Muhlenberg women’s basketball coach Ron Rohn reviews the upcoming movie The Mighty Macs. Click here for more information on the movie and to watch the trailer.
Recently, I was invited to a special pre-screening of the upcoming Hollywood movie The Mighty Macs, based on the story of the women’s basketball team at tiny Immaculata College in southeastern Pennsylvania (about 40 miles from Muhlenberg). The film is scheduled to be released nationally in theatres on October 21.
Immaculata, coached by Cathy Rush (inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008), won the first ever college national championship for women in 1972 and also won the title in 1973 and 1974. These were the pre-NCAA days for women’s sports, when the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) ran women’s basketball – quite simply because the “old boys” of the NCAA had no interest in “girl’s sports.” It was common for small schools to be successful, since the bigger state schools were not spending much money on women’s teams, despite Title IX becoming law in 1972.
Even so the story of the Mighty Macs of Immaculata College (a women’s college of 400 commuters) was an attention grabber even back then. The nuns who ran the college would attend games banging on empty buckets with wooden spoons, making a racket that drove opponents crazy – and of course photos of this would make the nightly news and were seen in newspapers across the nation.
Knowing the basic story and characters, I was interested to see how the subject would be presented from a Hollywood production – how historically accurate it would be, and how bad would the basketball scenes look (action scenes from popular sports movies often look laughably amateurish).
So let me first off say that the basketball scenes, which are many, are done very, very well. Producers of the movie, of which former 76ers owner Pat Croce was a driving force, made the intelligent decision to hire former high school and college players to play opposing teams in the movie. Even the main characters are actresses with college and high school playing experience. This gives the passing, dribbling, shooting and player movement a very natural and genuine look. In a few cases maybe too good, considering how far the skills of women’s players have come in the past 40 years.
The movie opens with Cathy Rush driving to Immaculata to interview for the head coaching job there. I got to know Cathy by attending her summer basketball camps in the ’80s and ’90s, and I was amazed by how much Carla Gugino (the love interest in Night at the Museum among her many credits) looked like Cathy Rush. As the movie developed I smiled seeing how well Gugino had captured Rush’s character – a caring woman with spunk, aggressiveness and a firm belief that women should never have to take a back seat to a man, even in the world of sports. Never shy to be sure.
She coached “players,” not “girls.” Teamwork, winning, a driving desire to be the best should be the goals regardless of whether you were male or female. Remember that these were not widely accepted traits for women in 1972 – in fact they were often thought to be “un-ladylike” as were sports in general.
In this area the movie hits a home run (or I guess a three-point shot, which also did not exist in 1972). Historical accuracy in terms of wool tunics as uniforms, small basement gyms with the wall being out of bounds, and the attitudes of people towards females in athletics is also spot on. The film would be worth seeing for any female athlete, just for the lesson in how far things have come since then.
But the time-tested themes of belief in one’s self and others, the collective strength of individuals coming together to become a true team, and the underdog winning the day all make the film uplifting as well.
There are cute cameos by many of the “real-life” people the movie is based on. Cathy Rush herself plays a bank teller. My favorite is a scene in which the real members of the 1972 team play nuns, sitting together at mass. In this scene, Rush passes a note down the pew of nuns to a tall girl who plays the role of the college-aged Theresa Shank Grentz – future All-American and star of the team. Playing the nun who finally hands the note to the girl is the real-life Grentz.
Accomplished actress Ellyn Burstyn is the perfect Mother Superior, and will bring flashbacks to childhood – if like me you ever attended Catholic school.
Of course this is a Hollywood movie, not a documentary, so it is not 100 percent exactly how it happened – in some cases for dramatic effect, others for comedic purposes (there were many loud laughs at the screening I attended). In the movie a young nun becomes Cathy Rush’s assistant coach, something that never happened. Later Rush dresses like a nun herself when the college can’t afford enough tickets for the team to fly to the national tournament (nuns could fly free on United Airlines in those days, so the movie says). Again, pure fiction. In real life the school could only afford nine tickets, so Rush and eight players flew to nationals, while three players and assistant coaches stayed home.
The other area where Hollywood wins out over history is in what is known as “time compression” – merging events together, or over a shorter period of time, to make the story more dramatic or economical in length.
In The Mighty Macs coach Rush arrives in the fall of 1972, just after the gym has burned down – and after losing games early, she slowly brings the team around to where they win the national championship by season’s end. In real life Rush took over at Immaculata in 1970 (two years after the gym burned down in 1968) and built a pretty good team by 1972.
Some things that seem as if they must have been invented for the movie actually happened that way. The team did actually lose by 32 points in the regional playoffs to West Chester University, and did indeed come back one week later to defeat the same team to win the national championship.
After the screening, Cathy Rush was on hand to answer questions about the film. She said that a scene where many of the female students and all of the nuns at the college stay up late to greet the team as they arrive home after an especially dispiriting loss was so true to the actual event that she and Hall of Fame sports writer Mel Greenberg were crying as they watched it being filmed.
Somewhere along their improbable run to the championship, Rush remembers the team’s point guard saying to her – “they should be a make a movie about this.” Now they have, and it’s one worth seeing.