October 21st, 2011
03:32 PM ET

Basketball innovators go from hardwood to the big screen

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.

Theresa Grentz, the star player for Immaculata's basketball team in the 1970s, went on to become one of the winningest coaches in women's basketball.

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.

The 1972 Immaculata College basketball team photo, the year they first won the national championship

“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.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput also attended the "Mighty Macs" film premiere.

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.

Actress Marley Shelton arrives at the premiere of "The Mighty Macs."

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.

Coach Cathy Rush in her old stomping grounds.

“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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bishops • Catholic Church • Christianity • Movies • Pennsylvania • Sports

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. http://www.foxhardwoods.com/

    I Just wanted to say that a truly fantastic idea It’s very refreshing to see a blogger like you.Best of luck in finding the solution and Very nice information.I think it will be very help full for everyone.Thank you very much for sharing such nice article... keep it up

    November 14, 2011 at 4:21 am |
  2. GodPot

    What does this movie have to do with "Belief"? Was it because it was a Catholic school team that makes this "Belief" worthy or does the movie claim they won their games because they prayed harder than the other teams? I mean way to go girls and all, but let's give credit where credit is due, to each girls athletic ability and good coaching.

    October 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  3. hippypoet

    i say lets make basketball a contact sport... and anyone who says it is – they are wrong, an elbow is not contact – football is contact...lets rough it up, do a mix between hockey and football with the basics of basket ball – sounds like something i'd watch... and i don't watch any so called sports! if i have money on the games then hell yes i watch! but i find playing the game far more fun then watching it.

    October 24, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  4. Just Sayin'

    It is really really, sad that TROLLS have no lives other than to be TROLLS.

    October 23, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Spiffy

      Nice trolling!

      October 23, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  5. Jennifer

    I think it sounds like a great movie and now I want to see it.

    October 23, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  6. Saya

    Too bad they are no longer a women's college. This county needs more women's colleges.

    October 23, 2011 at 8:56 am |
  7. I Wonder

    In the black/white 1972 team photo above, is that girl in the middle of the back row (#32) – photo-shopped in?

    October 23, 2011 at 4:33 am |
    • Andrew

      she was not photo shopped in, but that is just her head, no body. It is common practice for team photos when someone is not present to ad them to the year book just the way they did.

      October 23, 2011 at 5:31 am |
  8. CHAD


    October 23, 2011 at 4:12 am |
  9. toadears

    Well, this has gotta sting the UT women's basketball champs a little bit, I imagine. They have been champs for a long time now, but this story is more poignant because the school was small, I guess, and women't sports weren't covered back then.

    October 23, 2011 at 3:25 am |
  10. RichardSRussell

    Advance warning. If you try to say anything about "Ti-tle 9" in this article on WOMEN'S ATHLETICS, the CNN nannybot will refuse to post your comment, because embedded in that phrase is a 3-letter slang word for a woman's body part (which also appears in such naughty, naughty words as "const-itution", "desti-tute", and "pet-ite") which the censors at CNN think might possibly be offensive to the sensitive eyeballs of people who regularly revile each other with the worst insults known to humanity.
    Fortunately, the nannybot is a literal-minded idiot which can be fooled by the simple expedient of hyphenating your "bad" words in the appropriate places, as I have done above.
    Really, CNN, isn't it about time to end this stupid charade? Why not hire a 13-year-old to figure out a simple algorithm that will let people post REAL words without having their thots dropped into the big bitbucket in the sky?

    October 23, 2011 at 3:15 am |
    • Groucho

      heheheh - I got blitzed trying to quote Otis B. Drif-twood yesterday!!

      October 23, 2011 at 3:28 am |
  11. lol, ok then

    So much for Christianity being oppressive towards women, eh? Pioneers of the sport, we're members of the catholic church and attendee's of a religious university.

    Go figure. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, militant atheists.

    October 22, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • Jean Sartre, Milwaukee, WI

      I will try to remember that the next time we raze a Convent and find 100’s of fetuses entombed in the walls...

      October 23, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • Spiffy

      You're right. Playing women's basketball does make up for the oppression of women. I'm sure religious women would rather play a few games of basketball then say become a priest. Of course women would also rather basketball then decide what they can do with their own bodies.

      Good job Christianity you let women play basketball!

      October 23, 2011 at 2:05 am |
    • ellid

      First, three championships forty years ago hardly makes up for two thousand years of misogyny.

      Second, this story should have been in the sports section. What is it doing on the Belief Blog?

      Third, nice thread hijacking! Aren't you proud of yourself?

      October 23, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • JiminNM

      And perhaps the children of the people replying negatively to your post below will forever hate their parents for all their misdeeds and leave them to die a poor, lonely and miserable death fitting those who cannot forgive.

      October 23, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  12. Liberty Queen

    Mighty Macs were the pioneers in women's basketball. Power to Women and Girls!!!!!

    October 22, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
  13. I love womens sports

    40 years later and still nobody cares about womens sports

    October 22, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • jim atmadison

      Forty years later and you still don't care.

      A lot of other people do.

      October 23, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  14. Jabberside

    You folks with all the negative comments make me sick. With all the bad stuff that goes on daily let people enjoy something delightful for a change. Crawl back under your rocks please.

    October 22, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • Father Martin

      I'm tired of all the people who make negative comments about people who make negative comments. You make me sick with your holier-than-thou comments. People have opinions, some good, some bad, you should grow up and learn to live with it.

      October 22, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  15. John Richardson

    I remember the Mighty Macs. I grew up outside Philly and while women's sports for sure garnered little attention compared to men's back then, the Mighty Macs were something of a local sensation and got quite a bit of local press coverage.

    October 22, 2011 at 7:30 am |


    October 21, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • lol, ok then

      First the atheists say that Christianity oppresses women and forces them into a pre-determined societal role. This article seems to suggest otherwise.

      October 22, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
    • Jean Sartre, Milwaukee, WI

      Yes, and even a dead clock is right twice a day...

      October 23, 2011 at 12:54 am |

    Cheering for sports is a form of idolatry!!

    October 21, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • ToadInAustin

      Misrepresenting religious doctrine is a form of ignorance.

      October 23, 2011 at 3:55 am |
  18. Bearer Of Bad News

    "Every blade of grass was quivering with excitement."

    I had the same thought about the contents of my pants when I began reading this masterpiece.

    October 21, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
About this blog

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.