Wilt Chamberlain could do just about anything on the basketball court. Score, rebound, block shots, anything. He even led the NBA in assists one season.
That one-of-a-kind talent played a key role off the court, too. An upcoming movie focusing on Chamberlain’s recruitment to Kansas in the mid-1950s casts him as the ideal person to spark social change in Lawrence.
KU’s very own Jackie Robinson but on a slightly smaller scale.
“Jayhawkers” takes its title from the familiar KU mascot. But that’s not its origin. It’s a reminder of “Bleeding Kansas” when abolitionists from the territory were referred to as “jayhawkers.” The anti-slavery term carried over into the Civil War as any Union troops from Kansas earned the moniker. That tolerance didn’t last, though.
When Wilt arrived, the town was essentially segregated. How to change that? By bringing in a guy who could change people’s minds. Who wants to cheer against the best Jayhawk basketball player anyone had ever seen? That’s what intrigued Kevin Willmott, the movie’s writer and director, an associate professor at Kansas with multiple film credits, including “C.S.A: The Confederate States Of America,”
“Part of theme of the film is that is we lost what it meant to be Jayhawkers. Somehow along the way we had kinda forgotten about that,” Willmott says. “Sport at that time could be a vehicle for social change. Our film’s going to look at that a lot closer.”
Of course, there’ll be basketball, too.
Willmott cast current Jayhawk Justin Wesley to play Chamberlain. The 6-foot-9 Kansas junior doesn’t have The Stilt’s height, but his facial features and lean build are perfect. They’ll use high school players around him, so he’ll probably appear just as dominant as Chamberlain without a ton of movie magic. With any luck, it’ll resemble a movie like “Hoosiers,” which not only had great hoops sequences but nailed the basketball style of 1950s Indiana. Fittingly, the climax is the 1957 NCAA tournament championship against North Carolina that went three overtimes and is often hailed as one of the sport’s greatest games.
“That’s a big challenge of the film, to get the basketball right,” Willmott says. “You have to get the script correct for the social change, but the selling part of the film is the basketball.”
For that, former Kansas star Scot Pollard will be helping Wesley with his low-post moves and playing style of the ‘50s.
The film won’t focus entirely on Chamberlain, though. He’s simply the agent of change. It’s also a tribute to former Kansas Chancellor Franklin Murphy and legendary coach Phog Allen, the two men who coaxed Chamberlain to leave Philadelphia for the Sunflower State.
“They told [Chamberlain] to go into the places and just wait to be served. This is before the Civil Rights Movement, and there’s no Dr. King yet. And here’s this 18-year-old kid, who happens to be an incredible player. It’s very bizarre in that sense it’s celebrity and stardom fostering change.”
Willmott has a stable of K.C. actors he regularly uses in his films and is almost done casting. Kansas native Kip Niven (“Magnum Force,” “Earthquake”) plays Phog Allen, while Blake Robbins (“Oz,” “The Office”) plays Dick Harp, who coached Kansas during the title game. (McMurphy hasn’t been cast yet.) There also is more fundraising to be done, for which interested parties can contribute through “Jayhawkers” Kickstarter site. That’ll close on Aug. 2.
Shooting starts in mid-August and will run about four weeks. Once he’s done editing it (about six months), it could be ready for a premiere during March Madness.
Perhaps just in time for another Kansas run to the Final Four?
“Maybe we’ll get lucky there,” Willmott says.
You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.