Basketball coach Cathy Rush (Carla Gugino) arrived at tiny Immaculata College in 1972, at just the right moment for her, for the team, and for the game. Restrictive rules that had “protected” female players from a full-court game had just been revised. For the first time, there was going to be a national championship for the women’s teams. And while people were still asking back then, “If she is married, why is she working?” that question would soon be considered inappropriate and ultimately almost unfathomable.
That context and an excellent cast gives this more heft than the typical based-on-a-true-story saga of the underdog team that became national champions. The always-excellent Gugino, in a series of wonderful 1970’s outfits, shows us Rush’s sense of purpose, even when she faces challenges like a Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn) who is horrified to think that her girls might be “athletes” and a husband who cannot understand why she is there. Her devotion to the girls as people as well as players is nicely shown. And is is good to see the nuns treated respectfully, not made into caricatures or made to seem stuffy, quaint, or cute. They are portrayed as people, too. We are reminded of their sense of purpose when Rush asks the Mother Superior for equipment and uniforms. The Mother Superior says she is welcome to anything she has and then shows the coach her small, spare, room with little more than a cot and a rosary.
Marley Shelton plays Sister Sunday, a young nun struggling with her calling who becomes the assistant coach. Her sweetness and sincerity are a good complement to the coach’s flinty determination. In a scene where they go to a bar in civilian clothes, Shelton shows us how the sister’s faith supports her strength and integrity.
Rush had no coaching experience. The team had just one ball and the gym had burned down. She was the only one who applied for the job and she was paid $450 for the entire season. She might have thought of it at first as “something to keep me busy” while her husband was on the road as an NBA referee, or “a perfect place for someone who was not ready to assume her role in society,” but she learned that her role in society was exactly where she was. Her most important contribution is shown by the updates at the end. She did not just coach a team of champions. She created a new generation of coaches who took what she taught them to the first women athletes to have the opportunities created by Title IX.
Parents should know that this film has some mild marital tension and disagreements in the workplace, and a girl is sad after a break-up.
Family discussion: How have attitudes toward women in sports changed since the early 1970’s? What made this team successful? Why was it so important to Coach Rush?
If you like this, try: More college basketball movies like “Hoosiers” and “Glory Road” and the wonderful documentary about a high school basketball coach, “Heart of the Game”