“Quiet on set!”
The camera rolls outside Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence as Wilt Chamberlain and Phog Allen stroll down the sidewalk, the young man a Sequoia next to the legendary coach.
Allen is trying to convince the 18-year-old phenom to leave his Philadelphia home to come play basketball for the University of Kansas.
“It’s predestined,” the coach pitches. “You’re one of a kind, son.”
Chamberlain looks up at the fieldhouse, hulking and formidable in the shadows of the night.
“I wanna learn from you,” he declares, tapping his finger on the coach’s chest. “I wanna be the best that I can be.”
“So,” Allen says cautiously, “I could arrange for a flight from Philadelphia for your return?”
Chamberlain grins. “I like to drive.”
They laugh as they shake hands and walk off the set.
“Let’s do it again, guys,” yells out director Kevin Willmott.
On this warm August night, cast and crew are set up outside the home of Kansas basketball to film a pivotal scene for “Jayhawkers,” Willmott’s sixth full-length film.
The KU film professor’s independent movies get noticed. “C.S.A: Confederate States of America” and “The Only Good Indian” premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and they and others have been shown in theaters around the world and on TV.
Now he’s telling a story about the men who transformed more than basketball in late-1950s Lawrence.
“This is really a great moment in KU history,” Willmott says. “Chancellor (Franklin) Murphy used Wilt to integrate Lawrence and to integrate KU.”
The movie won’t come out until early next year. But passing the hat online whipped up loud word-of-mouth in recent weeks. Willmott and his partners raised almost $55,000 in one month on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website.
Donors scored movie T-shirts, posters, tickets to screenings or a listing in the credits, depending on the size of the pledge. One person who gave more than $7,000 gets to play H.O.R.S.E. with former KU basketball player Scot Pollard. Though the Kickstarter campaign has ended, producers are still raising money for the $250,000 project.
Much of the buzz surrounds the guy playing the late Chamberlain: KU basketball player Justin Wesley.
There was no question that the junior forward from Forth Worth, Texas, would be able to dunk a la Wilt. But act? Before now, his thespian experience consisted of a one-line role as an elf in a sixth-grade play. (“I wasn’t always tall, but I had big ears,” he jokes.)
Last season, coach Bill Self pulled Wesley aside before practice one day with this question: How would you like to play Wilt Chamberlain in a movie?
Said Wesley: “I guess so. Why not?”
Willmott, who had asked Self to recommend a player for the role, didn’t sweat the lack of acting chops; he often works with non-actors. More of a challenge: scheduling the movie-making around Wesley’s classes and basketball practices. And NCAA rules.
Oh, and there’s a pesky shortage of inseam to work around as well.
Chamberlain was 7-1. Wesley is 6-9.
In some scenes, he stands on a stool.
But when he showed up on set sporting a 1950s haircut, looking eerily like Chamberlain, jaws dropped. And they continue to all around Lawrence. KU athletic officials are tweeting pictures from the set. Look, there’s Wesley getting his makeup! (Wesley is no fan of makeup.)
“It didn’t really hit me until it got out in the media and people were calling me Wilt, Wilt the Stilt, the Big Dipper. It’s kind of become a big deal,” he says. “It’s kind of overwhelming.”
An ensemble film
Lawrence is Willmott’s home court. He has filmed there before, and that serves him well when scouting locations on a small budget.
The crew, for instance, turned the basement of Liberty Hall into a Kansas City jazz club. A parking lot behind KU’s Lied Center stood in for the Allen Fieldhouse lot where Phog Allen accidentally set his car on fire.
Scenes can’t be shot in the fieldhouse because it’s too modern-looking for a movie set in the ’50s. So West Middle School, not far from the KU campus, serves as its stunt double. Pump the gym full of fog to hide the bleachers and no one’s the wiser. (Until the fire alarms go off.)
Willmott started working on a Chamberlain movie more than a decade ago, inspired by the legend’s return to Lawrence in 1998 when KU retired his No. 13 jersey and motivated further when Chamberlain died the next year.
The first version was to be a biopic called “Wilt of Kansas,” a $12 million blow-out with big-name actors like Robert Duvall as Phog Allen. But Willmott and his partners couldn’t raise the money.
Plus, Hollywood was more interested in a movie about Chamberlain’s legendary sexual activities off the court, and Willmott had no interest in telling that story. Scaling back, he homed in on the civil rights inroads begat by Chamberlain’s truncated college career in Lawrence.
Not everyone is pleased that the movie is being made, though. Barbara O. Chamberlain-Lewis has protested the film, saying that an agreement with Wilmott for the rights to her brother’s story has expired.
Willmott, who had hoped to work with the family, says he doesn’t need those rights because the retooled version focuses more on Phog Allen and Franklin Murphy. In retrospect, he says, “this should have been the movie we were making the entire time.”
Wooed by the full-court press of the flamboyant Forrest Clare “Phog” Allen, Chamberlain shocked everyone by choosing KU over other schools. He arrived as a freshman in 1955 and played varsity ball as a sophomore and junior before leaving for the pros.
But the racially segregated Lawrence he found when he arrived wasn’t the Lawrence he had been promised. Crueler yet, he never got to play for the man who had led the Jayhawks to the NCAA national championship in 1952.
“He wanted to play for Phog Allen, he wanted to win a national championship, and he wanted to go to a place that wasn’t segregated,” says Willmott’s co-producer, Scott Richardson. “He didn’t get to play for Phog Allen, he didn’t win a national championship, and he found out the town was segregated when he arrived.”
Chamberlain, who grew up on the more racially diverse East Coast, was stunned by the black-white divisions in the Midwest and almost left Lawrence before ever suiting up.
“It was not that kind of Jim Crow segregation, ugly … it was this nice-nasty segregation,” Willmott says. “And that’s in some ways harder to defeat.”
The good guy in the movie — played by Jay Karnes of “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy,” a KU grad — is then-chancellor Franklin Murphy. University historians describe him as a man with “grand plans for KU.” He later served as chancellor of UCLA and marched on behalf of civil rights.
Murphy, Allen and members of the downtown business community had what Willmott depicts as a “meeting of the minds.”
“I think what Chancellor Murphy understood was that you needed somebody like a celebrity to use to make people go, ‘OK, we want him here. He’s going to make us a champion, so we’ll let him eat here.’ And then he brings in his friends. So they had to start tolerating things more and more and more,” Willmott says.
“In my opinion, it was Chancellor Murphy who made Lawrence a great place to live.”
Playing ‘a legend’
In one scene in the movie, the chancellor has just handed Allen the keys to a shiny new Cadillac, a gift for his service to KU and the game of basketball.
Allen steps to the microphone to deliver his thanks. Standing in the center-court spotlight, the cheers from adoring Jayhawks ringing in his ears, the old coach chokes up.
“Through the years, we’ve accomplished so much together,” he says. “And I can assure you, there’s so much more to come. Thank you. Thank you!”
The sad part about the keys-to-the-Cadillac scene in “Jayhawkers” is that there was not much more to come for Allen. Soon after, he was forced to retire at age 70. He knew he was coaching on borrowed time when he recruited Chamberlain. Some think Chamberlain would have never come to KU if he’d known that Dick Harp, not Allen, would coach him.
Across the way, a woman in the West Middle School bleachers watching the filming lets out a heavy sigh. Judy Morris of Lawrence, Phog Allen’s granddaughter, is welcome anytime on the “Jayhawkers” set.
She’s grateful to Willmott and his team for bringing this attention to her grandfather. But, she says, there is so much more to tell.