Traveling man: Australian Steve Leven appears to have found home in Laramie

Australian Steve Leven appears to have found home in Laramie
2005-01-02T00:00:00Z Traveling man: Australian Steve Leven appears to have found home in LaramieJACK DALY Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online
January 02, 2005 12:00 am  • 

With basketball as his beacon, Steve Leven has traveled from Australia to Washington, D.C., to Maryland to rural North Carolina to Auburn to Texas to Wyoming in the last six years, never spending more than one year in any place until arriving in Laramie.

Most of the reasons for Leven's playing the part of hoops missionary - opportunity, playing time, personal preference - are neither surprising nor unique.

Except for one.

Loyalty has as much to do with Leven's nomadic lifestyle as anything else.

Leven is just loyal to people, not institutions.

DATELINE: Airds, New South Wales, Australia

First things first: Even though Leven is Australian (his hometown of Airds is near Sydney), he picked up a basketball for the first time for the same reason many American kids do.

"I played basketball to get me out of trouble," Leven said. "My mom forced me into doing something. When I was young, I had a lot of bad influences, just the environment I grew up in. She wanted to get me into something that kind of occupied my time."

As a teen, Leven stayed up until 4 in the morning, taping NBA games and then watching them over and over. He patterned his game after players like Pete Maravich, Rex Chapman and Bob Sura. Scottie Pippen was his favorite.

By the time Leven was 15, he was playing on a semi-pro team in Australia, taking the court against grown men.

"Every one knew me because I didn't play like the typical European type of game," Leven said. "I'd go to the basket and try and dunk on people. People kind of paid attention to me because of that. But also in Australia, you get blackballed for going against the grain. I've always been one to go to the beat of a different drum.

"I was getting old back in Australia. There was a glass ceiling. I saw myself being really good, but there were outside interferences that were kind of hindering it."

Confident in himself and loyal to his dream, Leven packed his bags for America.

DATELINE: Washington, D.C., Maryland and North Carolina

In his first season in the United States, Leven helped lead St. John's College High School to the Washington (D.C) City Championship as a 16-year-old sophomore. But unenthusiastic about the coach and the returning team, Leven transferred to Newport School in Maryland for his junior season.

Why Newport?

Because of its coach, Chris Chaney. Leven met Chaney while at St. John's and the two instantly hit it off. Leven considers Chaney one of his best friends to this day.

"I liked the way he conducted himself on and off the court," Chaney said.

After Leven's junior year, Chaney switched jobs, moving to Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. Leven followed.

"I only wanted to play for coach Chaney," Leven said.

There the 6-foot-5 swingman emerged as one of the best seniors in the country. During one stretch, he averaged 40.1 points per game for an entire month.

The Nike All-American camp, the Jordan High School All-Star game and the Adidas Roundball Classic invited him to showcase his skills. Oklahoma State, Texas, Miami, Auburn, California, Georgetown, Seton Hall offered him scholarships to use those skills for their respective teams.

Leven chose Auburn.

DATELINE: Auburn, Ala.

Why Auburn?

"I had a really good relationship with one of the assistants at the time, Mike Wilson," Leven said.

At first, the decision seemed to be a stroke of genius. In his first exhibition game, Leven started as a true freshman, knocking down three of his four 3-point attempts. At the time, Auburn head coach Cliff Ellis said, "I think Steve Leven is going to be one heck of an SEC player."

But Leven's next game - another exhibition matchup - would be his last in an Auburn uniform. Auburn was doing "scandalous stuff," according to Leven, stuff that would lead the NCAA to put the Tigers on probation in April of 2004. The NCAA exonerated Auburn from claims the school paid players and provided expensive cars but found that an AAU coach, acting on behalf of the university, did provide cash to recruits. Neither Leven nor Wilson were accused of any wrongdoing.

Wilson got out while he could, taking another job at the University of Richmond. (Wilson is now an NBA scout and can't comment on college players.)

"They were getting in trouble down there and (Wilson) was like, 'I don't want any part of this,'" Leven said. "Before that, everything was going great. I love Auburn, I still love Auburn. If they don't get on probation and everything, I'd still be there."

DATELINE: Austin, Texas

When Wilson left, Leven's eye wandered west. At the semester break in December, Leven packed his bags for Austin.

