Friday, September 18


By Timothy Logue

A new movie will capture the magic of the Immaculata women's basketball team.

With a ceiling scarcely high enough to accommodate a Moses Malone free throw and a floor that dips and rises like a hardwood mogul run, the basketball court in the cellar of St. Colman Church in Ardmore is about as inadequate as they come.

Complementing the stale air, flaking key lime paint and backboards made of plywood are ten cement columns which frame the court just beyond the sidelines - most likely constructed to support the masses above and, perhaps, America's first generation of personal injury lawyers.

"It's perfect," Newtown Square native Tim Chambers said last week during a break in the shooting of "The Mighty Macs."

For Chambers, who went spelunking through several old gymnasiums in search of a backdrop for the practice scenes in his movie about the improbable national title run made by the 1972 Immaculata College women's basketball team, St. Colman's was a godsend - his mini Palestra.

"We could have spent a lot of money trying to recreate something like this," said Chambers, a former Cardinal O'Hara and UPenn football standout who is making his directorial debut.

The same could be said of the story he is hoping will land in theaters next spring.

The Mighty Macs fairytale rise to the summit of women's college hoops was so surreal and unexpected, the team did not even know there was a championship to be won when the 1971-72 season began. And the program was so cash starved, the school could only afford to fly eight of the team's eleven players to Illinois for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics Women (AIAW) Tournament, the precursor to today's NCAA Tournament.

"Everyone chipped in to get us there - alumni, the board of directors, the student body," said Cathy Rush, who led the tiny Malvern school to back-to-back-to-back championships from 1972-74. "We flew standby to Chicago and then piled into rental cars for the drive to Normal, Ill."

Outfitted in canvas sneakers and Goodwill-worthy tunics accented with plaid sashes, her team appeared dwarfed in every way when they arrived to Illinois State University for the 16-team tournament and sized up the opposition.

"The schools we faced were much bigger than ours," said Rush, whose team bested her alma mater, West Chester, 54-48 in the final. "They had 15 kids traveling, assistant coaches, trainers, managers. They all walked in en masse … We didn't have any of that. It was just me and the girls."

Unsure how her team would measure up against players from schools with 10 and 20 times the enrollment of Immaculata, Rush entered the tournament with modest expectations.

"So many people back home were supporting us, I was thinking 'Please Lord, let us win won game.'

"I assumed we would get creamed."

Wealth of talent

The 1972 Mighty Macs roster was chock full of Delaware County kids, many of whom looked at basketball like any other activity.

"I remember seeing the team and thinking we were pretty good, but there was never a feeling that basketball was more important than anything else," said Judy (Marra) Martelli, wife of St. Joseph College men's basketball coach Phil Martelli. "No one came across as a superstar and nobody worried about standings, or even looked at them.

"It was a small Catholic women's college where you went to school for school."

Even so, Rush's team, filled with Catholic League players who had performed before thousands of fans, had a quiet confidence about them.

"They were never nervous and nothing intimidated them," Rush said. "This was the era before scholarships and there was no recruiting, per se, at that time. Whoever showed up, that's who you had, so I was fortunate to have so many players who loved to compete."

Among them were two future Division 1 coaching greats, Theresa (Shank) Grentz and Rene (Muth) Portland.

After teaching and coaching junior high basketball in the Springfield and Great Valley school district, Rush heard about the coaching vacancy at Immaculata in 1970 and decided to interview.

After a sit down with the school president, Sister Mary of Lourdes McDevitt, she was hired at a starting salary of $450. "I didn't really care at that point," said Rush. "I was 22-year-old and wasn't thinking about the long term. I figured I could coach for a few years and then settle down and start a family."

A fire had burned down the Mighty Mac's gymnasium a few years earlier, leaving Rush and her players without a home court during the 1970-71 season. Practices were held in the novitiate, the building where girls studied to become nuns.

