At the outset and in the spirit of full disclosure, let me just say that I am a graduate of the University of Kansas and a huge fan of Wilt Chamberlain, aka “Wilt the Stilt," and “The Big Dipper.” He is widely considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Wilt Chamberlain also happened to play at KU. He was a Jayhawk.
A new movie about Chamberlain’s brief time at KU is the subject of a film by Kansas filmmaker Kevin Willmott, premiering this weekend. It’s called Jayhawkers.
Set against the backdrop of the 1950s, the film explores the huge impact Chamberlain had on Lawrence, Kan. and the game of basketball.
The 7’1” teenage giant, heavily recruited out of high school in Philadelphia, could have gone to the college of his choice. But he chose KU largely because he wanted to play for the legendary Forrest “Phog” Allen.
Chamberlain knew that playing in the South wasn’t an option for a black man in the '50s, and Allen assured him there would be no problem with racial discrimination in Lawrence. Unfortunately, that wasn’t his experience. On KCUR’s Up to Date, Willmott told Steve Kraske that much of Chamberlain’s story paralleled the pre-civil rights struggles of the day.
"The Brown (vs Board of Education) decision has just happened in Topeka…so Kansas City, Lawrence, this whole area was still very much segregated," Wilmott says. "On Mass (Massachusetts) Street in Lawrence black women couldn’t try on hats, they couldn’t try on dresses…it was called a nice nasty segregation…some of Wilt’s white colleagues didn’t really know, didn’t really see the racism…"
The film is illustrated with archival footage of Chamberlain’s remarkable talents. His speed and agility was a game-changer. Willmott told Kraske that new rules had to be created to counteract Chamberlain’s extraordinary athleticism:
“…one was that he used to jump from the free throw line and dunk on free throws…and they said you can’t do that anymore…”
To hear the original conversation on KCUR's Up To Date between Kevin Willmott and Steve Kraske click here.