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Willmott film 'Jayhawkers' explores Chamberlain era

Thursday, February 06, 2014

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas Film and Media Studies Professor Kevin Willmott’s latest film, “Jayhawkers,” examines the intersection of three legendary KU figures – Wilt Chamberlain, Phog Allen and Chancellor Frank Murphy.  

Just a year after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, the much-sought-after Chamberlain came to KU to play under Allen, a pioneer in basketball coaching. The arrival of Chamberlain at KU not only marked a shift toward the practice of high stakes recruiting in college basketball, but a change in the treatment of African-Americans in Lawrence. Chamberlain was a celebrity before his arrival at KU, Willmott said, and that shaped how he was treated in a city that had segregated restaurants and theaters.

“It really was an amazing triangle effect of these three men,” Willmott said. “Murphy tells Wilt to be himself, and Wilt is himself. He  goes where he wants to go, he dates whom he wants to date, and his is a very modern figure in that sense. Celebrities tend to do what they want to do. And, he uses the power of celebrity to break things open.”

The film premieres at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14, at the Lied Center. Additional screenings will be at 11 a.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15, and 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16. The 11 a.m. Saturday showing will have video descriptions for the visually impaired. Tickets can be purchased at the Lied Center box office. Crown Toyota Automotive, Douglas County Bank and Student Union Activities are sponsoring the Lied Center screenings.

Willmott, whose two previous films, “C.S.A. Confederate States of America” and ‘The Only Good Indian,” have shown at the Sundance Film Festival, became interested in the story of Chamberlain’s time in Lawrence shortly after the legendary basketball player’s death in 1999.

A Philadelphia native, Chamberlain played for KU from 1955 to 1958, averaging 29.9 points a game and 18.3 rebounds. He led KU to one Big Seven championship and an appearance in the 1957 NCAA National Championship Game against the University of North Carolina, which is considered one of the greatest games in tournament history.

In 1958 at the end of his junior year, Chamberlain left KU to launch his professional career with the Harlem Globetrotters and went on to have a Hall of Fame career in the NBA. He didn’t return to KU until 1998, when his jersey, No. 13, was retired in Allen Fieldhouse.

“The question always was why didn’t Wilt come back?” Willmott said. “And, that was really the hook that got me from the very beginning. What was going on here that he didn’t come back? And, the answer is pretty complicated, and it is a pretty amazing answer.”

Playing Chamberlain is KU men’s basketball forward Justin Wesley. Although Wesley didn’t come to the role with any acting experience, Willmott said the Fort Worth, Texas, senior had a shared experience of coming from a large urban area to a smaller town and playing for a legendary program and coach.

The other two lead roles are played by KU graduates. Kip Niven, whose 45-year career includes “Magnum Force” and “Return to Lonesome Dove,’” portrays Allen. Jay Karnes, who is known for his work in “The Shield” and “Burn Notice,” plays Murphy.

Shot in black and white, the film’s style draws inspiration from the work of Rich Clarkson, a KU alumnus who captured some of the most iconic photos taken of Chamberlain while he was a Jayhawk. The soundtrack pulls from jazz musician Nathan Davis, another KU alumnus who was in school during Chamberlain’s time at the university and who is featured in the film.

Although the film has strong KU ties, Willmott argues it comes with national significance.

“It was really the introduction of the major black athlete,” Willmott said.