In one of the opening scenes of The Mighty Macs, you’re looking down from the ceiling into the beautiful, massive rotunda at the entrance of Immaculata College. It’s mostly empty and quiet, yet there’s a sense that something big is about to come to that grand hall. “When next you see this space,” an unspoken voice seems to whisper, “it will be immortalized in a moment, and things will never be the same.” And so this incredible story begins.
And what a story! You might think was just fanciful screenwriting were it not based on the amazing true account of Cathy Rush and the Immaculata Women’s basketball team in the early 1970’s.
The Mighty Macs writer and director Tim Chambers presents the inspirational story of their unlikely rise to glory in a movie that fulfills both his own requirements: it honors the team and Immaculata College, and it’s suitable for the entire family to watch. (In fact, he fought hard to maintain the film’s G-rating, when studio execs wanted him to add some cursing or some other “edge” to bring the movie to a PG-rating. Chambers refused.)
Cathy Rush, played with great flair by Carla Gugino, is hired to coach the team, if you can call it that prior to Rush’s arrival. The campus gymnasium had burned to the ground, and there was no money for equipment or uniforms. Rush gets busy clearing out an old recreation room-turned storage unit, and a motley group of half-hearted players soon find themselves challenged both on and off the court, as Rush begins to open their eyes to possibilities they’d never imagined.
When Rush faces a rather dour and tough Mother Superior at her hiring interview, we get our first glimpse of her determination and focus. Mother Superior asks her with a disapproving tone, “Are you suggesting that our girls will become athletes?” Rush replies matter-of-factly, “If they want to win, yes.”
Winner of Hollywood’s triple crown – an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award – Ellen Burstyn is both irritating and endearing as Mother Superior, the cranky old nun (okay, it’s a bit stereotypical) who has much bigger worries than basketball. She’s trying to keep the college from being sold and fading into history. Little does she know that Cathy Rush is the answer to her prayers or that history is indeed about to claim Immaculata College.
Rush gets some coaching assistance from an unlikely source – Sister Sunday, played by Marley Shelton – a nun who is questioning her call to religious life and finds new inspiration as she helps guide the team to victory. Sister Sunday has a memorable scene with Rush in a quiet bar after an away game where she removes her habit veil and promptly gets hit on by a male patron. The two have a humorous exchange, all innocent enough, but I admit to feeling a little bit disturbed at seeing a nun portrayed as hiding her vocation that way.
Newcomer Katie Hayek, in her first feature film, plays Trish Sharkey, the “star” player. She describes how her audition for the role took place first on the basketball court. For Tim Chambers, it was crucial that the actors’ basketball skills be up to snuff. Chambers knew that if the ball-playing wasn’t real and believable, the movie simply would never work. All the “movie Macs” are basketball players in real life and it shows in the basketball scenes of the film.
Hayek’s character has some of my favorite scenes in the movie. Her family is struggling financially, and early on we see Trish’s mother at the kitchen table mending Trish’s worn-out sneakers for her. As Trish, clad in baggy denim overalls, is hurrying to get out the door, she slips two bread bags over her feet and borrows her brother’s wet boots to wear for the day. The affection between mother and daughter is obvious and heartwarming.
Later in the film, the team is asked to wear their “Sunday best” for a newspaper photographer, and Trish is there in her overalls and scraggly hair, and the photographer tries to hide her in the back row. Humiliated, Trish runs to the lock herself in the bathroom. Her teammates gather in a quick huddle, then disappear, only to return armed with dresses, shoes, and makeup. The janitor unlocks the bathroom door, and in a few minutes, they all come out smiling. Trish emerges looking as beautiful on the outside as she’s always been inside, and she just glows with newfound confidence. Half the people in the theater were wiping away tears, including me.
It’s a scene the really captures the unity and spirit of friendship that exists among the Macs, and real-life Mac Theresa Shank Grentz, on whom Trish Sharkey is based, says their bond was indeed strong and remains so today. “We had a virtuous friendship on the team. We’d never disappoint each other. When one needs the others, you call and we’re there.”
Chambers says that any good, inspirational sports movie uses sports as a metaphor for something else, something bigger. What Cathy Rush did in 1972 for a humble women’s basketball team went way beyond elevating their game to a championship level; she elevated their hopes, their ideas about what their lives could be, about who they could be and what they could accomplish. In the end, what the Macs achieved changed women’s sports in this country forever.
In an era where a son’s dreams were bigger than a daughter’s, Cathy Rush came along and said, “If you want it, fight for it.” Dreams, she insisted, were not merely for the rich or powerful, nor were they only for men. “Dreams are for everybody, but you have to believe it.”
I had the honor of attending the red-carpet premiere of The Mighty Macs in Philadelphia last week, and I was able to meet some of the real Macs, as well as Cathy Rush. Mrs. Rush is gracious and charming; her delicate stature a surprising juxtaposition with her powerful legacy. After leading the Macs to three consecutive National Championship victories, she concluded her coaching career at Immaculata with a stunning 90.9% win percentage.
The testament to Mrs. Rush’s influence is that her example led her players to achieve success in their own lives, with many of them going on to successful coaching careers of their own. Others went on to become doctors, lawyers, and teachers – all of them paying tribute to Mrs. Rush’s mentoring influence.
Simply put, Cathy Rush taught the girls it was okay to want the prize. And she motivated them to work hard and sacrifice for it, and to never give up.
That rotunda I mentioned earlier? It marks a pivotal moment in the film when the prize seems all but gone, and the team is more demoralized than ever. Having lost the game that would have sent them to the National tournament, the ladies arrive back at Immaculata late at night crushed by defeat only to learn that they’d won one of the four at-large bids and would indeed play at the Nationals. (Of the 16 teams playing, the Macs were ranked #15.)
They walk into that rotunda expecting silence, and it absolutely explodes with the cheers and shouts of their fellow students. Signs and streamers are everywhere, and in a flash, there’s a palpable feeling of hope and expectation.
Mrs. Rush described what it was like for her when they filmed that scene, which is not merely a dramatic screenplay invention, but really did happen: “I was standing on the upper floor of the rotunda during that scene, and I looked down at Carla (Gugino) and our eyes met, and it was incredible. I was overcome with emotion and tears. It was like I was right back there in that moment in 1972.”
Amidst the deluge of movies that are full of offensive garbage, The Mighty Macs is a real treat and worth every penny of the ticket price. It truly is a film you can take your young children to see without worry. The entire family will love this uplifting movie.
I’m passing along a plea from the people who have labored for years to bring you this wonderful film: go see this movie when it opens in theaters nationwide, Friday, October 21st! Why does it matter? Simply because opening weekend ticket sales are a big deal in the movie business. If you want to see more movies that are free of explicit language, sex, and violence; if you want to see more films that are filled with virtue and inspiration rather than degradation and immorality, then you need to send that message loud and clear by supporting The Mighty Macs in the theater.
Visit The Mighty Macs website (www.themightymacs.com) for a listing of theaters in your area.
Get your tickets and get ready to cheer! LET’S GO MACS!!