Basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain was an inch over seven feet tall. But the heights he reached were unmeasurable.
That’s what inspired Lawrence-based director Kevin Willmott to make “Jayhawkers,” a film made in Kansas about Chamberlain’s time spent in Lawrence and the legacy he left there. The film will have its Wichita premiere on Friday and play through Sunday at the Murdock Theatre, 536 N. Broadway.
Willmott said it took 10 years to get the film made.
“We got the idea really when Wilt passed away,” Willmott said earlier this week. “A lot of articles came out at that time about the effect he had on Lawrence and KU and how he really started the integration of the city. I never knew anything about that. I think a lot of people didn’t really know the story.”
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It was 1955 when Chamberlain came to Lawrence, persuaded by coach Phog Allen and Chancellor Franklin Murphy. The civil rights movement was just beginning and Lawrence was still mostly segregated. But Chamberlain, who was from Philadelphia, wasn’t used to being treated differently.
“No one told him about that,” Willmott said. “He was surprised. It was a nice/nasty sort of segregation. A typical sign would say, ‘We’re socially selective.’ But minority folks knew exactly what the deal was.”
How fitting, then, that “Jayhawkers” is shown in black-and-white, at a time when those lines were just about to blur.
Real-life KU basketball player Justin Wesley plays Chamberlain. Willmott says casting was always a concern, not only because of Chamberlain’s height, but because the actor playing him also had to actually play basketball. KU coach Bill Self recommended Wesley, who is 6-foot-9, to Willmott.
“When I looked at him I knew he could do it,” Willmott said. “He never acted before, but you could tell he was comfortable in front of a camera, doing interviews. Very articulate and very smart.”
The film was shot almost two years ago in areas around Lawrence, Leavenworth and Topeka, where the production crew found places that could pass for 1950s-60s settings.
“We were very fortunate to find what we were looking for,” Willmott said.
But he’s no stranger to making movies in Kansas. “Jayhawkers” is Willmott’s sixth feature-length film. Two of his previous features, “CSA: Confederate States of America” and “The Only Good Indian,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to acclaim and sold-out audiences. Willmott, who also co-wrote “Jayhawkers” with Wichita native Scott Richardson, is also an associate professor of film at KU.
So “Jayhawkers” is part of a legacy he is building in Kansas. And the film’s journey is just getting started. It premiered in February in Lawrence to a crowd of about 10,000 people. It’s now being shown at Liberty Hall in Lawrence and expands to Kansas City this weekend, before heading to other parts of the state, and then the country.
“We’re going to try to scour Kansas first,” Willmott said. “Because people here have a direct connection to the story.”