Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service

Willmott film 'Jayhawkers' explores Chamberlain era

Thu, 02/06/2014

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.

Matt Menzenski, a graduate student in Slavic languages & literatures, took this photo during President Obama’s speech at KU Thursday. Menzenski says he was struck by how relaxed the president was in his delivery. He missed a chance to hear former President Bill Clinton speak in his hometown in 2004, but finally got to see a sitting president this week at KU. “The opportunity to hear the president speak is just one of many great opportunities I've had at KU. So many interesting talks and events happen here all the time. I try to attend at least one a week-- it's never hard to find something interesting to go to.” Tags: University of Kansas College of Liberal Arts and Sciences KU School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures KU Dept of Slavic Languages - Friends & Alumni Barack Obama The White House #exploreKU #POTUSatKU

#KUstudents , faculty & staff: The Rec is closed due to a water main break. More info: For updates: @KUAmblerRec
Explore KU: The Bells of Mount Oread KU’s Campanile, a 120-foot-tall timepiece that tolls automatically on the hour and quarter-hour, not only sounded in the 2015 New Year at midnight with 12 mighty gongs, but also regularly rings up memories for many Jayhawks – the 277 faculty and students who gave their lives during World War II, the graduates who walk through its doors at commencement, and aspiring students who have strolled through the Lawrence campus. (See For nearly 60 years, KU’s 53-bell carillon has been tolling the sounds of peace and serenity across Mount Oread since it was installed in June 1955 inside the landmark World War II Memorial Campanile, which was dedicated in 1951. (See The carillon is also a four-octave musical instrument, which is played with a giant keyboard and foot pedals. University Carillonneur Elizabeth Egber-Berghout (, associate professor of carillon and organ, climbs 77 steps up a spiral staircase in the bell tower to perform recitals several times a month.

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