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Movie will introduce many to Cathy Rush

Then and now: On the left, Theresa Shank, Sister Mary of Lourdes and Cathy Rush in 1972 after winning their first AIAW title; on the right, Cathy Rush, left, poses with Theresa Shank Grentz on Oct. 3. AP Photo/Immaculata University/Matt Rourke

Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous collection of short stories, "Twice-Told Tales," consisted of writings actually published many more times than twice, of course. They appeared individually in magazines in the 1800s, then in a bound volume that went through various alterations.

The somewhat whimsical title of such a master work has long linked to women's sports in my mind, incongruous as that sounds. So many women's sports stories have never really been told even once. And some of the best, most historically important ones have been told … but can never be told enough. They merit repeated revisiting. They are stories about people and events that seem fictionalized but, in fact, aren't.

Such is the case with the saga of coach Cathy Rush and her Immaculata teams that won the 1972, '73 and '74 AIAW championships in the early days of women's collegiate basketball.

Four decades after first walking onto the campus of the small, Catholic college in Pennsylvania, Rush is talking about her time there a lot now. That's thanks to the film "The Mighty Macs," which essentially was completed in 2008 but -- like the program itself -- endured multiple challenges and adversity before prevailing.

"My goodness," Rush said recently, "I'm overwhelmed. I've been saying for 35 years the unique nature of the Immaculata story was an unlikely dream come true. I dreamed that this movie could be made, and to see it become a reality is just so gratifying, humbling and exciting all at the same time."

The film debuts nationally on Friday, and thousands of people will learn for the first time of a forward-thinking young woman whose obstinate optimism helped charter the course for the future of a sport.

It's not the first telling of Immaculata's tale. It was actually fairly well-chronicled by local media back when it happened. Over the years, various media would revisit it.

In 2000, when the Women's Final Four was in Philadelphia and Mighty Mac alum Rene Portland had her Penn State team there, the story was told by multiple national outlets.

In 2008, ESPN.com's Greg Garber provided a detailed account of the legacy of Rush and the Mighty Macs. Philadelphia-based journalist Mel Greenberg, who originated the women's college basketball poll in 1976, saw the Mighty Macs in real time and has more first-hand stories than any journalist about the team, the place and the era.

What "The Mighty Macs" writer-director Tim Chambers has done, though, is provide a mildly fictionalized account of Rush and her program in feature-film form, which is opening the door for more and more retelling of a spectacular -- but we'll remind you again, true -- tale.

Rush hastens to say that she is just a part of this story, which is a bit like saying that Scarlett O'Hara was just one of the characters in "Gone With the Wind." Everything about the amazing success of Immaculata women's basketball revolves around the force-of-nature personality of Rush.

Unlike Scarlett, though, Rush really existed. She still does. She's a Hall of Famer, a grandmother, a breast-cancer survivor, a successful businesswoman. And now, thanks to the film and its terrific lead performance by Carla Gugino, Rush is also one of the more vibrant real-life female characters ever in a sports movie.

Overwhelming? Perhaps so. A story worth recounting again? Absolutely.

Chance to play was taken away from Rush

Cathy Rush finished an outstanding freshman season of basketball at Oakcrest High School in New Jersey -- about a 40-minute bus ride from her house -- in 1961. Before her sophomore year, though, the team was eliminated.

It wasn't an uncommon occurrence in those days. It indicated a widespread mindset of the 1950s and '60s that girls' athletics -- to the degree they were thought about at all -- were considered an expendable luxury for many schools, and not necessarily a desirable one.

There were certain states that valued and protected girls' basketball, although even in those places it was usually rural schools that kept their teams. But in most areas, girls' teams were capriciously cut during the "backlash" decades for American females after World War II. No explanations were usually given because they weren't demanded.

"My mom is 92, and I've asked her, 'Why didn't you complain?'" Rush said of losing her chance to play basketball her last three years of high school. "And she said, 'Nobody thought about it.' It wasn't thought of as offensive in the way it would be today.

"Now I look back and can't believe that happened. But it did. Many of us have our memories of being sort of shut out of gyms and playgrounds and whatever. But back then, we didn't really grumble about it. Like an awful lot of things that happened to young women at the time, that was just the way it was. We hadn't gotten to the point where we started complaining that maybe we should have more opportunities."

Rush jokes that she then went from being a short basketball player to being a tall gymnast. Her gymnastics and tumbling weren't really competitive outlets, but they did provide a chance to exercise.

When she went to West Chester State in the greater Philadelphia area for college, she played basketball for a couple of years. Then, unsatisfied with some aspects of that program, she returned to gymnastics.

In 1970, married to NBA referee Ed Rush, Rush went to Immaculata with a goal that sounded utterly preposterous: build a national-championship-caliber women's basketball team.

She had no scholarships, no budget, no actual gym to play games in … and practically no salary. Yet if it seemed as though she was trying to conjure magic literally from thin air, that was not entirely the case.

The sport itself as a competitive collegiate endeavor for women was in its infancy. Her alma mater, West Chester, was one of the main leaders in that regard, and so Rush knew exactly what a good program -- as it would be defined in that time -- should look like.

She had seen the passion displayed at Catholic high school girl games in Philadelphia, a city that had a tremendous overall basketball history. She knew that many of the students at Immaculata -- then still an all-female institution -- had attended Catholic girls' high schools and had developed a better sense of self-esteem and accomplishment than many of their peers.

For Rush, going to Immaculata was like looking at a mountain and immediately seeing the nooks, crannies and ledges that might provide a clever and resourceful climber a pathway up. Rather than being daunted by the size of the obstacle itself.

This is where the movie begins Cathy Rush's story: She is hired to do a job. In fact, she'd found a calling.

