Lawrence is rightfully proud of its free-state history and of its ties to the birth and development of basketball into the huge sport it is today.
Both of those movements, however, had their ups and downs along the way and Kevin Wilmott’s new “Jayhawkers” movie tackles some of the complex relationships and attitudes that challenged Lawrence during the three years superstar Wilt Chamberlain played basketball at Kansas University. Wilmott’s film offers a not-entirely-flattering snapshot of Lawrence and the changes it and other communities across the country were facing at the beginning of the civil rights era.
As portrayed in the film, KU leaders had different reasons for wanting to bring Chamberlain to Lawrence. Basketball coach Forrest “Phog” Allen saw a phenomenal basketball player who already had a national reputation. Chancellor Franklin Murphy saw someone who could help drive racial integration at KU and in Lawrence. In a basketball-focused community like Lawrence, who better than a 7-foot basketball star to push forward residents’ acceptance of minorities?
Lawrence and KU are fortunate to benefit from Wilmott’s talents. In this and other films, he seeks to shine a light on racial identity and struggles. “Jayhawkers” features a number of local actors, including many KU graduates and, of course, current Jayhawk basketball player Justin Wesley, playing Wilt. Wilmott’s hands-on work as a writer and director increases his credibility as a teacher and mentor in the eyes of his KU students. He’s teaching based on experience, not just theory.
“Jayhawkers” is a great addition to Lawrence’s basketball heritage and its growing reputation as a basketball mecca. Hopefully, the film eventually will be an ongoing part of the local attractions available to tourists with an interest in the history of basketball.
“Jayhawkers” is about Wilt Chamberlain, but it’s also about Allen, Murphy and Lawrence as a whole. It’s anything but a simple story, but it’s an important story that Wilmott should be congratulated for sharing with his audience.