—came from Pueblo and from what [Coach Roland LaVetter] taught me,” Lever once said. “The things he started there still carry over to today.” 

In 2019, Pueblo High renamed its basketball venue as the Roland LaVetter Gymnasium. It was a tribute to a great man, who, like so many high school coaches around the country past and present, touched the lives of many for the better, including a slender kid from Pueblo who always looked anything but Fat.]


As the Denver Nuggets practiced, Fat Lever watched restlessly. A night earlier, he had played more than 40 minutes in a Nuggets victory over New Jersey. The 6-foot-3 guard came within two steals of recording only the third known “quadruple double” in NBA history. Instead, Lever settled for a double-figure performance in points, rebounds, and assists. 

His reward was to have been a day off. Nuggets coach Doug Moe wanted to rest Lever. But Lever had another idea. As practice progressed, Lever rose from a seat and began sprinting from baseline to baseline alongside the court. The move got Moe’s attention. Moments later, he relented and motioned for Lever to join a scrimmage. 

“We wanted to hold Fat out because he’d been playing a lot for us. We wanted to give some of the other guys some practice time,” Nuggets assistant coach Allan Bristow recalled. “I looked at Doug, and we saw Fat running on the sidelines. He looked like he wanted to play so badly that we had to put him in.”

Moe said he thought he would have hurt Lever’s feelings if he didn’t relent. Lever said he wasn’t trying to prove a point. “I played a lot of minutes the night before, but I wasn’t going up and down the court a lot,” he said. “I was standing around a lot, I wanted to do something that day to keep my conditioning.”

The incident reveals much about Lafayette (Fat) Lever. Once the unheralded guard on a team that featured All-Stars Alex English and Calvin Natt, Lever last season blossomed into one of the premier guards in the NBA. And it happened because of Lever’s unrelenting commitment to practice and conditioning. 

When Natt collapsed on opening night of the 1986-87 season with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Lever vowed to do his part to compensate for the loss. He responded with an incredible season. Lever led the Nuggets in rebounding (8.9 per game), assists (8.0), steals (2.45), and was second in scoring (18.9) to English. He posted 16 triple-doubles to easily lead the league. His 729 rebounds were the second-highest single-season total by a guard in NBA history. 

Snubbed by Western Conference coaches during 1987 All-Star team selections, Lever nonetheless impressed the writers and broadcasters who cover the league on a regular basis. They voted him to the All-NBA second team. 

Even those who knew Lever when he was an all-state guard at Pueblo High School in Tucson, never expected him to raise his game to this level. He made himself a great player because of his prodigious work habits. Rarely does Lever sit out a Nuggets practice. In the summer, while at home in Phoenix, Lever’s daily routine includes either basketball or running. There is no offseason for Lever. There hasn’t been since his collegiate years at Arizona State. 

“He may have the best work ethic of any player I’ve ever seen,” Moe once said. “No basketball player could ever have better work habits. You never see him go out there and go through the motions. He plays hard all the time. His effort is always at a maximum level.”

Pueblo High’s Fat Lever (center) exits the court in the waning moments of the 1978 Arizona Class AAA boys’s basketball championship. Coach LaVetter (left) cherishes the moment, his second-straight state title.

Lever acquired the extra-effort habit in high school. Feeling he was not as talented as his teammates, Lever accepted the advice of his coach. There was a three-mile jogging course near the school. Players were asked to run on Sundays to maintain their fitness. 

“He was always telling us to do extra running. I do it because I had to do something extra to stay up with the other guys on the team,” Lever says. “I do the extra things because it was the only way I could keep up. Even if it took me five minutes longer to finish the course than anyone else, I still did it. I figured I needed the extra work.”

Those habits continue to this day. Pete Babcock, the Nuggets president, also grew up in Arizona. He has charted Lever’s development since high school and encouraged Moe to request Lever rather than Darnell Valentine in the 1984 Kiki Vandeweghe trade that brought Lever from Portland to Denver. 

“No one keeps himself in better shape 12 months of the year than Fat does,” Babcock says. “He’s made himself into a quality player. And he’ll keep improving because of his work ethic.”

Lever’s development can be traced statistically. He has improved in every phase of his game since entering the NBA six seasons ago as a first-round draft choice of the Trail Blazers. His biggest gains have been in shooting. A 43 percent shooter his rookie season, Lever raised his accuracy to 46 percent last season. Moreover, his shot selection—an area Moe used to worry about—has improved. 

