- The Mother Superior, during her first face-to-face meeting with Cathy Rush: "This is our last ball. Please, uh, don't lose it."
Maybe you'll raise an eyebrow or nudge an elbow when you hear talk of Immaculata College, once an all-women Catholic school, being compared to John Wooden's UCLA dynasty, but, no, it's not balderdash, it's not whistling in the dark. THE MIGHTY MACS tells the remarkable true story of Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) who, as a woman in her early twenties and with no coaching experience, in 1972 became the head coach of Immaculata's struggling women's basketball team, and never mind that she was the only one to have applied for the position. And in Immaculata, nestled just a bit outside of Philadelphia, is where Cathy Rush made her mark. By the time she was done, Immaculata College was regarded as the birthplace of modern women's basketball. Moments after I saw this flick, I was on the Google, wanting to know more. I was that hooked.
Recognize that the 1970s presented an era in which women were still expected to be stay-at-home wives while the menfolk brought home the bacon, meaning that Cathy Rush was a pioneer in more ways than one. The state of affairs at Immaculata upon her arrival was straight up horrible. Immaculata's basketball program touted no scholarships, no budget, had no uniforms. The gym had burned down some time ago. THE MIGHTY MACS sets up a perfect underdog scenario. And since it's rated G, this really is for the entire family to savor, especially if you have young girls in the household. It's well-executed drama and hits all the right notes. In terms of heart and a knack for rapidly generating that rooting interest, THE MIGHTY MACS is right up there with HOOSIERS. Nostalgia drips from this relevant time capsule.
Carla Gugino can never be on the screen enough. She's so dang beautiful it tends to overshadow the fact that she can act. She's so strong here as Cathy Rush. She captures the coach's relentless personality and her gumption and her flair. I really like those scenes in which she implements her training techniques and attempts to impart life lessons on her doubting players. The film also touches on Cathy's sometimes rocky personal life. David Boreanaz's part as NBA ref and Cathy's hubbie, Ed Rush, is more a supporting one, but Boreanaz is good and ably conveys the mindset of the macho male of that era. Still, you sense that his resistance to Cathy's taking on a job will eventually wilt. Marley Shelton, whom I initially assumed was Amy Acker (from ANGEL), is captivating as the gamine but feisty coach's assistant Sister Sunday. And, as ever, Ellen Burstyn's presence can't help but class up a production even more. Burstyn plays the severe, fretful Mother Superior, at her wits' end over Immaculata's terrible financial plight. She has no idea salvation would come from a marginalized women's sport.
Women's basketball showcases skill and precise execution over rampant athleticism. The oncourt sequences emphasize the philosophy of teamwork, of timely passing and scrappy defense. I found myself enjoying the basketball scenes as much as the acting moments. The girls of the Mighty Macs look convincing on the court, never mind that their uniform comprises an ungainly tunic and a belt sash. The camera makes sure to track the ball from the moment it leaves the girls' fingertips to when it swishes thru the net. These girls know how to play.
***Possible SPOILERS in the paragraph***
In a tumultuous time in which women everywhere were breaking barriers, and specifically in 1972, Cathy Rush came to coach at Immaculata College. And in 1972, against all odds, the Mighty Macs won the inaugural national college women's basketball tournament. And won it again the following year, in 1973. And again in 1974. Imagine what their opponents must've felt during that era, each time they stepped on the hardwood. Not only did they have to play the Macs but they also had to face a horde of nuns actively praying for an Immaculata victory. Heck, maybe Cathy Rush's overwhelming record of 149 wins set against only 15 losses may be attributed to divine intervention more so than uncanny coaching prowess.
The DVD's bonus stuff is pretty absorbing. There are 3 Deleted Scenes, including a cheer from the Immaculata cheerleading squad, composed of enthusiastic elderly nuns (totaling 00:04:42 minutes). The two featurettes - "The Making Of THE MIGHTY MACS" (00:23:48 minutes) and "THE MIGHTY MACS ESPN Segment" (00:06:22 minutes) - provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Immaculata women's basketball dynasty. For example, did you know that the nuns and other Mighty Macs supporters would beat on buckets with a wooden dowel to cheer their team on? And, as an added treat, keep an eye out for cameos from the real Cathy Rush (as a bank teller) and her husband Ed Rush (as an elderly passerby on the sidewalk who donates to the school). There's also a church scene early on in which a row of nuns passes along Cathy's note to a possible recruit. These nuns are none other than the original members of the 1972 Mighty Macs squad.