LAWRENCE — The crying scene would come last, near the final stages of a grueling film shoot. The college basketball player would have to tear up, and the cameras would capture it.
Kevin Willmott, the director of “Jayhawkers,” wasn’t too concerned. For months, he had been testing the emotional limits of Justin Wesley, a first-time actor playing the role of Wilt Chamberlain in a local independent film. But now came the scene:
“Justin,” Willmott said, “You’re going to have to cry.”
“No problem,” Wesley said.
Wesley, then a junior forward on the Kansas basketball team, left the makeshift set and walked to his car. He pulled open the door, his 6-foot-9 frame piling into the front seat. Then he searched for the right song.
For the next few minutes, he thought of his dad.
Nobody on the set knew what Wesley was doing — only that the trip to the car helped him nail the scene. But Wesley’s older brother, former Kansas star Keith Langford, understood perfectly. This was the Justin he grew up with. This was how he coped.
When the brothers were growing up in Fort Worth, Langford would sometimes stumble upon his little brother in a quiet moment of reflection, a young child trying to hold onto a memory.
“It would be kind of eerie,” Langford says. “Even as a young child, I can remember him having certain moments where I would catch him staring at his dad’s picture. He’d just be in a real mature state.”
All these years later, Langford can hardly believe how mature his baby brother has become. On Wednesday night, Wesley will play his final game at Allen Fieldhouse, earning a rare start as No. 8 Kansas faces Texas Tech on Senior Night. In a few months, Wesley will join his brother as a KU graduate.
Wesley is a local celebrity now, the KU reserve who played Wilt in a movie. His minutes have been sparse during his last two seasons, but as he finishes his final months on campus, Wesley’s story is no longer just about basketball.
“I always just wanted to see Justin succeed in something, no matter what it was in,” Langford said in a phone conversation from Milan, Italy. “He had all the odds against him.”
How do you teach a child to grieve?
Charlene Taylor had no idea. On that night in the summer of 1995, she didn’t know what to tell her son. Isiah Wesley had gone to work at a nightclub he owned in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Metroplex. While he closed up that night, a robbery turned violent, and Wesley was shot and killed. He was 44.
Back at home, Justin Wesley was just a few months removed from his fourth birthday. Somehow, Charlene said, she told her young son that his father wasn’t coming home.
“I was worried about how it would affect him,” she said. “Because you don’t know how to teach a 4-year-old to grieve.”
The news filtered to Langford, who was at his own father’s house. Keith was 11 years old then, and middle brother Kevin was a few years younger. And to this day, Keith can still remember his father’s words.
“You have a responsibility to your brother,” Andre Langford said.
So for the next seven years, before Keith left for Kansas, he did what he could. He would be protector and adviser, friend and role model.
“It seemed like the older they got, they left me out of the loop,” Charlene said, laughing. “I’d say something to Justin and Kevin, and they’d be like ‘Well, Keith said this.’
Justin grew into a goofy grade-school kid who lived for the video game “Tony Hawk: Pro Skater.” He was the baby of the family, and he knew how to get what he wanted. One summer, while Langforf was still at KU, Wesley spent a few weeks living with his older brother in the Jayhawker Towers on campus. At night, Langford would leave to have fun with friends, and Wesley would stick behind and play video games. But really, Langford says, he always knew his brother would grow up.
Inside that household, if you really wanted to earn your keep, you did it on the basketball court.
The plan came together quickly. Wesley had spent his freshman season at Lamar, but he knew he needed a change. It was 2010, and Langford was already five years into a lucrative professional career in Europe.
Langford had been a star at Kansas, starting in two Final Fours and finishing seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,812 points. Now he was set to net millions in Europe, and he had an idea: If Kansas coach Bill Self would let his brother walk on, he would pay his way.
“I was in a position where I could help out,” Langford says. “For him to not have to worry about money, that was huge.”
Wesley had other thoughts.
“I told him, ‘Just give me a year,’ ” Wesley says. “I’ll earn a scholarship. I never came here with the mind-set that I’m a walk-on … that’s it.”
One year later, Wesley was playing reserve minutes during Kansas’ run to the NCAA title game in 2012. The scholarship came. So did more opportunity. But here's the reality of being a former walk-on at a place like Kansas: You’re always just a few top recruits away from being replaced in the rotation.
So when the playing time dried up in his junior and senior seasons, Self came to Wesley with another idea: How about acting? Willmott, a KU film professor, was making a movie about Wilt Chamberlain’s time at KU, and he needed somebody that could capture Wilt.
Wesley thought he’d do it for fun. Play basketball at KU and star in a movie? Cool. But nearly two years later, after the premiere of the film, he’s no longer thinking about following in his brother’s pro footsteps to Europe.
He’s thinking about acting.
“I won’t say I was one-take Wesley,” he says, “But I’m definitely taking it seriously.”
For Charlene, the film came at the perfect time for her son. Finally, he wasn’t just Keith and Kevin’s little brother. He had something he could call his own.
“Every young man or woman in college is looking for that unexpected thing, something that will change them or alter them in an unexpected way,” Willmott says. “It’s the kind of thing only college can provide. For Justin, I think that was ‘Jayhawkers.’ ”
As he finishes up his career, Wesley feels the same way. The playing time never materialized, but he gained the sort of experience he was looking for. There’s a funny story about Wesley’s original commitment to Kansas, one that is only half true. When Langford took his official visit, then KU coach Roy Williams asked Wesley, then in the fourth grade, if he wanted to commit, too. All these years later, Wesley is glad he kept his commitment and followed his brother.
“He’s always been kind of like my idol, my father figure, my hero,” Wesley says. “It was great to come here and follow in his footsteps.”