By Charles Hallman
From the film The Mighty Macs
With the nation’s hoop fans’ attention directed to the season’s cumulating event — crowning a national championship — three new basketball films, all based on true events, are set to premiere.
The Mighty Macs tells the true story of Immaculata College’s women’s basketball team winning the first national championship in women’s college basketball in 1972, starring Carla Gugino as Cathy Rush, the head coach. Its theatrical release is planned for later this month.
A screening of the film kicked off the first annual Tucker Center Film Festival on February 1 at the U of M football stadium’s club room. The event also featured sneak previews of three documentaries on girls and women in sport that preceded the feature presentation.
“This is a first-year event, so we weren’t really sure what to expect,” admitted Tucker Center Associate Director Nicole LaVoi afterwards. “But I’m thrilled that we were at capacity [attendance]. I think it shows a real thirst for women in sport films.”
In The Mighty Macs, Immaculata, then an all-women’s Catholic college in Pennsylvania, was about to shut down athletics. The young, energetic, but inexperienced Rush (Gugino) was hired by the school’s Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn)because no one else wanted the job.
Rush then assembled a team, cleaned up an old storage area for practices, and played all its games on the road, traveling in only two vehicles: Rush’s Volkswagen van and one owned by a novice nun who was also her assistant coach.
After a slow start, Immaculata turned their season around and eventually were invited to the AIAW national tournament. They defeated South Dakota State, Indiana State, Mississippi State College for Women, and then beat West Chester State, a team that earlier in the season trounced them, to win the first national women’s collegiate basketball championship on March 19, 1972.
The school won the next two AIAW titles (1973 and 1974), then twice finished runners-up in 1975 and 1976. Rush later coached the U.S. team to a gold medal in the Pan American Games in Mexico City and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
There weren’t a lot of Blacks at the screening, but the MSR did talk to two women who attended The Mighty Macs. “It was a good film — very inspirational,” said Park Center High School freshman Gabrielle Odom, who saw it along with several of her schoolmates.
“I thought it was a great, heartwarming film [about] sports and competition. I enjoyed it a lot,” noted Freida Martin, Minneapolis, who saw the film because one of the event organizers invited her.
Both women say they would recommend the film to others. “I think [the film] has some nice messages,” said LaVoi.
After watching The Mighty Macs, I thought it could do something similar to what Hoosiers did when it came out back in the mid-1980s — provide an historical account of a basketball team’s journey to a title in a realistic fashion. However, a couple of things in the film bothered me.
First, the Macs’ had one Black female player in the film — she even made a couple of game-winning shots. However, in reality the school did not have a Black player at that time — it wasn’t until two years later that a female player of color played for Immaculata.
Secondly, former WNBA player Ruthie Bolton played the Mississippi State coach, and her on-screen team was nearly all Black. However, the school, now Mississippi University for Women, never had a Black coach or Black players, as a school spokeswoman pointed out.
Had this biographical drama based on true events been about a men’s team, more than likely such glaring contradiction of the facts wouldn’t have been shown. However, since this is a women’s sport film, this reporter must wonder aloud if anyone has as yet questioned this dramatic license in The Mighty Macs.
Conversely, the truth won’t be stretched in the HBO Sports documentary Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV that debuts this Saturday, March 12 at 8:30 pm Central time on HBO; nor in ESPN’s documentary Fab Five on the 1990-92 Michigan’s men’s team that will be shown at 8 pm on March 13. Both films are expected to look at two real-life events in men’s college basketball history.
The Mighty Macs was a real-life women’s basketball team. Too bad the movie couldn’t have stuck more to a real-life script. In my opinion, that would have made it just as compelling as Hoosiers, which remains one of the best basketball films ever — for that matter, one of the best sport film ever made.
Perhaps one day producers will see that a women’s sport film like The Mighty Macs can be made more factually, like most men’s sport films, and still be good.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.