A local director brings his little movie about an unlikely success story to the big screen.
Gothic arches, stained-glass windows and rooftop battlements overlook the courtyard lawn at this stone fortress sparkling in the midday sun. St. Colman’s Church, a couple of blocks beyond the heart of Ardmore’s commercial district, is ready for its close-up.
“You can’t get these exteriors in L.A.,” says Whitney Springer, a film producer who knows just what the camera loves. “Phila-delphia is a real character in the movie.”
The Main Line, to be specific, is the focus of this month-long shoot for Our Lady of Victory, the Cinderella story of Immaculata University’s 1972 women’s basketball champions and their trailblazing coach, Cathy Rush. And while the area’s rich architecture commands attention, most of the action this day—and, indeed, in the finished movie—will take place indoors. Our Lady is an interior study of character and transformation. “There’s a lot of heart in the story—and in the production,” says Alison Grove, who’s been handling public relations for the film. “[Writer/director] Tim Chambers insisted on filming on location, in staying true to the story, the spirit of the Mighty Macs.”
Spirit is essential for a film company, whose days can be long and tedious. A movie doesn’t emerge fully formed but, rather, scene-by-scene, frame-by-frame, with multiple takes and subtle adjustments. On a balmy weekday afternoon in June, Chambers has gathered his charges in the seldom-used school gym, a throwback of exposed pipe and dusty floorboards. Rising star Carla Gugino, portraying coach Rush, bounces a basketball and approaches Sister Sunday hanging the team’s uniforms on a clothesline.
“So, you were the all-time leading scorer [at your high school],” Sister says.
Gugino’s Rush smiles wistfully. That was before they cut girls’ basketball her senior year, she explains.
The scene is a measure of how far the new coach—and women’s basketball in general—had yet to come. Gugino, who has played a Hollywood agent on HBO’s Entourage and supported Ben Stiller’s comic romp in last year’s Night at the Museum, was cast because she has the “characteristics of a leader,” according to first-time director Chambers.
When Rush was hired in 1972 by the tiny Catholic girls college in Malvern, its gym had burned down and developers were eyeing the campus. Leadership was the new coach’s only game plan. At 23, she was married to NBA official Ed Rush, who was the celebrity of the family. The feminist movement was just starting to build momentum. “She was a young bride who wanted her own job—that wasn’t standard fare,” says Chambers, who grew up in Newtown Square and now lives in West Chester.
Coach Rush parlayed that job into the stuff of legend, as her Mighty Macs won three consecutive National Women’s Collegiate Championships (’72-’74), losing only four times in 78 games during those three seasons. The school and the sport had come of age. Our Lady’s basketball scenes—filmed at St. Colman, Malvern Prep, the Hill School, Cheyney University and West Chester University’s Hollinger Fieldhouse for the tournament finals—reflect the team’s progression both on the court and in the public’s perception.
“There is a character arc for the gyms themselves,” says Chambers from the set. “They start out in the basement and work their way through to the national stage.”
Spoken like a true writer. In fact, Chambers spent several years writing for television and developing movie projects in Hollywood. At Solaris Entertainment, he had a hand in 2004’s Miracle, about the 1980 gold-medal U.S. Olympic ice hockey squad. Then he joined Pat Croce, former Philadelphia 76ers president and a not-to-be-denied entrepreneur, to launch Quaker Media, which is producing Our Lady. Of Croce, Chambers says simply, “He’s the man who made it happen.”
Croce attracted investors—the movie’s budget is $6.5 million—and attention to the project. But if he’s the maker of the feast, Chambers has seasoned and served it with care and commitment. Crewcut and almost as sturdy as during his gridiron days at Penn (he was Ivy League Player of the Year as a senior), the 44-year-old filmmaker moves swiftly but quietly about the set, conferring with his actors, calling Gugino “coach,” fine-tuning scenes until they hum. “He wants to do family-oriented films,” says the L.A.-based Springer, who’s known Chambers for 17 years and worked with him in Hollywood. “I like to say he’s the new Frank Capra.”
