Born: August 18, 1960
Position: Point Guard
Portland Trail Blazers (NBA): 1982-’84
Denver Nuggets (NBA): 1984-’90
Dallas Mavericks (NBA): 1990-’94
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.”
– Via Fat is Lean and Tough
Lafayette “Fat” Lever was indeed “relentless rather than spectacular.” But in a peculiar twist, that relentlessness became spectacular. Think of him as the stream of water that unerringly flows forth through the years, centuries and millennia and eventually turns into the mighty Mississippi or carves out the Grand Canyon.
This 6’3″ point guard was like that mighty stream. He just wore you down in every stat, every facet and every way.
Fat Lever was the 11th overall pick in the 1982 draft selected by the Portland Trail Blazers. Lever certainly showed promise but his two-year stint in Portland was a timeshare in the Blazer bungalow. Ahead of Lever in the rotation was Darnell Valentine, a young guard selected in the 1981 Draft. With Valentine getting the slight edge in minutes, neither player was given full opportunity to control the from the point guard position.
Between the two guards, the Blazers could count on 20 points, 10 assists and 4 steals a night. Elsewhere, there was a wealth of talented bodies. At shooting guard there was Jim Paxson, a 20-point a night scorer, and rookie Clyde Drexler. In the frontcourt roamed Mychal Thompson, Kenny Carr, Calvin Natt, and Wayne Cooper.
Some would call this lineup an abundance of stacked riches, others could call it an unnecessary logjam. The Blazers thought the latter and shook up the roster after the 1983-84 season in one of the more disastrous offseasons in NBA history.
The calamity was initiated when Portland drafted Sam Bowie second overall in the 1984 Draft. The inclusion of Bowie now made Calvin Natt and Wayne Cooper superfluous big men. Furthermore, the point guard battle had been declared over and the winner was Valentine, so Lever was deemed a luxury as well.
The Blazers took these three players bundled them with a 2nd and a 1st round pick and shipped them to the Denver Nuggets. All the Blazers got in return was Kiki Vandeweghe. A spectacular scorer at the small forward position, but two picks and three players for him was practically ransom. The trade would stymie the Blazers for the next few seasons while the Nuggets were propelled forward by the booty, of which Lever turned out to be the most precious gem:
Lever, meanwhile, has been the surprise of the trade penetrating, popping and, like his accomplices in the backcourt, pilfering. As a group, the Nuggets’ guards Lever, T.R. Dunn, Mike (Newt) Evans, Elston (E.T.) Turner and rookie Willie White made 508 steals and only 499 turnovers, the league’s only backcourt with a positive steal/turnover ratio.
Lever was the leader of this gang of backcourt plunderers averaging 2.5 steals per game. His minutes crested above 30 for the first time in his career that season. His averages of 13 points, 5 rebounds and 7.5 assists that first season in Denver would be the worst statistical season he had for the Nuggets.
With Lever, Natt and Cooper all starting for the Nuggets, alongside relentless scorer Alex English and with old warhorse Dan Issel coming off the bench, the team was infused with zeal and improved from 38 wins in 1984 to 52 wins in 1985 after the trade. In the postseason, the Nuggets advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals before getting smacked down by the Lakers in 5 games. Nonetheless, it was the best season the franchise had enjoyed since moving over from the ABA in the summer of 1976.
In 1986, Lever practically replicated his debut season in Denver: 14 points, 7.5 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals a game. Then 1987 rolled around…
AND THE WORLD CAUGHT LEVER FEVER!
Averaging a ridiculous 19 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists for the 1986-87 season, Lever orchestrated and dominated the offense and defense of the Nuggets. The relentless stream had now become a mighty river. That season he produced 16 triple-doubles in dizzying fashion: a 36/12/10 in Portland one night. A 24/14/10 the next in Dallas. No, literally, he did that in January of 1987. Naturally, the NBA took notice of his burgeoning greatness:
What’s amazing is not just that Lever leads the Nuggets in rebounding it’s that he leads them by so much. Denver’s next best rebounder, at 5.2 per game, is 6’10” center Wayne Cooper. Considering Lever’s work on the boards, it’s not really surprising that he has more triple-doubles this year (12) than anyone in the NBA (Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, by comparison, have 3 and 1. respectively). Without Fat. the mystifyingly bad Nuggets (24-34) might be listing even more precipitously to the land of Spurs and Kings.
