IMMACULATA, Pa. | Here’s a sports fairy tale that never gets old: An 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. “[I]t 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 University in a nail-biting rematch - and won. Cue the confetti.
In the following years, Miss Rush was approached many times about making the Macs’ Cinderella story into a movie, but every would-be production turned into a pumpkin.
So she was understandably wary when Mr. Chambers came to her around 2004. She was won over, however, by his strong backing - former Philadelphia 76ers President Pat Croce is an executive producer - and personal connections to the story.
Mr. Chambers had grown up in the area and as a child had seen Miss Rush and the Mighty Macs practice in his Catholic grade school’s gym. He also 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,” Miss 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. Miss Chambers cast Katie Hayek, a former University of Miami shooting guard and theater major, as star player Trish Sharkey.
But Miss 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 Miss Hayek said successfully treated her Hodgkin’s lymphoma.