In what would otherwise be a meaningless basketball game on Wednesday night, as the lottery-bound Los Angeles Lakers face off against the lottery-bound Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center, will be anything but ... because the Nuggets will be honoring the best point guard that's ever graced a Nuggets basketball court: Lafayette "Fat" Lever.
And it's fitting that the Nuggets organization chose this Wednesday's game to honor Lever, for it was 30 years ago that Lever helped lead the Nuggets on one of the great runs in their NBA franchise history as they competed against the mighty Lakers "Showtime" dynasty in the 1985 Western Conference Finals.
Simply put, from 1984 through 1990 Fat Lever was one of the most remarkable players in Nuggets and NBA history. As pointed out in the (must watch) video below, Lever put up an assortment of statistics rarely seen in the NBA by any player, then and now ...
As a fan, I remember the diminutive Lever (listed generously at 6'3") being the human triple-double in an era when big-time, athletic guards dominated the Western Conference. And to be clear, this wasn't the 30-team, talent-diluted NBA that we see today with rosters filled with one-and-done college stars and raw foreigners taking up roster spots on NBA benches. This was during a 23-team NBA that featured rosters jam-packed with talent and you - both as players and fans - rarely got a "night off". An era that featured guards like Magic Johnson / Michael Cooper / Byron Scott (Lakers), Clyde Drexler / Terry Porter / Jim Paxson (Blazers), Rolando Blackman / Derek Harper (Mavericks), Nate McMillan / Dale Ellis (Supersonics), Alvin Robertson (Spurs), Reggie Theus (Kings) and so on. And that was before you had to contend with Eastern Conference guards like Michael Jordan (Bulls), Ron Harper (Cavaliers), Isiah Thomas / Joe Dumars (Pistons), Dennis Johnson / Danny Ainge (Celtics), Maurice Cheeks (76ers) and Sidney Moncrief / Ricky Pierce (Bucks). Remember those guys?
And yet, at the peak of that era it was none other than Lever who led the NBA in triple-doubles in 1986-87 (16) and finished second in 1987-88 (11, same as Russell Westbrook has thus far this season). Incredible. And to put Lever's triple-doubles in perspective, he finished with 46 for his career (43 regular season and three post-season), good for sixth all-time even today.
Starting at point guard for a talented-but-flawed and lovable Nuggets squad, Lever came to Denver in 1984 on the other side of one of the greatest yet most controversial trades in franchise history. In the summer of 1984, the 38-win Nuggets shipped their leading scorer and All-Star Kiki Vandeweghe to Portland for a package that included Lever, Calvin Natt, Wayne Cooper and a future first round pick that became Blair Rasmussen. At season's end, the Nuggets won an NBA-franchise record 52 games and marched to the Western Conference where the eventual NBA Champion Lakers bested them in five games, a series marred by Nuggets All-Star Alex English breaking his hand in the final period of an epic Game 4 which led to a Lakers Game 5 blowout over Denver at the Inglewood Forum.
Lever really came into his own the following season, 1985-86, when he averaged 13.8 ppg, 7.5 apg, 5.4 rpg and 2.3 spg. A season that would set Lever on a five-season course with astounding statistics and lots of wins on the court, too. The 47-win 1985-86 Nuggets took the eventual Western Conference Champion Houston Rockets to six hard-fought games in the playoffs' second round, capped off by an epic double-overtime loss in Game 6 at Denver's McNichols Arena. The following season - 1986-87 - would be forgettable, highlighted only by Nuggets coach Doug Moe's infamous "We got no shot to beat the Lakers" quote before the 1987 playoffs began and Lever and English's exceptional play. That season, Lever upped his averages to 18.9 ppg, 8.0 apg, 8.9 rpg and 2.5 spg and was named to the All-NBA Second Team (before they even had an All-NBA Third Team). Even the great Jason Kidd never put up those numbers.
Lever's magnum opus came in 1987-88, when he led the Nuggets to a then-NBA franchise best 54 wins while averaging 18.9 ppg, 7.8 apg, 8.1 rpg and 2.7 spg and was voted in by the fans to start in the 1988 All-Star Game, arguably the best All-Star Game ever taking place in arguably the best NBA season ever as it was the last season the NBA would have only 23 teams ever again. In a December game at Chicago that season, Lever even flirted with a quadruple-double when he put up 31 points, 16 rebounds, 12 assists and six steals. Unfortunately the Nuggets post-season was cut short by the deep and talented Dallas Mavericks and, even with Lever on the roster for two more seasons, never experienced playoff success again.
From 1988 through 1990, Lever would continue to put up unbelievable numbers. But after two consecutive first round playoff sweeps - and new Nuggets ownership - Lever, English and Moe were gone and the Nuggets "Golden Era" of the 1980s came to an abrupt halt in the summer of 1990. Lever (via trade) and English (free agency) both ended up on the Mavericks, and even though Lever was only 29 at the time he never again played at the level seen in Denver. After three injury-riddled seasons in Dallas, a 33 year old Lever was gone from the NBA for good. A sad ending to an otherwise astounding NBA career.
It has been a long time coming, but current Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly (a geek for 1980s NBA basketball like me) is doing the right thing by having Lever honored at halftime during the Lakers vs. Nuggets game on Wednesday. Having written for this site for over seven years now, I've seen a number of "best starting fives in Nuggets history" lists posted both here and elsewhere, and often the great Chauncey Billups is selected as the Nuggets best all-time starting point guard. Billups was awesome, no doubt, for the two-and-half most recent seasons he played here and his native Denver roots make him all the more special to Nuggets fans. But even the great Billups has to take a back seat to Lever when the discussion of best-ever Nuggets point guard comes up.
And on Wednesday night, I'm glad a few modern day fans will finally get to know what a great player Fat Lever was.