It would take an act of God to save Immaculata College in Philadelphia in 1971. The all-girls school, founded and run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, wasn’t getting new admissions and was in search of a coach for itsless-than-great basketball team.
The sisters’ prayers were, ironically, answered when Cathy Rush, a Baptist woman with no coaching experience, wearing a black dress and bright red, open-toed heels – an ensemble a bit overwhelming for nuns donning full habits – walked through the college’s doors to apply for the position.
Yet, she was just what they needed to keep the school and their spirits alive.
Based on a true story, “The Mighty Macs” is a family friendly movie that invites movie viewers to experience the inspiration that Rush, played by Carla Gugino, brought to the college as she took over the 11-member team.
The film, written, directed and produced by Tim Chambers, also stars David Boreanaz as Ed – Rush’s NBA referee husband; Marley Shelton, as assistant basketball coach Sr. Sunday; and Ellen Burstyn as Mother St. John, the critical mother superior.
It tells the story of the revival of a small school and the beginning of its basketball legacy, but also of Rush’s message that “Anything can happen when we’re committed to our dreams.”
With an old, dilapidated basketball and no gym – it burned down three months earlier – Rush recruits a team and searches for a practice area, which she finds in the gym in the motherhouse. Together, Rush’s recruits clear out statues of the Three Wise Men, boxes of “Gifts for Heavenly Grace” hand lotion and everything else stored there in order to access a floor where they can run drills and hold practices similar to those in boys’ basketball.
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One girl even leaves the gym because diving into the “wooden pool,” as Rush named the floor, to fight for a basketball wasn’t ladylike.
Rush presses on and encourages the girls to commit themselves to the team, even if their only reason is to avoid household chores.
As the team struggles to pull itself together, Sr. Sunday, the youngest nun, also struggles with discernment while working in admissions, which are next to nil for the school.
“If we didn’t have to struggle, we could never harvest the glory,” Mother St. John told Sr. Sunday before reassigning her to the chapel maintenance, where she could spend time in prayer.
As Sr. Sunday kneels in prayer, asking God for a sign to confirm she should make her final vows with the sisters, she’s interrupted by Rush’s shrill whistle from practice downstairs. Sr. Sunday let curiosity get the best of her when she was interrupted a second time and followed the noise to the basement where the booms of girls dribbling basketballs filled the air. Her curiosity gave Rush an idea.
After the team lost to La Salle University, Rush made a visit to the chapel, where Sr. Sunday was polishing the pews, to pray for an assistant coach.
“Heavenly Father, I seek your help,” Rush prayed purposefully within earshot of the young nun, eyes wide and expectant.
Sr. Sunday moved away from her, but Rush followed, praying loud and clear in a more begging than prayerful tone. Eventually, Sr. Sunday gave in. Rush asked if Sr. Sunday said “’Amen’ or ‘I’m in.’”
“Both,” Sr. Sunday answered.
Immaculata continued its losing streak, missing baskets and passing the ball out of bounds.
After one loss on a particularly frigid night, Rush took the girls under a bridge to a small stream of water flowing through a large tunnel. She made them remove their jackets and run defensive side drills. If they wanted to stay dry, they had to keep their arms up, backside down and feet moving in a shuffle.
“Our results will not change until our habits change,” Rush said.
Learning to keep their feet dry that night led the girls to their first win at Penn State.
While Rush taught the players to keep their eyes on the ball while on the court, she is reminded to keep her eye on the ball at home – as her own marriage isn’t the strongest. With time, Ed begins to take seriously her late nights and tireless efforts that transform her failing team into a rising star.
For more information on “The Mighty Macs,” which opens in theaters Friday, Oct. 21, visit www.themightymacs.com.