Many beloved sports movies follow scrappy underdogs that overcome obstacles and defy expectations to succeed. Think “Hoosiers,”Rudy” or “Rocky.”
“The Mighty Macs,” in theaters as of Oct. 21, also tells the story of a group of underdogs beating the odds, but this time they are women, and their success is fueled in large part by the support of women religious.
The film recounts, with some artistic license, the story of the women’s basketball team at Immaculata College (now University) outside Philadelphia, which won three national titles in the early 1970s under coach Cathy Rush (played by Carla Gugino of “Spy Kids” and “Night at the Museum”), who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
This amazing success came despite a serious lack of resources — the school’s gym had burned down and the college itself was in financial straits — and, at least at first, the grudging support of the school’s president, Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn) and Rush’s husband, Ed (David Boreanaz of TV’s “Bones”).
The family-friendly film, which is rated G, offers many lessons that can be employed on and off the basketball court — and on and off the screen.
From opening tipoff to the final buzzer, players must keep their eyes on the ball — the Immaculata players, nicknamed the Macs, learn this in the film by having to “swim,” or dive for the ball against one another in practice — and not lose focus, no matter how bruised their elbows and knees get.
For “Mighty Macs” writer and director Tim Chambers, who grew up in a large Catholic family in Philadelphia, that meant keeping in the game even as it has stretched into at least quadruple overtime. Filming of “The Mighty Macs” finished in 2007, and it has taken four years to get the movie into theaters across the country, thanks to the financial turmoil of 2008. Despite the setbacks, Chambers was adamant about seeing the film on the big screen.
“We never lost faith in the movie,” Chambers told reporters gathered at a news conference in Philadelphia on Oct. 14, the day the film had its premiere in the city.
Being true to the team
In the movie, Cathy reminds the women to be team players and to look out for one another, on and off the court. In the film, there is a touching scene in which the players come to the aid of Trish (Katie Hayek), the star player who comes from a low-income family, when she doesn’t have anything nice to wear for the team photo shoot.
Theresa Shank Grentz, the star of the real Mighty Macs team who went on to become a successful coach at Rutgers University and the University of Illinois, credited her team’s “virtuous friendship,” based on the cardinal virtues of temperance, prudence and fortitude, for the success the Mighty Macs had in the early 1970s.
Likewise, Chambers collaborated with the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who run the school, Rush and the original team to make sure the film was true to events.
“My allegiance was to Cathy, Ed, the players and the Immaculata community,” he said.
When Trish tells Cathy she has a new job at a department store, Cathy asks, “Is that job something you’ve always dreamed of?” then urges Trish to “have the courage to follow your dreams.”
Such courage came from the quiet, yet effective words of the real Rush, Shank Grentz told reporters at the news conference. Whenever a player complained about being tired, Rush would respond that she had all summer to rest, Shank Grentz said, and would remind team members that “it’s your moment.”
Chambers wants that message to resonate with viewers, especially the girls in the audience. He pointed to the fact that there are few inspirational sports films for girls, other than “A League of Their Own” and “Bend it Like Beckham.”
And for inspiration, the film turns to the words of Mother St. John, once she has come up with a way to fund the team’s trip to nationals, echoing those of Jesus, “Be not afraid.”
Sarah Hayes is OSV presentation editor.