“I’m a lot more confident with my game now,” says Lever, who acquired the nickname “Fat” because his younger brother couldn’t pronounce Lafayette. “But I’m not overconfident to the point that I think I can take time off or do something I’m not comfortable with, like taking every shot.”

Yet last season, because of injuries and inconsistent play from other Nuggets regulars, Lever found himself shooting and scoring more. When the season ended, the Nuggets had their worst record since 1980-81 (37-45). Lever alone was the Nuggets’ highlight. And reluctantly, he became their most remarkable player. Many teams coveted him, and, with Denver looking to improve itself, trades involving Lever were talked about.  

So, when Lever left Denver last May, he was convinced he would be traded for the second time in his life. (The first was in 1984, when Portland sent him to Denver along with Natt and Wayne Cooper). As Lever had expected, the Nuggets worked out a deal this past summer that would have sent him to Washington. 

Convinced they needed to improve their scoring, the Nuggets were prepared to send Lever and center Danny Schayes to the Bullets for Jay Vincent and Jeff Malone. But the Pacers, picking ahead of Washington, spoiled the deal by selecting Reggie Miller of UCLA. Washington had wanted him to replace Malone. So, Lever remained in Denver. But until the preseason, he did not feel management truly wanted him back. 

“I was more concerned about my wife and my family, because if you’re going to move, it’s better to do it during the offseason,” Lever says. “On the basketball end, I recognize that it’s part of the game. But it upset me because I thought I’d done a decent job here, good enough that I could stick around another year.”

Two developments reassured Lever that he would remain with the Nuggets. His face, along with those of Natt, English, and Moe, appeared on the cover of Denver’s media guide. Then, three days before the season started, the Nuggets obtained Michael Adams from Washington for Mark Alarie and Darrell Walker. 

“When Charlene (Lever’s wife) saw the press guide, she said, ‘They can’t trade you now. Your picture’s on the cover,’” Lever says. “When I saw that, I felt a little better about my situation. Then when they made that trade, that told me that I might be around here for a little while.”

Nuggets management now looks back at its draft day eagerness to trade Lever and cringes. “Fat is not going anywhere,” says Babcock, who has put out the word that the Nuggets aren’t interested in any trade involving Lever. “No one in the league is untouchable. But Fat this as close as you can get to untouchable for us.”

The first three months of the season tell why. As the season approached its midway point, Lever was second to English in scoring (17.4 ppg), second to Schayes in rebounding (8.0 rpg), and led the team in minutes played as well as assists and steals. He was also among the league leaders in assists and steals and was the NBA’s best-rebounding guard—by far. He was also on pace to surpass his 16 triple-doubles of last season. All this after moving to a new position—off-guard. 

Anxious to regenerate the Nuggets’ running game, Moe made Adams the starting point guard and switched Lever to the off-guard spot. The combination has been effective. It has freed Lever of the responsibility of bringing the ball upcourt and enabled him to move around the court in Moe’s motion offense. The new position—and the system—enhance Lever’s versatility. 

“If I were on certain teams, I’d probably be considered only a point guard,” Lever says. “But with the way we play, one guy is not always going to lead in assists every game and one guy is not always going to get all the rebounds in a game. On our team, it’s hard to classify someone as just a power forward or just a point guard. I look at myself as an all-around player. If I was on another team, they might look at me as a point guard first and then as an all-around player.”

Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan remain the two best guards in basketball. They are at one level. A notch below them are a handful of others, including Lever.

“Fat could play anywhere,” Bristow says. “I don’t know that you can classify him. On some teams, if you’re 6-foot-8 and you rebound, you are a power forward. If you’re 6-foot-7 and all you do is shoot, you’re a small forward. Fat can shoot and rebound. He’s not a power player, but then neither is Magic. You’re doing him an injustice by labeling him at one position because he can play so many. He’s so valuable to us.”

He made himself that way. 

“Doug’s system helps Fat, there’s no doubt about that,” Natt says. “But the main thing is he’s a hard worker, and he wants to get better. As long as he thinks like that, he can keep getting better. 

That, no doubt, it’s bad news for the rest of the NBA. 

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