Movie recounts title run of a groundbreaking Philadelphia-area hoops team

On set in West Chester for "The Mighty Macs" are (from left) Meghan Sabia, Taylor Steel, Marley Shelton as Sister Sunday, and Carla Gugino as Immaculata coach Cathy Rush. After much travail, the movie is set to be released.
On set in West Chester for "The Mighty Macs" are (from left) Meghan Sabia, Taylor Steel, Marley Shelton as Sister Sunday, and Carla Gugino as Immaculata coach Cathy Rush. After much travail, the movie is set to be released. (MATT ROURKE / Associated Press)
Posted: October 13, 2011

Tim Chambers uses the word uncomfortable to describe his first meeting with former Immaculata University women's basketball coach Cathy Rush. Chambers wanted to make a movie about her Mighty Macs, about her life.

So what was the problem?

"She was guarded. That's the best way to describe it," Chambers said this week. "Once she explained to me why, it made sense. She said to me, 'I've been through this now for 35 years. I've had people come to me saying I want to do a movie about the Mighty Macs. Every time, it ended up in disappointment.' "

This time, however, Rush quickly surmised the story had a chance for a new ending.

"At the point I met Tim, I think I realized how difficult the task really was," Rush said. "But I saw Tim was going to bring this incredible energy."

Chambers' movie, The Mighty Macs, is about Rush and her 1971-72 underdog Immaculata team that won the first women's national basketball championship.

It stars Carla Gugino, David Boreanaz, Ellen Burstyn, and Marley Shelton and is scheduled to open in more than 1,000 theaters on Oct. 21. First comes a world premiere Friday at the Kimmel Center.

The making of The Mighty Macs and seeing it through to a national distribution could be a Rocky story in itself. Chambers, a Cardinal O'Hara High School graduate and former Ivy League football player of the year at Penn, wrote the screenplay, found the money to make it, directed it, found more money to get the word out, and finally saw a national distributor sign on four years after the movie was filmed in 2007.

Rush said the movie exceeded her expectations. Tears streamed down her face, she said, as she watched filming of a pivotal early scene, as Immaculata's campus turned out late one night, many students in pajamas, to cheer on Immaculata's team - not after a big win but a crushing loss.

"It was so real," Rush said. "The uniforms, the nuns, the enthusiasm. . . . So vivid."

Chambers said he kept the words "Equality of dreams" taped to the side of his computer as he wrote the screenplay.

"All the good sports films are about something else," Chambers said, recalling how Rush told her husband, "I want to get a job. I don't want to start a family."

Rush's own story was woven in - "the immortality of her influence on a team, a campus, a generation of young women," Chambers said. "Even as you look at her character, it begins by her saying to those girls, 'Forget everything you know. I'm dumping it. This is a new era.' She was obviously motivated at times in her life, as all of us are, by failure. Her senior season in high school got canceled. She got cut in college by a coach who thought she was sassier than most."

The story wouldn't resonate, Chambers suggested, if it had ended with one game. But the players went on to influence another generation, the first post-Title IX generation of female athletes. Marianne Stanley won the first of three national titles at age 24 coaching Old Dominion. Theresa Grentz coached Rutgers to a national title and then coached the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Rene Portland coached Penn State to the Final Four.

"It's really a Philadelphia story," Chambers said of virtually the entire Immaculata team's being local. Rush grew up outside Atlantic City and went to college at West Chester. Since the movie was filmed locally, "I had people come in from the West Coast to shoot and scout locations," Chambers said. "They'd meet people randomly who'd say, 'What parish are you from?' It made me laugh. I'd tell them, 'Here's a couple of the parishes you're from.' "

Immaculata's team included players from O'Hara, Villa Maria, Archbishop Prendergast, Maria Goretti, and Cardinal Dougherty, among other local high schools. Rush questioned whether the team could have replicated their success elsewhere.

"Philadelphia has a tradition with women's basketball for years and years," said Rush, who was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. "I go back 50, 60 years. I remember I went to the Palestra. The place was packed for the Catholic League girls' playoffs. One whole section wore navy blue. One wore green. Is there another city that had that environment? And the all-girls schools, them being on the girls' basketball team then was a big deal as opposed to everyone just paying attention to the boys' team. And they were used to playing in that kind of environment."

The movie is local, too. Pat Croce immediately jumped in and helped with funding. Sports radio host and writer Anthony Gargano researched the story with Chambers, conducting hours of interviews. Former Penn basketball player Vince Curran came in late as an executive producer, helping with funding but also with business expertise, Chambers said, helping secure a distribution deal with Sony.

Chambers is one of 12 children, growing up in Newtown Square. His younger brother, Paul, played point guard for Fran Dunphy at Penn. The youngest, Patrick, is head basketball coach at Penn State.

"I was just talking to somebody who said, 'I went to school with one of his brothers,' " Rush said this week. "I said, 'So did everybody else.' "

When the economy tanked in 2008, it killed hopes of getting a quick distribution deal.

"At some point, you think, 'Well, I have a very expensive DVD,' " Rush said. But she also saw Chambers' energy didn't flag. She compared him to Croce as a force of nature. "I call Tim 'Little Pat.' Tim has this energy, just over-the-top energy."

Chambers said he never allowed himself to think the movie wouldn't get a wide viewing. He refused to put it in the past tense despite a closing window.

"I always felt that we had something that was very special," Chambers said. "I never felt we wouldn't get distribution. But I've got to answer to investors and people you would see at Wawa or church or my kids' games, guys that I knew and knew me."

Finally, Sony's Provident Films agreed to distribute the film.

Chambers said he always believed in the end game. He thought Rush offered messages that resonated past the locker room door, such as when she told her players they could define their success by their own jackets rather than their boyfriends' letter jackets.

"Before the last game, Cathy tells her team, 'It's OK to want the prize,' " Chambers said. "I think that's a timeless message, especially for young girls at that time. That wasn't being taught to them."


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489, mjensen@phillynews.com, or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus.

 

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