by Rusty Wright
My wife tolerates basketball. Barely.
At my alma mater, basketball is religion. So sometimes she’s a hoops widow.
But she enjoyed this fun movie.
Want a feel-good Cinderella story about underdogs prevailing and dreams coming true? Try The Mighty Macs. I cheered, laughed, and applauded at this inspiring story of US collegiate basketball’s first-ever women’s national championship.
In 1971, women’s basketball was emerging from antiquated rules: six-on-six, limited dribbling, mostly half court. Twenty-something Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) interviews for the head coaching job at tiny, Catholic, all-women’s Immaculata College in Pennsylvania. The Mother Superior (Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn) asks if the women’s game now will be like the men’s.
“Similar to the men’s rules, but the game will be different,” replies Rush.
“We’ll actually play like a team.”
Team for the Ages
Against huge odds, Rush builds a team for the ages.
Immaculata players wore tunics, blouses and bloomers. The campus gym burned down; they played home games at a high school. Sometimes discouragement looms. Rush stimulates her team to succeed with lessons on trust, heart, and cooperation. Staid nuns become sneaker-wearing, bucket-banging cheerleaders. Excitement reigns.
After nearby West Chester State demolishes Immaculata, both play in the national tournament in Illinois. Financial difficulty means players must raise travel money. ESPN says the Macs were “hopeless underdogs” in the title game, a West Chester rematch.
The story of the “pint-sized papal institution” becoming an example “for every team that thought they never had a chance” could get you cheering, too. Rocky meets Sister Act meets Hoosiers.
Sport as Metaphor for Life
Producer/director/writer Tim Chambers sees his sports film as a metaphor for life lessons. “Miracle wasn’t just about hockey, it was about the Cold War. Remember the Titans wasn’t just about football, it was about race relations.”
“Similarly,” he says, “The Mighty Macs isn’t just about basketball, it’s about the equality of dreams and how a young coach would not only unite people from different faiths [Rush was Baptist], but also change a generation of young women.” He especially appreciates Rush’s lifetime impact on her players, who established careers in fields like medicine, business and coaching.
Marianne Crawford Stanley coached Old Dominion to national championships in 1979, 1980, and 1985. Theresa Shank Grentz coached Rutgers to the 1982 national championship and coached the 1992 US Olympic women’s basketball team.
Grentz grew up in a family of seven with one bathroom. “If anything, that taught us teamwork,” she quips. And her Immaculata team had no trainer: “We weren’t allowed to get hurt.” The women had no lockers or showers. They couldn’t wash the woolen tunics but washed their blouses in the sink. And they pulled together. “We had faith in God and in one another,” she explains.
Family, Faith and Teamwork
Chambers decided to make the movie family-friendly and to respect the Sisters and the Catholic faith. Early in the film, a priest reads in chapel some New Testament statements about teamwork in life:
“Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it.”
The statements foreshadow the Mighty Macs’ emphases. “Break up with your ego,” coaches Rush. “If you care, we can play as one. Help the helper. Play as a team.” Rush led Immaculata to three consecutive national championships (1972-1974) and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2008.
Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.www.RustyWright.com.