Triple threat: Fat Lever did it all for uptempo Nuggets
The recruiting pitch to the kid out of Tucson was simple.
University of Colorado assistant coach Alvin Gentry was cousins with Denver Nuggets All-Star forward David Thompson. Conveniently, Thompson also happened to be the favorite player of high-school prospect Lafayette “Fat” Lever.
“David was my hero,” Lever recalls.
Sensing an opening, Gentry agreed to give Lever a poster signed by The Skywalker when Lever visited Boulder for a recruiting trip. When it came time to choose a school, Lever accepted a scholarship at Arizona State.
“To this day, Alvin’s upset I didn’t go to the University of Colorado,” Lever said with a laugh. “I’m still a DT fan and an Alvin fan.”
As it turned out, it was only a matter of time before Lever’s basketball career brought him to Colorado.
After playing his first two NBA seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, Lever was one of three players (Calvin Natt and Wayne Cooper were the others) traded to the Denver Nuggets for Kiki Vandeweghe on June 7, 1984.
The move proved to be perfect for Lever, who averaged 8.8 points and 5.0 assists in his first two seasons with the Blazers. Given more freedom and playing time in Doug Moe’s uptempo system, Lever averaged 17 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists during his six seasons with Denver.
“You couldn’t keep him off the floor,” Moe said. “He did everything. He could pass, shoot, run, play defense, rebound. There wasn’t a phase of the game he couldn’t play.”
Lever, listed at 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, attributed his versatility to his days at Pueblo High School in Tucson. The Warriors won back-to-back state titles from 1976-78 and everyone on the team was expected to score, pass, rebound and defend.
Nuggets fans and opponents witnessed those skills in their full brilliance as Lever recorded an astonishing 45 triple-doubles with Denver. Only Oscar Robinson, Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird have more career triple-doubles than Lever.
“It was easy for him to get a triple-double because he was such a great rebounder,” Moe said. “He was just a terrific player and probably underrated. He wasn’t what you’d call a household name. Everybody knew he was a good player, but he was better than what people really knew.”
Lever can’t help but smile when today’s NBA players celebrate a triple-double as though they’ve set some sort of new precedent.
“It’s more commercialized now,” he said. “All the stats are on the scoreboard. Guys can look up and see what they need for a triple-double. Back then, all you did is play hard and you ended up getting a triple-double.”
During his days in Denver, Lever sometimes played hard to a fault. Knowing his do-it-all guard had bad knees, Moe repeatedly tried to keep off the practice court.
“He’d say, ‘Let me just run three lines,’ ” Moe recalled. “We’d run the three lines and go to passing game and fast break. ‘Let me run the passing game and fast break.’ We’d get into other stuff and start scrimmaging. Same thing over and over again. He was relentless in his will to play.”
Lever, who remains the Nuggets career steals leader, played in all 82 games three times with the Nuggets and missed just 18 overall during his time in Denver. He considered it a classic labor of love with a city and franchise that embraced him.
“That was the most fun time I’ve ever had as far as playing basketball,” he said. “Not just because you were winning but the atmosphere and the people you were surrounded by. Everybody got along. The camaraderie was there on the floor, in the front office and off the court.”
Always competing for attention with the beloved Denver Broncos, Lever remembers the unique interactive atmosphere between the team and its fans at McNichols Sports Arena.
“There was a cozy feeling that they were part of the team,” he said. “They thought they were part of the show because Doug would curse at the officials and then he would turn around and say something to the fans. They didn’t take it as offensive; they took it as being involved in the game.”
Lever was traded to the Dallas Mavericks after the 1989-90 season, but he remained a Nuggets season ticket holder for several years after he retired in 1994. He often used the tickets to entertain clients as he dabbled in real-estate and operated some Denver-area gas stations.
Lever, 50, owns his own construction business in Phoenix and got into the business of basketball when the Sacramento Kings hired him as their director of player development in 2007.
“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I’m enjoying it.”
Lever also is a radio analyst for the Kings, so he gets to catch up with a certain Phoenix Suns coach a few times a year.
Just what Alvin Gentry needs: An in-person reminder of the high-school recruit who got away.