By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 13, 2011
“The Mighty Macs,” a new film produced and directed by Tim Chambers, follows a well-used formula: an untutored team is formed with awkward players, unpolished talent is given a chance to shine, the team finds its inspiration, and the underdogs finally triumph in the end. What makes “The Mighty Macs” special, however, is the heart and charm with which the story is told—and the true story upon which the movie is based. For an inspiring, family-friendly, feel-good film, viewers will not go wrong with “The Mighty Macs.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, women’s college basketball was in its infancy. Those schools that had women’s basketball teams played according to a host of different rules, and there were no organized divisions. The NCAA regulated only men’s sports. The Division of Girls’ and Women’s Sports (DGWS) and the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) were just beginning to organize the game and to formulate a playoff system. Although some other nationwide invitational tournaments had been held, the first AIAW national tournament was held in 1972, and was won by a team from tiny Immaculata College in Pennsylvania. Coached by Cathy Rush and with a roster of non-scholarship athletes primarily from parochial schools in the area, Immaculata went on to win the next two AIAW tournaments as well and the Mighty Macs became legendary in the history of women’s college basketball.
“The Mighty Macs” film condenses those early years of the basketball program and presents a tight narrative of an amazing winning season. The film focuses on the struggles of Rush as she arrives at a school that is willing to pay her just $450 a year to coach and has one basketball to use for practice. The gym has burned down and there are no plans—or funds—to replace it. The players must make do in old-fashioned jumper uniforms and must clean out a basement to have somewhere to play. Luckily, though, Immaculata found exactly the right person to handle the challenge.
As Rush, Carla Gugino is tough, determined and inspiring. Only a few years older than her players, she is able to earn their respect by treating them as adults and as athletes worthy of respect themselves. Rush takes the team in hand, teaching them to play a tough, physical style that was a new way of playing the women’s game. With a focus on teamwork, trust and physical power, Rush transforms her underdogs into a tight, cohesive unit.
The athletes in the film are a composite of the athletes who made up the extraordinary championship teams of those years at Immaculata. As such, they become more types than actual characters. The brief glimpses we get of the team away from the court serves more to build the character of Rush and her influence on the team than it does to tell us about the players. That is a shame, because each of these young women seems to have a story to tell, and the actresses who take on these roles do a fine job filling out the team.
The movie also emphasizes the struggles that the college faced in those years. Ellen Burstyn plays the no-nonsense Mother St. John, head of the college, with a gruff surface that eventually reveals a soft heart. She is facing the imminent closing of the school for financial reasons and the Mighty Macs become both her cause and her lifeline. Marley Shelton plays her counterpoint, a young nun questioning the value of her work, who finds her mission helping coach the athletes on the team.
As a period piece, “The Mighty Macs” gets the details of the early ‘70s just right. From Cathy Rush’s clothes and hair to the nuns in habits dominating the bleachers, the film brings back that time. Most important to the message of the film is the contemporary view that women’s athletics was insignificant. The film shows the struggles that Cathy Rush faced to find a calling of her own and to convince even her own husband that her team and the women on it were important. With no funding, the team resorts to selling hand lotion door to door. This was no invention—the real 1972 Immaculata team sold toothbrushes to fund their trip to the national tournament. Beyond drills on a basketball court, she teaches her team that their dreams are worth dreaming and that they have the talent, the determination and the courage to accomplish anything, even a miracle against an opposing team.
Possibly the most inspiring scene in the film comes when the team returns to the school after losing a game that would have ensured them a spot in the national tournament. Despondent, the team is greeted by Mother St. John bearing the news that they have received the wild card bid for the tournament—and the entire school has turned out for a celebration. The athletes realize that they have reason to be proud of what they have accomplished and how they have brought the school together to support a cause. Seeing that pride and how it fills these young women with confidence is an amazing moment.
“The Mighty Macs” takes place at a turning point in women’s athletics. Title IX has just been passed, and in a few years the money designated for women’s college sports would change the game. Smaller schools like Immaculata College would lose their dominance to larger schools with better recruiting and funding. For a moment, though, tiny Immaculata performed a miracle. The closing credits show how Rush changed women’s basketball, and, indeed, all of college sports. She not only influenced a generation of players, she influenced how the game was coached and played, and several of her early Immaculata stars followed in her footsteps as basketball coaches.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.