Cheering for the underdogs: making "The Mighty Macs"

The movie about the fabled basketball team opens this Friday — did you know the original title was “Our Lady of Victory”? — but it took a long time to happen.

The AP has the scoop:

Here’s a sports fairy tale that never gets old: Underdog team with few resources but a lot of heart beats the odds and comes out on top.

That is what actually happened to the 1971-72 women’s basketball squad at tiny Immaculata College.

It’s also what happened to “The Mighty Macs,” a small-budget movie about the team’s improbable national championship that overcame its own obstacles to make it to Hollywood.

The film starring Carla Gugino, Marley Shelton, David Boreanaz and Ellen Burstyn hits theaters Friday.

“We really needed to be patient and believe in the story and the right distribution platform for the story,” said Tim Chambers, who wrote and directed the film. “… It was definitely worth the wait.”

The true story of the Mighty Macs has always read like a movie script.

It starts in 1971 with a 23-year-old named Cathy Rush. The former high school basketball star was coaching the ragtag team at Immaculata, a struggling Catholic school for women near Philadelphia. She was barely older than her players.

The Macs, who had no home court because their field house had burned down, practiced at local gyms and played all their games on the road. When they earned the 15th seed in the first-ever women’s U.S. collegiate championship tournament in 1972, players held raffles and sold toothbrushes to raise money for the trip.

Immaculata upset three teams to reach the finals. There, the scrappy Macs faced off against nemesis West Chester in a nail-biting rematch — and won. Cue the confetti.

In the following years, Rush was approached many times about making the Macs’ Cinderella story into a movie. But every would-be production turned into a pumpkin.

So Rush was understandably wary when Chambers came to her around 2004. But she was won over by his strong backing — former Philadelphia 76ers president Pat Croce is an executive producer — and personal connections to the story.

Chambers had grown up in the area and, as a child, saw Rush and the Mighty Macs practice at his Catholic grade school’s gym. And he was taught by the same nuns who run Immaculata — the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“The more I was around him, the more I was convinced that if anyone could do this, he could do it,” Rush said.

Filming for “Our Lady of Victory” — the movie’s original title — began in 2007 at Immaculata and, ironically, in the gym of nearby West Chester University. Chambers cast Katie Hayek, a former University of Miami shooting guard and theater major, as star player Trish Sharkey.

But Hayek was diagnosed with cancer as cameras were set to roll. A wig, tenacious work ethic and rearranged shooting schedule helped mask the effects of chemotherapy, which Hayek said successfully treated her Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Then, just as the $7.5 million production wrapped in 2008, the recession hit. Chambers couldn’t find a distributor.

Find out what happened next.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the info about this movie. There are several theaters not too far away that will be showing it. I wish that were true of “The Way” also.

  2. David J. White says:

    Re: the production photo: Were there still nuns wearing the full habit in 1971? I started Catholic elementary school in the fall of 1968, none of the nuns I had were still wearing the full habit.

  3. David J. White #2:

    Yes, they were still wearing the full habit. The IHMs, (Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) were still wearing the full habit. YouTube has a few videos of the Mighty Macs back then.

    My recollection is that the IHMs of Philadelphia were among the last of the religious communities of nuns to update or change their habit.

  4. Yes David, I can vouch for what HMS wrote. I went to the same parish school as Tim Chambers until 4th grade (he was 3 years ahead in my brother’s class). Then we moved to the neighboring parish where the school was also run by IHMs (affectionately called the Macs) I vividly remember the 3 sisters who taught 1st grade wearing the full habit. That was 1970-71. Sometime in the following couple years the IHM sisters shortened their habits to about calf length but still wore the full head piece hiding their hair. That was true well into the time I graduated high school. By the time I taught under them in 2 schools in Philadelphia in my late twenties, the head piece showed some hair and they had “summer” seersucker habits for hot weather.

    All of my dad’s sisters, except for one who briefly entered the convent, graduated from Immaculata. Some of my cousins went there during the time of the winning basketball team. My oldest cousin was an IHM sister. My dad assumed I would go there but by the time I was ready for college I was able to attend the Jesuit school he graduated from as it had gone coed in the ’70s.

    Looking forward to seeing the film but I think I may need to bring a box of tissues. I get choked up just watching the trailer.

  5. zmama #4:

    I am assuming that you attended St. Joe’s. Right?

    In an interview on YouTube Cathy Rush says that it was the only time that a team like Immaculate could have won the championship. She says the Mighty Macs are probably the only team that would have been adversely affected by Title IX, because a small women’s college would never had been able to compete with the teams from the large, financially endowed universities and colleges.
    Timing is everything.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2RvnJNu570

  6. @HMS-Yes I attended SJU. My dad and my brother both went to St. Joe’s Prep and also SJU (although it was St. Joe’s College in Dad’s day) Dad had wanted me to attend Villa Maria Academy for high school. Villa Maria is the high school/sister school to Immaculata run by the IHMs. I really wanted to attend the local diocesan high school-the one my dad would drive past and call “the factory”. So I never told my parents when the entrance exam was in 8th grade for Villa Maria. I confessed all of this to Dad years later. He said by then he had figured it out.

    Ended up meeting my husband at SJU. His father went there as did his brother.

    Still Immaculata holds a place in my heart since so many in my family did go there.

    I was very impressed with the Immaculate Heart Sisters when I taught with them. They have left many of the suburban schools where they once taught so they could concentrate on the remaining inner city schools. They had the same high expectations for their students no matter if they were in the city or the suburbs.

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