"We had about 50 girls come out for tryouts and I was surprised to see how athletic they were," she said. "Some of the kids could flat out shoot it. I remember going home to tell (then-husband) Ed about this wealth of talent. I said, 'I think we've got some kids who can really play.'"

The Mighty Macs went 10-2 in Rush's first year and then ripped off 24 straight wins in 1971-72 before getting hammered 70-38 in the regional final of the AIAW tournament by West Chester.

Since the top two teams from the region advanced to Illinois, West Chester and Immaculata both received invites to the first-ever women's national tournament. The Mighty Macs were seeded 15th in the 16-team field.

Passing resemblance

Like the rest of her teammates from the 1972 team, Judy (Marra) Martelli read a draft of the "The Mighty Macs" script about a year ago. And while she recognized the overarching themes of empowerment and overcoming odds, many of the characters were strangers. "We all know when we watch a movie that it's made up to a certain degree," Martelli said. "I think we all wanted to see something pretty close to real life; I mean, why change anything?

"But when you think about it, we were all Catholic school girls who came from the same type of homes. It would be kind of boring to watch a movie with no conflicts to resolve."

WIP radio host Anthony Gargano, who did extensive research on the Immaculata story and worked on the screenplay with Chambers, laughed when asked what the players thought of the characters.

"There is a lot of embellishment because it's Hollywood and you have to keep people captivated," Gargano said. "When we gave the players the first draft, everyone thought their character was based on them.

"Judy's a perfect example. We made her a South Philly girl, which, if you know Judy, is not her at all."

Denise (Conway) Crawford, an Archbishop Prendergast graduate and one of eight players from Prendie or Cardinal O'Hara on the Might Mac's roster, said her character, who is upset after splitting with her boyfriend, is pure Hollywood as well.

"The true parts of the movie are that Cathy coached and we won," said Crawford, a real estate agent and longtime CYO basketball coach. "Everything in between is fiction, which is totally understandable."

Crawford views her Immaculata experience and the movie as two separate stories, and she likes them both.

"Tim Chambers has been absolutely wonderful throughout the whole process while dealing with a lot of masters," she said. "He's trying to keep the sisters happy, the college happy and the players happy while making a movie for Hollywood that will sell.

"He is doing an excellent job."

Catholic overtones

A former All-Delco football player at Cardinal O'Hara and three-time All-Ivy selection at Penn, the 44-year-old Chambers flirted with the idea of selling the script. Despite a lucrative offer, he passed when Disney told him they envisioned the movie to be "much more 'Sister Act' than female 'Hoosiers.'"

"Scripts like 'Invincible' and others in that genre are selling for $1 million," said Chambers, a West Chester resident who helped produce the movie "Miracle" and has spent nearly 20 years working in the television and movie industries. "Walking away (from the money) wasn't difficult. It was extremely important to maintain the integrity of the story.

"This is ultimately a story about faith and commitment and believing in yourself. It's about a human being who comes into an environment and changes a group of people forever."

After months of searching, Chambers tapped Carla Gugino of HBO's "Entourage" to play Rush and Academy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn as the mother superior. David Boreanaz ("Bones" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") plays Cathy's (now former) husband, retired NBA official Ed Rush, and Marley Shelton ("Sin City" and "Grindhouse") is an Immaculate Heart of Mary nun and assistant coach.

Chambers credits former Sixers President Pat Croce, who has drummed up more than $7 million to finance the film, for making the project possible. "Quite frankly, he is the one who made this happen and allowed me to live the dream," Chambers said. "He gave me the power to walk away from the table - something that doesn't come naturally to someone who grew up in a family with 12 children."

On Thursday, Chambers shot a cameo scene in the pews of St. Colman with Crawford, Grentz, Martelli and four of their teammates from the first championship team. "It went great and we had a lot of fun," said Crawford, whose daughters Lisa and Christie have bit parts in the film as players.

A three-time All-American at Immaculata and member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, Grentz said the clocks roll back whenever the girls get together.

