KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Justin Wesley tried acting. Once. It was the 6th-grade Christmas play; he was one of Santa’s elves. Blink and you missed him.
“I can’t exactly remember what made me do it. Maybe I thought it was going to be fun,” the junior forward on the Kansas basketball team recalls. “I only had one or two lines I didn’t say much. I guess you would put that on my resume.”
Which begs the question: Did the elf even have a name? Pixie? Toodles? Ralph? Anything?
“It was just ‘Elf Seven,'” Wesley chuckles. “My part wasn’t that significant.”
His next one will be.
For the last two weeks, the 6-foot-9 Wesley has been playing the role of Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest player ever to wear a Jayhawk uniform and arguably the most dominant force in college basketball history. Shooting began in Lawrence on Aug. 15 for the independent film “Jayhawkers,” which chronicles Chamberlain’s recruitment to the University of Kansas from Philadelphia in 1955 by then-KU coach Phog Allen and how Wilt The Stilt changed the campus and the town — both on and off the court.
But especially off.
“I’m mainly doing it for the history of it,” explains Wesley, who appeared in 38 contests and averaged 10 minutes per game off the bench last season for the NCAA runners-up. “The movie has a lot of controversy and that’s the main reason why I’m doing it. It’s kind of fun, like, learning the backstory — to be a part of that is so exciting.
“The backstory of the movie is the different reasons that Phog wanted Wilt here, (while) the chancellor (Franklin Murphy) wanted Wilt here to change segregation in Lawrence. He felt like Wilt would change the whole outlook (of the city), and Phog wanted him to change basketball.”
Which he did. Lawrence was still a segregated town when Wilt turned up, despite the fact that the landmark decision from the Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education — that state laws allowing for separate public schools for white students and black students were unconstitutional — was roughly a year old. Rather than bow to Jim Crow’s mandate, the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain simply chose to ignore it. Because of his celebrity status and the fanaticism for the Jayhawks, the white establishment tended to look the other way.
“I single-handedly integrated Kansas,” Chamberlain would say later, and while some historians have contested that point, there’s no debating the impact The Big Dipper had on the campus at large and on Lawrence as a whole.
“I’ve read through a couple (scenes), but the director told me, ‘Don’t worry about memorizing all the lines in the entire script,'” says Wesley, who got his hair and moustache cropped short to mimic Chamberlain’s look as a collegian. “It’s not too hard to pick up.”
Besides, director — and KU film professor — Kevin Willmott, who wrote the script, insists that “Jayhawkers” is more of an ensemble piece, focusing on relationships shared by Allen, played by veteran character actor and Kansas grad Kip Niven; university administration; and assistant coach Dick Harp. Allen had been forced to retire at the age of 70; Harp was the one who eventually wound up coaching Wilt at the varsity level, much to Chamberlain’s chagrin.
To give it an authentic, early ’50s, docu-drama feel, they’re shooting the picture in black and white, largely around Lawrence and Topeka. Former Jayhawk big man Scot Pollard is an associate producer and is slated to play the role of another ex-Kansas great, B.H. Born, who’d helped recruit Chamberlain to Lawrence. Back in the spring, it was Jayhawks coach Bill Self who’d actually helped recruit Wesley for the role of Wilt.
“I looked at interviews with him and I could tell with his interviews that (Wesley) was very articulate, very confident and carries himself very well.” Willmott says. “He’s very relaxed in front of the cameras. And that goes a long way. And he can do his own stunts. That’s a big deal, too.”
The producers raised more than $50,000 this summer, but say they’ll need roughly $250,000 to finish the film. Willmott hopes to complete the editing process next year — Chamberlain’s sister Barbara has reportedly sent a cease-and-desist letter to the filmmakers — then debut it at a festival such as Sundance or Tribeca. One donor recently wrote in to the movie’s Facebook page to say that they were contributing because they wanted to see Wilt’s story on the big screen — and noted that this was coming from a Missouri fan.
Meanwhile, Wesley — who really does look the part — has been taking more than his fair share of good-natured ribbing from his Kansas teammates.
“All the time,” Wesley chuckles. “I mean, every day. Whenever I do something in practice … score, or block a shot, or get a rebound, the players are saying, ‘Wilt!’ Or the coaches are saying, ‘Wilt!’ They can’t get enough of it.”
But Wesley, a movie buff who digs Will Smith, is taking this seriously — he’s spent much of his free time doing research, even watching YouTube clips of Chamberlain’s game footage and interviews.
“I would just ask (Wilt) probably a little bit about his experience here and how he felt when he first got here and how long it took him to adjust to his surroundings,” Wesley says. “How different it was here (compared) to where he was from. I’ve watched a couple of his interviews online and tried to get his mannerisms down to a ‘T.’ “
The fadeaway? The finger roll?
“Can’t tell you anything,” Wesley says, chuckling again. “You’ll see.”
From elves to giants. If that doesn’t show range as an actor, what does?