The only thing Lever can’t do is shoot straight (.437 career. .459 this season), but then, no one on the Nuggets can. Instead they shoot often, and Lever is the guy who distributes the ball, both on the break, where he makes excellent open-court decisions, and in coach Doug Moe’s half-court passing offense.
“Fat might be the best ball handler in basketball.” says Nuggets assistant Alan Bristow. “If you had to pick a guy to play the role of Marques Haynes, it would be Fat Lever.”
Although an All-Star selection curiously eluded him that season, Lever would make the All-NBA 2nd Team. Ultimately, he’d appear on two All-Star teams (1988 and 1990) during his Nuggets tenure.
The next season (1988) would see more stupefyingly good performances from Lafayette. Included was an incendiary performance of 20 points, 20 rebounds, 12 assists, 6 steals and just 3 turnovers against Cleveland. And another gargantuan effort against New Jersey where he nearly gathered a quadruple double: 21 points, 13 rebounds, 14 assists and 8 steals.
During his 4-year crescendo (1987-1990), Fat was a bona fide stat stuffer with 18.9 PPG. 8.9 RPG, 7.5 APG, and 2.5 SPG. During this same stretch, the Nuggets averaged 44.5 wins a season, which isn’t great, but it still speaks to Fat’s talent given that the Nuggets roster was slowly eroding and weathering.
Natt and Cooper by 1990 were broken down and definitely on the wrong side of 30. Lever’s backcourt mate in crime, T.R. Dunn, was also on the scrapheap. Even the ageless Alex English, who managed to score over 25 points per game at age 35, had finally slowed down by 1990. It’s hard to run and gun when the roster is fighting cobwebs. Only Michael Adams and Lever were really in the right gear for that type of offense, which meant it was time for rebuilding in Denver.
Fat was traded to the Dallas Mavericks in the summer of 1990 for two first round draft picks. The Mavericks were coming off a 47-win season and Lever was to be the third guard in a rotation with Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper. The experiment never truly got off the ground. After only 4 games into the 1990-91 season, Lever had knee surgery costing him the rest of the season. A second knee surgery would cost Lever most of the 1992 season and all of 1993.
Finally, in 1994, Lafayette was able to complete one last, final NBA season. Playing in 81 games and starting 54 after Derek Harper was traded to the Knicks, Lever wasn’t quite his old self in most regards. His scoring, rebounding and assists all hit career-lows. Lever was still a menace in the turnover department, though. He averaged two steals in just 24 minutes a game and on the other end he turned it over himself just 1.1 times. At age 33 with bad knees, he still swiped nine steals in a game that season.
Fittingly, in his last NBA game Lever led the Mavericks in rebounds with nine caroms in a victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Nothing out of the ordinary for Fat. As far I’ve seen, he’s the shortest player in league history to lead his team in rebounding for a season… and he did that 3 times while falling 0.1 RPG behind Danny Schayes in 1988 for another crown.
His thievery was legendary. In March of 1985, he plundered 10 steals in a single game, tied for second-most all-time and took eight in a single quarter that game which is a record for a single quarter. His steal percentage of 3.2% is the eighth most in NBA history. This means that for every 100 possessions on the court, Fat was taking away three from the opponent and giving them to your team.
All the while, he hardly coughed the ball up himself. In fact, he averaged more steals than turnovers in his career. An amazing feat for a point guard and especially since Lever played in Doug Moe’s uptempo offense that created so many possessions and opportunities for turnovers (and other stats, too). You look at the list of all-time point guards (Stockton, Magic, Kidd, Payton) and you’ll see that no matter how good they were at stealing the ball, the turnovers are almost always more numerous.
I hesitate to use absolutes in any discussion over basketball, but I think it’s very highly absolutely unlikely we’ll see another player like Fat Lever. Judicious passing, unflappable ball-handling, lightning hands for steals and, the real separator, that ridiculous knack for rebounding unknown for someone 6’3″. All of these skills united to produce 43 triple-doubles for Lever, the sixth most in NBA history.
Give it up for Fat.
All-NBA 2nd Team (1987)
All-Defensive 2nd Team (1988)
2x All-Star (1988, 1990)
Regular Season Career Averages (752 games):
Playoff Career Averages (48 games):