Why Texas?

"It was halfway through the year, so not many teams have a scholarship to give halfway through the year," Leven said. "The only school that was in a position to accommodate what I needed to do was Texas."

In a rush, Leven entered a situation that didn't suit him.

"When he went to Texas, he hadn't really thought things through," said former UW assistant coach Joe Dooley, who is now at Kansas. "He made an impetuous decision."

For one, Texas was loaded. The semester Leven was there, the Longhorns played in the Final Four.

For two, Barnes' half-court style didn't gel with Leven's up-and-down game.

"I knew I wasn't going to stay down in Texas," Leven said. "Maybe they didn't know, but I knew, because as soon I got down there, my feelers were out for different places to go."

DATELINE: Laramie

Looking for his seventh home in his last six years, Leven turned to the people he trusted most.

Why Laramie?

Because Wilson recommended it.

"Mike and Joe Dooley are very good friends," said UW head coach Steve McClain. "Mike and me have known each other for a long time also. Mike called us and said here's the deal, 'He left Auburn because Mike left.' So Texas had recruited him and he goes to Texas for the semester. He gets there. It don't look real good there.

"So Mike called Joe and we brought him out to visit and took him. Really, we'd never seen him play. (We) took Mike's word, who's been doing this a long time. I called the Auburn assistants because he did stay with the team through the exhibitions. They had nothing but good things to say about him, so we really took him off people's word.

"Kids makes mistakes. I wasn't really that concerned about it. What I saw when he came in here to visit was a guy who loved basketball. Everybody I talked to said he loved basketball. And I knew that's what we needed."

Leven came to Laramie with an open mind, something that a lot of American recruits have a tough time doing.

"So they got me up here for a visit and I loved the place," Leven said. "I liked how coach McClain was very black and white. He was straight to the point, didn't BS me, didn't promise me anything. And I liked that. I'd rather people tell me the truth than sugercoat it. Then I know what to expect.

"We hit it off from the word go. Then once coach Dooley left, (assistant) coach (John) Adams took over. Coach Adams is one of the sole people that made it so comfortable here."

One final thing working in Laramie's favor was its similarities with rural Australia.

"We come from a small country town in Australia," said Leven's mom, Val, who's currently in Laramie visiting. "That's probably why Steve likes it here. Most of his family is in the country in Australia."

DATELINE: ???

So where's Leven's next dateline?

Who knows?

As his play before he injured his left knee speaks to, Leven is unquestionably talented, so professional basketball could be a possibility down the road for the sophomore.

"I think he's a very good player," said former UW standout Marcus Bailey, who scrimmaged against Leven all summer, and whose offensive game Leven's is often compared to.

"I think he could be one of the best players they've had in quite a while. He's really tough to guard. You have to respect his outside shot, and he can dribble past you. Those are the toughest guys to guard."

Don't look for Leven to welcome a return to Australia and its professional league. Old slights have made Leven reticent to return home. The 22-year-old says he'd "love to represent" Australia, but there's a but.

"Australia's been real harsh on me," Leven said. "America's embraced me. I love it over here. All I remember are bad memories from Australia. … I love Australia to death. I'm a big Aussie. I'm an Aussie 'til I die, but I just don't have good memories. It would really take an invitation to play for the national team."

With his success stateside, Leven was disappointed not to receive an invitation to Australia's 2004 Olympic team. He feels that anything he does in the U.S. will be viewed as illegitimate because it's done here instead of there.

"I play hard because I remember the people that doubted me and I want to shove it in their face," Leven said. "In capital letters. Because I've done really well over here and they don't accept it."

For a minute, Leven's frustration with Australia lingers, palpably affecting his demeanor. But it doesn't take long for his mood to brighten, for his face to crack a smile. Leven shifts his focus to Wyoming, the fact he's finally playing and the fact his long, tiring journey has come to an end.

"He stuck with it and found a home in Wyoming," Chaney said. "He loves the program, the loves the coaches. I really haven't heard him this positive in a while."

Assistant sports editor Ryan Johnson contributed to this story.

Senior sports reporter Jack Daly can be reached at (307) 266-0528 or sports@casperstartribune.net

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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