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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.