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'The Mighty Macs': Immaculata Hopes to Be Top 100 On Big Screen

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I went to see The Mighty Macs with my wife this Saturday.  Halfway through the movie, she said to me, "You know, I think I've seen this movie before."

Indeed.  We've all seen this movie before.  HoosiersThe Mighty Ducks.  If you expect The Mighty Macs to break new ground in sports movies, you're going to come away very disappointed.  The movie seems to be made from the "standard sports movie" template.  The only difference is that instead of male sports players striving for victory in the cold, cruel demanding world of sports we have female players.  The bad news is that The Mighty Macs is not Love and Basketball; the good news is that it isn't Juwanna Mann.  Unlike the latter film The Mighty Macs totally has a right to exist.

A brief summary:  A young woman by the name of Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) who is not too far removed from her days as a high school player takes a job at tiny Immaculata College, an all-female Catholic college which appears to be run by nuns, represented by Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn).  Rush would like to put together a winning squad, but she faces a lot of obstacles.  No money for equipment.  No training facilities, as the gym burned down shortly before Rush takes the job.  A husband (David Boreananz) who isn't exactly supportive, wondering why his wife isn't at home when he comes home after a busy road trip as a NBA referee.  So can Rush shape the Macs into a winning squad, or shall all of the above be too much to overcome?

(Spoiler alert:  They do good.  Movies like this are rarely made about losing teams.)

The movie is very trope-heavy.  David Versus Goliath.  Down To The Last Play.  And lots of Very Serious Business and Team Spirit with a pinch of Nuns are Funny.

We only get hints of how Rush was able to mold this team into a unit that was able to win three AIAW Championships.  There are some interesting training sequences (also a trope) illustrating Rush's ideas, but you wish more was done with them.  You never get a sense of who any of these characters are, even the main character.  We don't really learn much about her passion for basketball - the movie doesn't really leave the viewer with a good impression of any other reason than she wants to remain involved at some level.  (Although one can build one's own rationale for Rush from snippets of conversation, but the movie shouldn't leave such heavy viewing to the viewer.)  Ed Rush only has two roles, to be unhappy (first reel) and then happy (final reel).  Burstyn plays your typical Mother Superior; that part is the same in almost every movie, from The Trouble With Angels to The Blues Brothers.

As for the players on that first team - a team with the future Big Ten coaches Teresa Grentz and Rene Portland - they are cyphers, and don't go by the real names of the players on that championship. The players represent instead Generic Player #3 and contribute about as much to the film. 

Of course, there is basketball to be played.  These scenes of Immaculata failing - and then succeeding - at basketball are the most interesting parts of the film; the big problem is that not enough of this movie takes part on the court.  The Mighty Macs leaves a strong impression not only as to what the game must have looked like in 1971 but what the conditions were really like.  Compared to college sports today, the contrast is shocking.  I don't know where they found dingy gymnasiums with faded lines and worn floors, gyms where you'd have to go outside to change your mind - but they found them, and you're left with no doubt that that's where most of early 1970s women's basketball took place.  Players were responsible for their own transportation to games.  Women's bathrooms become locker rooms.  Even big games seem to have been about as well attended as small high school games with the championship being played in what looks like a very small gym. 

Of course, if you love basketball history, you'll love the movie anyway in spite of its flaws.  But I think you'll have to be a women's basketball fan to appreciate this movie, or a fan of sports movies specifically.  Sadly enough, this movie doesn't tread much new ground, but it raises awareness that women's basketball has a long history before the 1996 women's Olympic team and ABL came along.

NOTES

* The AIAW had actually recognized championships held before 1972, but my understanding is that those were administered by the CIAW, the Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.


* Not all of the Immaculata team was able to travel to Normal, Illinois for the championship - money was so hard to come by that a few players stayed home.  Only eight players took part in the championship tournament.

* According to CNNSI, Rush was pregnant at the time of the tournament. 

* The championship tournament took place at Illinois State university, but I am unable to determine exactly where it took place.  I suspect that the location was the Horton Field House, where Illinois State used to play before moving to the larger Redbird Arena.

* Even though one of the team's players in the movie was black, there were no black players on the 1971-72 Immaculata team.

* Look very carefully and you'll see Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, former Sacramento Monarch, acting as the Mississippi State women's head basketball coach.

* The writer/director of the film, Tim Chambers, made the decision to keep the film a G-rated movie despite the studio hoping that the film could be slightly altered to bump it into the PG category.  "I wish that Hollywood would embrace that niche market known as middle America," he stated on a political blog. 

That decision will probably hurt his box office, since G movies have an undeserved reputation as being movies solely for young children.  In addition, my wife felt that the movie was promoted poorly - she didn't even know it existed before I brought it to her attention.  As for Middle Americans flocking to a wholesome movie, there were a grand total of five people in the 2:30 showing in Atlanta, including me and my wife.  

* If anyone can figure out that part about that player who keeps wearing her nursing uniform to games please let me know.

* The box score of the 1972 championship game, very abbreviated.


Where are they now?

Head coach Cathy Rush is a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and the founder and president of Future Stars Camps.  She resigned from Immaculata in 1977, thinking that she'd take a year off and then return to coaching.  But she never coached again.

SR Sue O'Grady is a math teacher in Haverford, Pennsylvania.  She coached field hockey and track. She has a cameo in the movie, behind the game commentator wearing a green pants suit.

SR Patricia (Opila) Penater taught high school for four years.  She married and had one child before she died of cancer in 1980.

JR Janet (Ruch) Boltz
coached for many years in the Catholic Youth Organization in high school summer basketball.

JR Betty Ann (Hoffman) Quinn
earned master degrees in science education and environmental toxicology.  She became a senior toxicologist for Halliburton and then for the Environmental Protection Agency.

JR Maureen Mooney
became a clothier in Philadelphia and later worked as an accountant.  Unlike the others here, she put away her involvement with basketball after graduating Immaculata.  She died in 2005 after a long illness.

SO Denice (Conway) Crawford worked as a real-estate salesperson and coached fourth and fifth-grade girls teams.  She also serves as a Eucharistic minister in her home parish.

SO Janet (Young) Eline served as an assistant women's basketball coach at Gettysburg College, had an extensive teaching career and remains a freelance language translator.

SO Teresa (Shank) Grentz became a college coach almost immediately after graduation.  She coached 19 years at Rutgers, leading the Scarlet Knights to the final AIAW title in 1982.  She would coach at Illinois, leading the team to its only Big Ten championship in 1997.  She was the coach of the US Olympic women's basketball team in 1992 and was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001.

FR Judy (Marra) Martelli was assistant women's basketball coach at Villanova from 1975-78.  She married Phil Martelli, the men's basketball coach at St. Joseph's.  Two of their children are assistant basketball coaches at other universities.

FR Rene (Muth) Portland
coached for one year at Immaculata as an assistant to Cathy Rush after graduation.  She would coach at both St. Joseph's and Colorado before coaching the Penn State Lady Lions for 27 years, leading them to the Final Four in 2000.  She had over 600 wins in Division I women's basketball before resigning in 2007 in the wake of a lawsuit alleging that she had discriminated against lesbian players.

FR Maureen Stuhlman coached high school basketball for two years and then served as a tour guide through Europe and South American.  She is a consultant for small businesses today.

Rene Mack was the student manager of the team.  No information is available.