Support from the "entire order"

There are ways that life and art can intersect to give a film fascinating side stories. Chambers was from the Philadelphia area, had seen the Mighty Macs as a youngster, and knew their history. He believed in the movie enough that when it initially struggled in a floundering economy to find the right distributor, he refused to give up.

Also, Chambers had read the riveting autobiography of Ellen Burstyn, "Lessons in Becoming Myself," in which the Oscar-winning actress talks about a life journey that has more triumphs and tragedies than any role she ever played.

Chambers was able to get Burstyn to play the part of the Mother St. John, who brings Rush aboard at Immaculata but has an abundance of worries about her beloved school beyond just her headstrong new coach.

Burstyn made three of her most famous films at the same time the real-life Rush was building her program at Immaculata, appearing in 1970s classics "The Last Picture Show," "The Exorcist," and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

The latter was about a widowed mother who tries to raise her precocious son and find a new career in a time when that was still a novel idea for women. Burstyn won the Academy Award for that 1974 movie. Had she then known Rush -- who won her third consecutive AIAW title in '74 -- they would have had much to discuss.

"It was a tremendous coup on Tim's part to get an actress of her caliber," Rush said. "And for her to graciously accept a part in an independent film with a questionable chance of success, I think she brought us credibility and respect."

Rush admits the first time she watched a cut of the film, she was a little too overwhelmed by the prospect of seeing herself portrayed to really examine the performance of the actress who plays her, Carla Gugino.

"I had to see it a second and third time to really observe her," Rush said. "And I so admire her -- she is not a coach, she's never been a coach. But she really studied what coaches do and how you lead a group of people. I think leadership is the role that she took on so well, and she was excited to do it. I was so pleased."

And even though the character of Sister Sunday, played by Marley Shelton, was fictitious, Rush didn't view that as compromising the authenticity of the film.

"If you look at all the nuns at Immaculata and what they did, their support was so key," Rush said. "The Sister Sunday character as my assistant coach to me was symbolic of everyone that was there for me. If I needed a friend, somebody to talk to, or things were going on with the team, I had a support network.

"The entire order was our sixth player. You think of Texas A&M football and their 12th man. The religious community was always there for us. And there's a scene in the movie where we go back to the rotunda on campus after a loss, and the entire student body turned out. Here was a down moment, and those people still came out for us."

Indeed, it's a scene many might think is almost "too Hollywood" to be true: The Mighty Macs were crushed by West Chester, and thought their season was over. In fact, though, they find out they've been invited to the AIAW tournament anyway. But regardless of that, their fellow students were all waiting to proudly welcome them home.

"I happened to be at the shooting for what I call the rotunda scene," Rush said. "I was on the second floor and when the 'team' and Carla came in, standing next to me watching was Mel Greenberg. And I turned to look at him, and we were both crying. Because it happened exactly as they made it in the movie.

"We had lost on Ash Wednesday, came back, and the entire student body was there. That building is actually part of the college's dormitories. The girls came out around 1 in the morning, a lot of them in their bathrobes, with curlers in their hair. They came out because they truly cared, and it didn't matter if we'd won or lost."

Life after Immaculata

Rush didn't lose very many games while at Immaculta. Only 15, actually, with 149 victories. Her first national championship came against the same West Chester team that had just pounded the Mighty Macs.

But the window was small for Immaculata and schools like it to be competitive at the top level of college athletics. By 1976, Rush knew scholarships were needed for her to continue to be successful there, and Immaculata didn't have the means to give them.

Rush left the school in 1977, intent on spending just a brief time away from coaching. But she found something else that ended up being the second act of her life's work professionally.

"My oldest son was starting kindergarten, and I thought, 'For the first time I'll have afternoons, evenings and weekends off,'" she said. "I planned to take one year off, then get back to coaching, and I had talked with a number of universities.

"Then a friend of ours who was an accountant took a look at this little summer-camp business, and said, 'This could be a business. This could be your next job.' So the next year my other son was going into kindergarten, and I took another year away from coaching. And then all of a sudden, the business exploded. It gave me the chance to stay home with my children and work out of my house. And then take them to summer camp. It was the perfect combination."

Rush's camps were training grounds for not just generations of players, but also for top coaches such as Connecticut's Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame's Muffett McGraw. Countless people who've succeeded in women's basketball have been influenced in some way by Rush.

"I really felt that the sport would eventually end up where it is right now," Rush said. "But I'm not quite sure I thought it would happen this soon.

"I've always said that it was fortunate for women's basketball that Immaculata emerged when it did. It was in a media area, and we got great press. So big things happened, I think it sort of jump-started the success of the women's basketball tournament."

And the same attitude that served Rush so well as a coach helped her get through another battle, which was her toughest.

"Twenty-one years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer," she said. "In my optimistic spirit, I thought that things were going to be OK. But at every checkup, it seemed like the cancer was spreading. I had gone through chemotherapy, radiation, surgery. It did not look good. Yet here I still am 21 years later, quite healthy, enjoying my six grandchildren. So life is good; I'm very fortunate, and I know it."

Rush still runs day camps for children ages 4-13 in which they do sports activities, arts and crafts, plus nature and science studies. Those who know the history of women's basketball have never let fade away her name or the story of her Immaculata teams. But because of the movie, she's getting the chance to tell the tale again and again.

"For people today who are not as familiar with how things used to be, this is an eye-opener," Rush said. "You know, all of us stand on someone else's shoulders. I didn't start the first national tournament; I have to thank the women who came before me for that wonderful idea and putting it together.

"And if you look at athletes now, they should know that there were women who played before them who really struggled to make this dream a reality today for women's athletics. Someone somewhere before you had responsibility for what you have. That's important for every age group to know."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.