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Immaculata coach recalls ‘Mighty Macs’

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Catholic News Service

In the same time it has taken the movie “The Mighty Macs” to get from a finished product to 1,000 movie screens, the team the film profiles had won three national women’s college basketball championships.

Cathy Rush, who coached the Immaculata College Mighty Macs to those championships 1972-74, said it was to be expected.

“As soon as the movie was finished, the economy collapsed. There was no money for independent movies,” Rush said in an Oct. 12 interview with Catholic News Service. But, seemingly as suddenly as money dried up to exhibit independent films, Freestyle Releasing stepped in with an offer to distribute “The Mighty Macs,” opening nationwide Oct. 21.

Carla Gugino, who portrays head coach Cathy Rush, stars in a scene from the movie "The Mighty Macs." The movie tells the story of the women's basketball team at Immaculata College in the Philadelphia suburbs that won the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women basketball championship in 1972, the year that college women's basketball converted to the full-court game played today. (CNS photo/The Maximus Group)

Rush was in Washington on a promotional tour for the movie. One of Rush’s star players from the Immaculata team, Theresa Shank Grentz, teamed up with Katie Hayek, who plays one of the Mighty Macs in the movie, to do a “Catholic blogger tour” to drum up interest. And Tim Chambers, the film’s director, writer and producer, joined with Rush, Grentz and Hayek Oct. 14 to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

Grentz remembers her Immaculata years fondly — mostly.

“We were better people because we were around each other, and we would never disappoint each other, and we played to win,” she said during an Oct. 10 telephone interview with CNS. “We lost two games in those four years, and I’m still ticked about the two games that we lost.”

Grentz became a women’s college basketball coach, retiring from the profession in 2007. Rush, only two years older than the first seniors she coached at Immaculata, retired from coaching in 1976 and established a network of basketball camps.

Grentz recalled coming upon the crew filming the movie; she was driving from Illinois with her husband to their new home in Pennsylvania, not far from the campus of what is now Immaculata University.

“We’re coming down the back road, Hershey’s Mill Road,” she said. “And it was lit up like Christmas tree. Here they are filming the tunnel scene” — the final shot for the movie, she later learned. That was midnight July 2, 2007, she said. Four years later, the movie is ready for audiences.

Hayek, like Grentz a Catholic, played college basketball for the University of Miami. “The Mighty Macs” was her first film role upon graduating. But she was diagnosed with cancer shortly after being cast. Hayek said Chambers readjusted the shooting schedule to do the basketball scenes first in case Hayek’s treatment sapped her strength. Hayek told CNS her cancer is gone and she visits her doctor annually to make sure it stays gone.

Grentz and her Immaculata teammates had bit parts in “The Mighty Macs.”

Rush said they were all dressed as nuns in a chapel scene where the priest — played by Malachy McCourt — is delivering a sermon. Meanwhile, Rush, played in the film by Carla Gugino of “Spy Kids” fame, asks one nun to pass along a basketball tryout flyer to the tall girl (Hayek) sitting in the pew in front of the nuns.

“They were all lined up in the pew from tallest to smallest,” Rush said.

The on-set reunion was “wonderful. We all had such a great time,” said Rush, who had a cameo role as a bank teller; her husband, former NBA referee Ed Rush, also had a small role as a Mighty Macs fan.

While one member of the championship teams has never kept up ties to Immaculata, Rush said that another player, who left school after her freshman year and the Macs’ first national championship, recently resurfaced for the first time in nearly 40 years, “and we’re going to the premiere together in Philadelphia,” Rush added.

Besides Rush, those walking the red carpet at the Oct. 14 premiere included movie co-stars Gugino, Marley Shelton and David Boreanaz, along with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, and St. Joseph’s University men’s basketball coach Phil Martelli, who married one of the Mighty Macs.

Rush told CNS that Burstyn, who plays the mother superior in the movie, stayed in a convent during filming. It reminded her of those no-budget days in the early 1970s when the Mighty Macs often stayed in convents when playing on the road. “Some of the girls thought, ‘No, not a convent.’ Until they saw the food — the apple pies, the dinners,” Rush said.

“The Mighty Macs” is based on a true story, but Rush acknowledged there are many fictional elements to it. Her coaching mentor, for instance is not the battle-ax she is made out to be in the movie. “When I was in Hollywood, I learned there are things they call ‘treatments’ to add tension to the story,” she said.

But Rush and Grentz agreed that the scene in the movie that rang most true to their experience was the impromptu pep rally in the college rotunda after the Mighty Macs lost a game. Rush said she would tell her players, “‘Everybody’s with you when you win, but nobody shows up after you lose.’ But they showed up,” referring to Immaculata students and members of the Congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary living on campus.

Seeing the scene unfold before the cameras “made me cry,” Rush added.

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