"It's always the same routine," said Grentz, who recently stepped down as coach of the women's team at the University of Illinois. "We ask how the husbands and kids are doing and then we fall back into the way were as players and students. The fact that we all ended up at Immaculata together has always been a providential thing to me - part of God's plan."

A native of Glenolden, Grentz was preparing to attend Mount St. Mary's College on a full academic scholarship when her family's house burned down. "That's when I made the decision that I needed to be with my family and decided to go to Immaculata," she said. "More than anything, it taught me that when you're dealt a couple of bad cards in life, you should play them. You need to have some hope; have some trust that things will work out."

Gargano said faith is a big part of the movie and the identity of Immaculata's sixth man is never in doubt.

"There are heavy Catholic overtones in the story, which is not surprising given the subject and the fact that Tim and I are both products of Catholic schools," he said. "Our upbringing played an integral part of our lives in a positive way. It was the same thing with these girls."

While he didn't take on the project to promote the Catholic Church, Chambers said that "if the byproduct of telling the story is showing the church in a positive light, than so be it. There is certainly a faith-based element to it but there are also universal themes that are still relevant today."

Rush is convinced she and her players converged at Immaculata for a reason. "The nuns were a huge part of our support system and we all believed it was divine intervention that we were there at the same time," she said.

Croce, who partnered with Chambers to form a production company called Quaker Media, spoke in similar terms about the way the everything has fallen into place for the film.

"To make this movie with Tim directing and all these incredible actors together at once is beyond anything I could have imagined," said Croce, a Lansdowne native who made his inaugural appearance as a judge on the ABC show "American Inventor" last week. "I think the same thing that happened to Cathy Rush and her girls, the way the stars aligned, is happening to us as we make this movie."

In addition to Ardmore, the movie is being shot in West Chester, Phoenixville, Pottstown and on the Immaculata campus in Malvern.

Filming for "The Mighty Macs" will continue through the end of the month and Gargano is optimistic Croce and Chambers will find a distributor for the film. Disney is a possibility, as is Walden Media, the company which produced the cinema version of the "Chronicles of Narnia," a series of fantasy novels for kids.

"As long as we produce a nice film, I don't think it will be a problem," Gargano said. "I thought 'Invincible' would be a nice, cute little movie and then it exploded. I was shocked by how well it did.

"It just shows you how people have a hunger for a good story, whether it's Vince's journey to the NFL or Cathy taking her girls to a championship.

"I think we would all love to see it out there by March Madness."

With the advent of the female scholarship athlete in 1976, Rush said she "could see the writing on the wall" when she retired from Immaculata in 1977 after just seven seasons with a record of 149-15.

"I wanted them to offer scholarships and Immaculata said no," she recalled. "It was another time when I was wrong and they were right. There was no way we were going to compete on a national level against the powerhouse programs."

Before she left Immaculata and started the very successful Future Stars basketball camp, Rush made two more appearances in the national championship game and a trip to the semifinals. Her team played in front of 12,000 fans at Madison Square Garden and participated in the first nationally televised women's basketball game.

"I'm still a huge fan and I think the game is fabulous," said Rush, who made $1,200 her last season at Immaculata. "When you compare it to men's college or pro, it doesn't look as good on TV, but I think it's great game in person."

And what about the big screen?

"You could have asked the same question about 'A League of Their Own,' and a lot less people watched women's baseball than basketball," she said. "And this is a better story."

While it takes a while in the movie for the nuns to warm up to Rush's character, Sister Marian William Hoben, 84, President Emerita of Immaculata, said the whole college was pulling for the Mighty Macs and their pioneering coach.

"I always enjoyed watching the team but it wasn't until this gang came along that anyone else took notice," she said. "The players would go over to Camilla Hall, the retirement home here, and ask the sisters to pray for them."

Hoben said the Mighty Macs' success took everyone by surprise.

"I remember the day one of the girls came in and said 'Sisters, we're going to the regionals!' I smiled sweetly and said, 'That's wonderful!' even though we had no idea what she was talking about."