When Bill Self heard that a University of Kansas film professor was searching for an actor to play Wilt Chamberlain, his first thoughts drifted toward Julian Wright, the former Jayhawk standout who left KU in 2007.
Wright was tall, and lanky, and could reasonably pass for the legendary Chamberlain with a little film magic. But when Self found out that NCAA rules would permit a current player to star in an independent film right here in Lawrence, he stopped thinking about Wright.
He already had Wilt the Stilt in his own locker room: 6-foot-9 power forward Justin Wesley. So Self went to Kevin Willmott, the longtime KU film professor and independent film maker.
How about Justin?
On Friday night, the rest of Lawrence saw what Self and Willmott envisioned when the film “Jayhawkers” officially premiered with two screenings at the Lied Center on the KU campus.
“When I saw Justin, and Coach Self said, ‘I can make him available,’ I looked at him online,” Willmott said during an post-screening Q&A session. “And it was like, ‘Oh my god,’ this guy could be Wilt Chamberlain.”
The film, of course, was more than just the story of Chamberlain, who arrived at Kansas as a freshman in the fall of 1955. It was the story of legendary coach Phog Allen and progressive Chancellor Franklin Murphy, who conspired to bring Chamberlain to a Lawrence that was still largely segregated. Allen and Murphy enlisted help from the African-American community in Kansas City, including singer Etta Moten and Kansas City Call editor Dowdal Davis.
“All of us involved,” Willmott said, “we really wanted to make sure that — we have to entertain, we have to hold the audience, we’ve got to tell a good story — but at the same time, these are real people. The Allen family is back there, and we have a responsibility to their family; to the Chamberlain family, to all the people that are represented in the film.”
The film was dotted with scenes and themes that still resonate today. Parts of the first half of the film dealt with the old whispers that KU’s staff may have circumvented NCAA rules to lure Chamberlain to Lawrence. On Friday afternoon, KU officials sent out a release that explained that Wesley could not speak or promote the movie during the premier. Why? It would be in violation of amateurism rules.
The film also dedicated much time to Chamberlain’s dealings with local businesses in Lawrence. Some restaurants would simply not serve him because of the color of his skin, the discrimination causing great concern for Allen.
But at the heart of the film was Wesley, a college senior who two seasons ago was playing minutes against Kentucky in the NCAA title game. After the screening, Wesley stopped in the Lied Center foyer to speak with some buddies from KU’s Sigma Chi fraternity. In a dark suit with a few specks of facial hair, Wesley did seem to relish the Chamberlain role. A few feet away, his coach approved.
“I thought my guy did a terrific job, I did,” Self said. “I figured he would be a natural in that particular role, but he was better than I even thought he would be. I thought he played it perfectly, or as well as anybody could play it.”