On the heels of attending the red carpet world premiere of The Mighty Macs last Friday, we had the opportunity to interview several people associated with the movie. Throughout our conversations, we heard fascinating stories of how this movie went from a tiny idea to now a full-length feature film that opens in theaters across the country this Friday. The Mighty Macs is based on the incredible true story of the 1971-72 Immaculata College team that started in obscurity but became the original Cinderella story in women’s basketball.
Theresa Shank wanted a ring. After all, she and her Immaculata College teammates had just won the inaugural college women’s basketball National Championship. Instead, she received a rather plain, brown, wooden rosary. Immaculata president Sister Mary of Lourdes heard of Theresa’s discontent. Typical of her legendary open-door policy, Sister, also a star basketball player in her youth, called Theresa into her office.
“Theresa, I understand you’re upset.”
“No, everything is good. I’m fine with this,” replied Immaculata’s star player.
“But I was told that you’re a little upset,” Sister repeated. “Theresa, you know those rosaries will serve you better than any ring.”
Little did either of them know how well that rosary would serve Theresa. The three-time All-American player went on to a distinguished coaching career. In 1976, Theresa Shank Grentz was hired at Rutgers, becoming the nation’s first Division 1 full-time women’s head basketball coach. In 1992, she was tabbed to coach the U.S. Olympic team. She was elected to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. At her retirement in 2007, she was the tenth winningest Division 1 women’s basketball coach in history.
Throughout her 33-year career, Theresa kept, used, and loved that plain, brown, wooden rosary. She recounted, “There’s a period of time before the game starts when there’s nothing to do. You can’t watch game film or anything anymore; you just sit in the locker room. So I started praying the rosary before every game. You can pray a rosary in twelve minutes.”
Fast forward to the making of The Mighty Macs, the movie based upon the story of Theresa’s first Immaculata championship team. Twenty-two year-old former University of Miami basketball player Katie Hayek had been cast for the role of Trish Sharkey, the character based upon Theresa Shank. Like Theresa, Katie was an eastern Pennsylvania native and standout Catholic high school basketball player. They bonded instantly. According to Theresa, “Katie’s a beautiful person, inside and out…and she’s got a very smooth jump shot. We just had this immediate connection. I gave it (the rosary) to her before I knew anything about her. I didn’t even know if she was Catholic.” Theresa gave Katie her Immaculata championship rosary!
There was something else Theresa didn’t know about Katie at that time. On the same day Katie learned she’d been cast in the movie, her first major acting role, she also learned she had been diagnosed with cancer – Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Katie had to undergo four months of chemotherapy, coinciding with the filming. Both Katie and The Mighty Macs production team were undeterred.
“Actually, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it without the movie; that’s where I was happiest,” Katie recalled. “They stood by me and really supported me. Tim (Chambers, writer/producer/director) arranged the schedule so we shot the basketball scenes early, when I still had the energy.”
Her on-screen teammates also pulled together. “Tim put us up in the dorms. So, we lived together and spent a lot of time together. We stayed up late sharing stories…and tears, especially that first night. I think that carried over onto the court and in front of the camera.”
According to Katie, she had an abundance of divine assistance at work for her, too. “My Mom was praying for the intercession of St. Thérèse (of Lisieux) without me knowing. And I know her symbol is a rose, and one time there was a dozen roses that showed up with a card ‘From Theresa.’ We never found out who sent them. There were just a lot of crazy coincidences around that time with Theresas and flowers and other stuff, too.”
One of those is the episode now known as The Cake Story. “When I was at a chemo treatment, it was another patient’s last day of chemo, so her friends brought a cake for her. I was sitting there, hat on, almost falling asleep. They rolled this cake on the cart by me and there was one piece left; it was probably 3” by 3”. The only thing it had on it was ‘Shank’ in (Immaculata) blue icing. It was eerie.”
And there was one other thing. “I had the rosary from Theresa, of course.”
When Theresa and Katie talk about each other, their mutual respect and affection is obvious. Theresa says there are three kinds of friendships: utility, pleasure, and virtuous. Theirs is clearly the virtuous kind – a friendship rooted in the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. It’s precisely how Theresa describes the relationship between the IHM Sisters and the students at Immaculata. “They genuinely cared about us as people. These friendships helped us become better people because our moral compass was always pointing north around them.”
Presumably, the Sisters’ influence helped shape Theresa into the kind of person who would give her beloved championship rosary to someone she had just met but intuitively knew needed it more than she did. So profound was the Immaculata nuns’ influence on Theresa that she wanted to honor them with her brief appearance in The Mighty Macs. “They asked me if I wanted to be a referee or a coach or something. Forget that; I said I wanted to be a nun! So, they found a cameo for me, and they wanted to know my size for wardrobe. I said, ‘Just give me a big ol’ habit, because I want to be a big ol’ nun!’”
Way to pay it forward, sister…and back, too.
Check out our review of The Mighty Macs – in theaters Friday, October 21.