When Kip Niven was a kid growing up in northeast Johnson County, his main sports interest was in the Kansas City A’s. The remarkable performance of 7’1″ standout Wilt Chamberlain on The University of Kansas basketball team didn’t register strongly on his radar.
“My folks were from Montana, so we didn’t have that Jayhawk spirit in our blood when I was a kid,” he said.
But by the time Niven had graduated from SM East in 1963 and headed to KU for college, the seeds of reverence for the school’s program had been planted.
And along with Niven’s burgeoning interest in Kansas basketball came a profound respect for the man who put the school’s team — and in many ways the entire sport — on the map: Dr. Forrest “Phog” Allen. Four and a half decades after Nevin graduated from KU and began a successful career in television and film, he had the opportunity to portray the namesake of the famous Allen Fieldhouse as part of a film premiering Friday in the Kansas City area.
Niven is among the lead performers in “Jayhawkers,” a movie that tells the tale of Chamberlain’s arrival at KU during a period when Lawrence was segregated. The film explores the relationships between Chamberlain, Allen and KU chancellor Franklin Murphy. Director Kevin Willmott, a KU film professor, and Nevin met through Niven’s involvement with the school’s theatre and film department and Willmott had cast Nevin in a smaller role in his 2009 film “The Only Good Indian.” As momentum grew around the production of “Jayhawkers,” Wilmott approached Nevin about taking on the role of Allen.
“He thought I looked enough like him that I could pull it off,” Niven said. “The most problematic casting piece, though, was Wilt, because you had to find someone with the height, the basketball skills and the acting skills to pull it off. Luckily Coach [Bill] Self recommended Justin Wesley, and he was great. He was just a delightful young man to work with.”
The film shot in the summer and early fall of 2012 primarily on location in Lawrence. Niven said the shoot — and the opportunity to portray a man he respects so much — were excellent experiences.
“Allen was quite the ambassador for the team, and the sport of college basketball,” he said. “He really was the PT Barnum of the game. He loved that role.”
Niven, a 1963 graduate of SM East, had his youngest daughter Maggie graduate from SM East last year. She is now a freshman at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., studying theater.
“Jayhawkers” premiered with sold-out shows in Lawrence in February, and opens Friday at STANDEES in Prairie Village and Screenland Armour in the Northland. The movie will run at least through March 13 at STANDEES.
Check out the trailer below: