October 21st, 2011
03:32 PM ET
By Sarah Hoye, CNN
Philadelphia (CNN) - The sound of high heels clicking against the marble floor and the din of ice cubes in cocktail glasses fills the main lobby of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on a recent Friday night.
Theresa Shank Grentz barely steps through the glass doors when the crowd, dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos, erupts in cheers.
Standing nearly 6 feet tall, Grentz, one of the winningest coaches in women's Division 1 basketball, is given a hero’s welcome.
Flashing a made-for-TV smile, she clutches her husband’s arm and makes her way to the red carpet.
Outside the City of Brotherly Love, along a leafy back road, is the birthplace of big time women's college basketball.
In 1972, Immaculata College, a tiny Catholic women's college, won the first women's national collegiate basketball championship. Grentz was the team's star player, and a three-time all-American for women's collegiate basketball.
Forty years after their Cinderella story began, the team's story comes to life in “The Mighty Macs,” opening nationwide Friday.
The film starring Carla Gugino, Marley Shelton, David Boreanaz and Ellen Burstyn is based on the true story of the school that set the stage for the future of women’s college hoops. Writer and director Tim Chambers watched the Macs practice when he was a kid.
“The Mighty Macs” follows the small team of players lead by the determined Coach Cathy Rush (wife of NBA referee Ed Rush). Despite not having a gym to practice in and wool tunics for uniforms, they went on to win the first dynasty in their game.
Grentz, her former teammates and alumni stepped out for the world premier of “The Mighty Macs” screened first, of course, in Philadelphia.
Even the newly appointed Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput made an appearance on the red carpet alongside Mayor Michael Nutter and executive producer Pat Croce, the former president of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.
“This story of faith and determination is inspirational. The family friendly film reminds us of the power of believing that we can achieve against seemingly insurmountable odds,” Chaput wrote on his Facebook page.
The goal back then - as it is now - was to win.
“We played four years and we lost two games. And I'm basically still ticked about the two we lost,” said a laughing Grentz, who played the low post for Immaculata from 1970-74. She went on to be the women’s basketball head coach at Rutgers University, the University of Illinois and the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.
Today, Grentz is retired, but she still helps Immaculata College with its fundraising.
“My teammates and I had a great opportunity,” she said. “We lost two of those women (Pat Opila and Maureen Mooney). So wherever they are, this is for you.”
The Macs developed a ferocious following of nuns from the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the school's founders and professors at the school. They attended games donning habits and banging on buckets, while those who couldn’t attend away games carried transistor radios for up-to-the-minute scores.
It was a magical night when the Macs won their first national championship in Illinois with a last-minute upset win against West Chester State - a team that crushed them previously by 32 points.
“Just about every blade of grass was quivering with excitement,” said Sister Lorraine Bruno, Immaculata professor emeritus. “It was just electric.”
So just how did they pull off that win? Sure, they had solid players from the area’s Catholic League, plus Coach Rush, who was 22 when she took the job, pushed her players to succeed on and off the court.
And having nuns filling the bleachers and praying the rosary couldn’t hurt either, right?
“My only answer is we won the games,” Sister Marie Albert Kunberger, Immaculata professor emeritus, said before giggling.
The mighty underdogs celebrated a series of firsts, including playing in the first women's game at Madison Square Garden and the first women's game broadcast on national television. Now they'll be on the big screen.
“We learned so much as actresses on the set of where it all started, and I can't emphasize that enough just because it was such a huge accomplishment,” said Katie Hayek, a former University of Miami shooting guard who plays star player Trish Sharkey in the film.
The same year the Macs won their first championship, Title IX went into place requiring colleges to spend equal amounts on men’s and women’s sports. Immaculata couldn’t compete with large universities able to offer athletic scholarships.
With only 400 students, the school was a symbol of academics, not hoops.
“We ended up winning a national tournament that nobody ever even anticipated was a thought when the season started,” said Denise Crawford, Immaculata guard from 1970-74.
Even with their success, women’s basketball at the time didn’t garner much attention.
“It’s hard to believe how little people paid attention to women’s sports back then,” said Sue O’Grady, an Immaculata guard on the 1972 championship team. “When I came here I played basketball, but that’s not why I came here. We were very fortunate to be here when this happened.”
“It was the right place at the right time,” added Janet Boltz, who played guard for all three Mighty Macs national championship teams. “I’ll tell you, divine intervention.”
Still, the teams of the 70s inspired a movement.
“We didn't have chartered buses and vans and airplanes. We didn't have somebody washing our uniforms; we didn't have scholarships. But in essence those teams made it possible for all those other things to happen,” said Cathy Rush, Immaculata Head Coach from 1970-77.
The Macs have not won a championship since their three-year sweep (1972, 1973, 1974) and currently compete in Division III, but they changed the face of modern women’s basketball.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.