'The Mighty Macs' stirs memories, breaks barriers

There was nothing normal about what happened in Normal, Ill., in 1972.

It was the year Title IX was enacted, and for the first time, a women's national college basketball championship was held. Illinois State hosted the tournament.

Immaculata College, a tiny 500-student Catholic school in Pennsylvania, was given an at-large bid to the national tournament. The team, coached by Cathy Rush, was seeded 15th out of 16 teams and had so little money the players sold toothbrushes to raise travel funds. Yet somehow, the Immaculata Mighty Macs won the tournament.

"The Mighty Macs" movie, which chronicles the journey of the Immaculata team during the 1971-72 season, had its world premiere this past Friday night at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

Before the film, the stars of the movie -- Marley Shelton, Carla Gugino and David Boreanaz -- strutted down the red carpet. Members of the 1972 championship team, including Hall of Famers Theresa Shank Grentz and Judy Marra Martelli, also attended. But the real star of the night was the legendary head coach herself: Cathy Rush.

"They said it's a packed house," Rush said as she made her way down the red carpet. "Sold out. I'm out of breath. It's just unbelievable. Greater than I could've ever imagined in my wildest dreams."

Whitney Holtzman/espnW

The real Cathy Rush poses for a photo before the movie's premiere. Rush coached at Immaculata for seven seasons, winning three AIAW championships.

And Rush is one to think big.

"Cathy was a little bit ahead of her time," said Martelli, wife of St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli. Judy Marra Martelli played under Rush for four seasons. "She would sit with area men's college coaches and get drills from them and learn their plays. We did drills that other girls' teams weren't doing in the '70s."

The movie is also breaking down barriers. "There's never been an inspiring sports story for young girls," said Tim Chambers, the film's writer, producer and director. "That to me is a huge void in the marketplace. Men have 'Miracle,' 'Rudy,' 'Remember the Titans' and 'Glory Road.' This story is about the equality of dreams. Regardless of gender, race or economics, all dreams are created equal."

Rush agreed, saying, "In the '60s and '70s, women didn't have big dreams. Maybe their brothers did. And all of a sudden, here we are in 2011. Everybody can dream. ... We all have an opportunity to become a better version of ourselves, and that's so important."

After the stars made their way down the red carpet, the audience took its seats in Verizon Hall. Members of the Immaculata coaching staff spoke about their excitement for the film, then Philadelphia's mayor, Michael Nutter, took the stage. "The Mighty Macs transformed women's basketball in the United States," he said.

Finally, executive producer Vince Curran came on stage to thank the crowd and introduce the film.

As the lights dimmed, the audience began cheering as each name was displayed on screen during the opening credits and continued when the stars were shown on the screen for the first time.

Throughout the movie, the audience clapped, laughed and cried as it relived the miraculous journey of the championship team.

For one actress at Friday's premiere, the release of "The Mighty Macs" was especially meaningful.

Katie Hayek, who stars as Immaculata player Trish Sharkey in the movie, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma prior to filming. Hayek began her chemotherapy treatments the day she found out she was cast in the movie. Throughout the filming process, Hayek endured months of radiation and chemotherapy.

"It was the movie that pushed me through," said Hayek, who is now in remission. "It would've felt like those four months lasted a year if I didn't have the movie to look forward to every day. Having that movie is the best thing that could have happened to me."

The Macs went on to win championships in 1973 and 1974, making them one of two teams to win three AIAW titles. (In 1983, the AIAW was discontinued and the NCAA championship became the premier tournament). Rush stayed with the school for seven seasons and amassed a 149-15 record -- an astounding 90.9 winning percentage. She was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

You can start cheering on the Mighty Macs when the film opens in theaters nationwide Friday.

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