That’s a tall order. But it’s no more daunting than the one facing Cathy Rush in 1972. Her inspirational Mighty Macs not only put Immaculata on the map but also helped change the profile of women’s collegiate athletics. Not long after the Macs’ three-peat, federal legislation required schools to hike funding for women’s sports, and the large programs began handing out athletic scholarships to girls as well as guys.
In the end, the Immaculatas of the world couldn’t compete with that kind of financial muscle. But the Mighty Macs’ achievement was already in the books.
UNTIL NOW, BRINGING THE Mighty Macs’ story to the screen had been a prime conversation piece and nothing more.
“Someone would mention the story, then everybody would say, ‘This would be a great movie,’” says Rush, who left Immaculata in 1977 and has been running a youth basketball camp for more than 30 years. “Friends would say, ‘Lindsay Wagner would be perfect [for the role].’ Then, 10 years later, it was someone else. Another film company was looking to do something when I met Tim, and I felt he was absolutely the right person.”
For Chambers, too, it’s been a matter of timing. When Philadelphia hosted the Women’s Final Four in 2000, he read an Inquirer story about the ’72 champs and visualized a movie. But it wasn’t until four years later that the vision came into focus. That’s when Marie Moughan, Immaculata’s public relations director, saw a newspaper photo of Chambers and called his brother, Pat (now assistant men’s coach at Villanova), a friend of her son’s. Miracle had just been released and making a splash. Moughan had another miraculous tale in mind. “We have a story that needs to be told,” she explained to Pat, who promptly called his brother.
Chambers, in turn, requested a meeting with Cathy Rush—and the fast break was on. He and WIP-AM 610’s Anthony Gargano conducted the principal interviews and sketched out a story. Croce helped secure the necessary rights, Chambers wrote the script—and now he’s directing it.
“Everyone knows the basic story,” he says. “But what’s the point of view? What drives the characters? How does that affect the school? That’s what makes it so powerful—to peel that onion and see how many layers there are.”
In this case, enough emotional layers to generate plenty of tears and adrenaline. Our Lady is about the exhilaration of dreams and overcoming the odds. To peel the onion, Chambers has assembled a cast of strength and dexterity. In addition to Gugino, Malvern Prep alum David Boreanaz (of Bones and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame), son of Channel 6 weathercaster Dave Roberts, plays Ed Rush; distinguished stage and screen actress Ellen Burstyn is a formidable mother superior; and Marley Shelton changes personas from her edgy dual role in the pulpy action flick Grindhouse to become Sister Sunday.
Chambers has handed out some canny cameos: Ed Rush has one, Cathy Rush shows up as a bank teller who cashes the coach’s first paycheck, and several WNBA players appear in the movie. Agnes Irwin grad Lauren Karl offers some comic relief as a student willing to sell anything that’s not nailed down in order to raise funds for the school.
“She’s kind of nerdy, but she symbolizes the student body support” says Karl, who is now based in Los Angeles.
Back on the set, Craig Borden (in sneaks and shorts and fine voice) barks out instructions for the next scene. Costumers and hair stylists tend to the actors during breaks, which can be lengthy. A film crew is like a small army; between battles, it has lots of time on its hands.
Producer Springer has recruited these troops locally and from across the country. Our Lady is a union production, making it more expensive but consistent with the workaday Philly heritage. Springer originally had suggested a California soundstage with a non-union crew, but Quaker Productions had other ideas. “Tim and Pat wanted to film here in Philadelphia,” says Springer—a matter, he says, of atmosphere, authenticity and civic commitment.
At St. Colman’s gym, the production slips into late afternoon, with the prospect of a full evening ahead. At mid-court, Borden huddles with several crew members to discuss the next scene. Young women playing the ’72 Mighty Macs loosen up in their do-si-do uniforms—a rag doll’s pale blue with plaid sashes.
Soon they’re ready for action and cameras are rolling. Chambers and Springer watch the scene unfold on small television monitors to see what the camera captures.
“I can’t wear these,” one of the girls complains to the coach about her uniform.
“It’s all we have,” says Gugino’s Rush. “Buck up.”
As Gugino turns and walks toward the camera, the rest of them follow behind, fanning out as if in formation, ready to go with her anywhere.
“Cut—that’s it,” Chambers calls out. “Perfect.”
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