In the mist of March Madness, Saint Louis University combined the current basketball craze with a little Civil Rights education when it hosted the Kevin Wilmott film “Jayhawkers” in the Center for Global Citizenship Wednesday evening. The independent biopic film focused on former NBA player Wilt Chamberlain’s recruitment to the University of Kansas and the challenges that were presented to him as a black basketball player during the Civil Rights movement.
Wilmott, a film and media studies professor at the University of Kansas, co-wrote and directed “Jayhawkers” after coming to understand the impact that Chamberlain and the team had on the surrounding community and college sports in general.
“When he passed away a lot of stories came out about the integration kind of effect that he had on the city and KU and all of that, and that’s when I kind of found out that there was a real story here that could be a good film,” said Wilmott.
Chamberlain first started playing basketball at the University of Kansas in 1955 and made his debut on their varsity team in 1956 where he set the school record by scoring 52 points in a game. The 7-foot-1 inch player later led the team to the 1957 NCAA title game against North Carolina where they lost in triple overtime by one point. Chamberlain then went on to conquer other obstacles in the basketball world, becoming an NBA player and the only person to score 100 points in a single NBA game.
More astonishing than these accomplishments, though, was the effect that Chamberlain’s success seemingly had on overall society during the time. Highlighting the racism difficulties that the team faced in “Jayhawkers,” Wilmott expressed the opposition that the team faced for their integration. Chamberlain was not the first black player to be drafted onto KU’s basketball team, but his height and success certainly brought attention to the team and college sports integration.
“Being that big and being that good had never existed before,” stated Wilmott. The director discussed how Chamberlain’s fame sparked an interest in the recruitment and training of black players at larger universities, which in turn initiated a culture change for college sports.
“Jayhawkers” also highlighted the team’s journey with their renowned coach Forrest Clare “Phog” Allen and the familial relationships that were fostered amongst the team as they faced the struggles of racism together. The black and white film took about ten years to create, with only about six weeks of actual filming, and appointed current KU basketball player Justin Wesley as the lead character, Chamberlain.
“I think sports is a lot of fun, but sports can also have an amazing effect on society,” said Wilmott. “And I think that’s what this film kind of demonstrates.”