Based on the true story of the 1971-72 Immaculata University women’s basketball team, “The Mighty Macs” is the kind of film that makes you want to cheer from your seats.
During this season, the small–under 800 students– Catholic women’s school in Philadelphia did not even have a gymnasium (it had burned down the year before). Against all odds, the Mighty Macs won the country’s first National Women’s Basketball Championship—and went on to hold the title for three straight years.
During a press conference in Philadelphia before the world premiere of the film, I learned that the magic on screen is a reflection of a unique real-life script. The young women were there for an education but also loved basketball. There were no sports scholarships for women in those days; the girls just showed up to try out for the team.
Recently married after two years of teaching, coach Cathy Rush was simply keeping busy before starting a family while her husband traveled as an NBA referee. She accepted the job for $450 a year. “I was only 23 and some of the girls I was coaching were 21,” Cathy laughed, “But they always treated me with respect.”
Rush, a Baptist, had never known any religious sisters. “The first time I ever met one was during my job interview,” she admitted. The Sisters of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary staff the school. “I really loved them,” she said. “When we played, the nuns would walk into a game and people would think, ‘We’re in trouble now!’”
Rush watched how the male players played basketball and brought those techniques to her team. “I didn’t feel like we were making a statement,” she said. “It was an issue of believing in what you are doing.” According to her, everyone had a job and the team worked together. “I think it helped that the girls all came from big families,” Rush added. “They accepted that sometimes it was their turn and sometimes it was someone else’s.”
In spite of shaking up the world of basketball, after those three years, Cathy never coached again. She and her husband did run summer basketball camps, however. “This allowed me to stay at home with my two boys and attend all their school events and games,” she explained. Many years after coaching, Rush was nominated for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame but was not selected. Her son Ed. Jr., who in 1973 often slept in his portable crib during Mom’s practice sessions, sent her an email: “You may not be a Hall of Fame basketball coach, but you’re a Hall of Fame mom.”
“That was good enough for me,” Rush said.
She was later inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.
Theresa Shank, Mighty Macs’ three-time All-American, was featured in a 1973 issue of Sports Illustrated. After graduating with a degree in biology and chemistry in 1974, she was hired as head coach at Rutgers and became one of the winningest coaches in Division I. Shank was also chosen to coach the 1992 U.S Olympic team. She explained the team spirit at Immaculata: “We knew we checked our egos at the door.”
The oldest of five children, Shank sometimes worked as many as three jobs during the summer. Her house was 22 miles from the school and she had to be resourceful to get there. “I thumbed to school at least three times a week,” she said. Other times, she hopped a school bus from her home parish and then hopped a second and convinced the driver to let her off at Immaculata. After working so hard to get to school, she would tell herself there was no way she was going to lose that game.
Shank described the team’s bond. “We had virtuous friendships,” she said. “They were based on the cardinal virtues; that was what our team was about.” The virtuous friendships extended to the actor who played her in the movie, Katie Hayek. “We had an immediate connection,” Shank said.
“I was nervous to meet her,” Hayek admitted. “She had such a profound story and Theresa was the leader of that team.”
Shank did not even know if Hayek was Catholic (she is) but felt inspired to give her the wooden rosary she had kept for almost 40 years. After winning the first championship, Shank was disappointed the team had not been awarded rings. Sister Mary Lourdes caught wind of this and handed Shank a rosary. “Theresa, you know those rosaries will serve you better than any ring,” the sister told her. Shank often used it to pray before games during her 33 years of coaching.
Nightmare and Dream
Unknown to Shank, when she gave away the rosary, Hayek was experiencing her worst nightmare at the same time she was realizing her biggest dream. She had just graduated in theater from University of Miami, where she played Division I basketball. Hayek landed the role in “The Mighty Macs,” and then learned she had cancer–Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Scared that director Tim Chambers would drop her from the cast, she nevertheless told him about her situation. The Catholic writer/director from a family of 12 kids surprised her.
“He was great about it,” Hayek explained. Instead of cutting her from the film, Chambers worked around her chemo schedule. “I was so relieved. This role combined two things I most wanted to do in my life, acting and basketball.” Chambers scheduled the grueling basketball scenes early in the shooting—before the chemotherapy sessions got tougher—so Hayek would have more energy.
The movie took Hayek’s mind off her cancer and she felt the power of God through many divine moments. For instance, her mother prayed a novena to St. Therese of Lisieux, who is associated with roses, but did not share that fact with anyone. A bouquet of a dozen red roses arrived with a card that said, “Love, St. Theresa.” The family never found out who sent them. Another time, while at the hospital, there was a cake to celebrate the last day of someone’s chemo. When Hayek saw the cake, there was one piece left with the word “Shank” written on it in frosting—the surname of the character she played. (Hayek’s cancer is in remission and if it remains so by next year, she will be considered cancer-free.)
Like the film about them, the Mighty Macs had not just a heart, but a soul that captured the city of Philadelphia. They were the first women’s sports team newspapers reported on, and they became legend.
“This is a Philadelphia story,” Chambers explained. “It’s also about women’s empowerment—without an agenda. The message is that anything is possible.”
Eager for more? Click here for a full review of “The Mighty Macs.” Be sure to share your comments about how the film inspired you!