'Mighty Macs' follows same underdog path as team
Here's a sports fairy tale that never gets old: Underdog team with few resources but a lot of heart beats the odds and comes out on top.
That is what actually happened to the 1971-72 women's basketball squad at tiny Immaculata College.
It's also what happened to ''The Mighty Macs,'' a small-budget movie about the team's improbable national championship that overcame its own obstacles to make it to Hollywood.
The film starring Carla Gugino, Marley Shelton, David Boreanaz and Ellen Burstyn hits theaters Friday.
''We really needed to be patient and believe in the story and the right distribution platform for the story,'' said Tim Chambers, who wrote and directed the film. ''... It was definitely worth the wait.''
The true story of the Mighty Macs has always read like a movie script.
It starts in 1971 with a 23-year-old named Cathy Rush. The former high school basketball star was coaching the ragtag team at Immaculata, a struggling Catholic school for women near Philadelphia. She was barely older than her players.
The Macs, who had no home court because their field house had burned down, practiced at local gyms and played all their games on the road. When they earned the 15th seed in the first-ever women's U.S. collegiate championship tournament in 1972, players held raffles and sold toothbrushes to raise money for the trip.
Immaculata upset three teams to reach the finals. There, the scrappy Macs faced off against nemesis West Chester in a nail-biting rematch - and won. Cue the confetti.
In the following years, Rush was approached many times about making the Macs' Cinderella story into a movie. But every would-be production turned into a pumpkin.
So Rush was understandably wary when Chambers came to her around 2004. But she was won over by his strong backing - former Philadelphia 76ers president Pat Croce is an executive producer - and personal connections to the story.
Chambers had grown up in the area and, as a child, saw Rush and the Mighty Macs practice at his Catholic grade school's gym. And he was taught by the same nuns who run Immaculata - the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
''The more I was around him, the more I was convinced that if anyone could do this, he could do it,'' Rush said.
Filming for ''Our Lady of Victory'' - the movie's original title - began in 2007 at Immaculata and, ironically, in the gym of nearby West Chester University. Chambers cast Katie Hayek, a former University of Miami shooting guard and theater major, as star player Trish Sharkey.
But Hayek was diagnosed with cancer as cameras were set to roll. A wig, tenacious work ethic and rearranged shooting schedule helped mask the effects of chemotherapy, which Hayek said successfully treated her Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Then, just as the $7.5 million production wrapped in 2008, the recession hit. Chambers couldn't find a distributor.
So he took the G-rated movie - billed as part ''Sister Act,'' part ''Hoosiers'' - on the festival circuit for family films. Good reception, but still no bites. Chambers was offered a straight-to-video deal and turned it down. He wanted a shot at the big dance.
Three years after filming ended, Chambers got it. Freestyle Releasing is distributing ''The Mighty Macs'' on the 40th anniversary of the team's winning season. Whether it becomes a champ at the box office remains to be seen.
Chambers described the movie as transcending gender and sports to tell a story about ''the equality of dreams'' - in this case, that young women in the 1970s were entitled to pursue their passions the same way men did.
The film takes some liberties with details; the nuns who cheered on their beloved Macs probably didn't wear high-top Converse sneakers, as they do in the movie. And Rush didn't have a nun for an assistant coach (Sister Sunday, played by Shelton). But the overall message is faithful to history.
''It's an enjoyable, wholesome story about something that really did happen,'' said Theresa Shank Grentz, who played on the championship team and is the basis for Hayek's character.
Grentz and the Mighty Macs went on to win the national titles in 1973 and '74 as well. But the basketball program got left behind after the passage of Title IX, which allowed colleges to offer women sports scholarships - something tiny Immaculata could not afford.
The school began admitting men in 2005 and currently has both men's and women's Division III basketball teams.
Rush, who now runs a string of children's summer camps, was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. Grentz became the first full-time women's basketball coach in the nation at Rutgers, later leaving to coach at Illinois. Today, she works as Immaculata's vice president for university advancement.
Teammates Rene Muth Portland and Marianne Crawford Stanley followed similar paths: Portland became the longtime coach at Penn State; Stanley won three championships as coach at Old Dominion, later coaching the WNBA's Washington Mystics.
Rush set the example for them - and many other women - to follow their dreams, said Chambers.
''That's a remarkable testament to her, and why she's in the Hall of Fame, and why she's a pioneer in women's sports,'' Chambers said.
The film premiered in Philadelphia last week.
''The Mighty Macs'' movie: http://www.themightymacs.com
Immaculata University: http://www.immaculata.edu
Kathy Matheson can be reached at www.twitter.com/kmatheson