Immaculata University Magazine - Spring 2011 - page 14

12
I MMA C U L ATA U N I V E R S I T Y
he birth of modern women’s
basketball was a noisy one.
In the early 1970s, on Im-
maculata College’s leafy Chester
County campus, the groundbreak-
ing success of that tiny Catholic
school’s team took place amid
the racket of spoons drumming
on metal buckets, the crackle of
a walkie-talkie that kept coach
Cathy Rush in touch with her husband, and
the clatter of wheelchairs in the normally silent
hallways of Camilla Hall.
“Camilla Hall is a place on Immaculata’s
campus where old and sick nuns are cared for,”
Rush recalls. “These nuns became so taken with
our success that they used to pipe in the radio
broadcasts of our games on the loudspeaker
system. If we were losing at halftime, someone
would come on the system and announce, ‘Sis-
ters, the Mighty Macs are in trouble!’
“And just like that, you’d have all these old
nuns in wheelchairs or with canes and walkers
coming down the hallways toward the chapel,
gathering there for prayers to help us win.”
The younger Immaculate Heart of Mary
nuns attended games in person. And since
player Rene Muth’s father, Louis, owned a hard-
ware store, they were provided with buckets and
washboards that they smacked and scraped in
heavenly delight as the Mighty Macs won the
first three women’s national championships
between 1972 and 1974.
“You look back on that little school, with
all these nonscholarship players from the
Catholic League, and you wonder how we did
it,” says Denise Conway Crawford, who played
on those teams. “I was one of five girls from
Archbishop Prendergast [in Upper Darby] and I
was the only one who had played in high school.
“The only answer I have,” she says, “is that
it was providential.”
Today, nearly three decades after Rush’s
tunic-clad teams helped create the cultural
phenomenon, big-time women’s sports is a
television staple. Women’s basketball, particu-
larly at the professional level, fills big arenas
in big cities. Not many people remember that
Immaculata was in at the start, playing the first
women’s contests at Madison Square Garden
and Philadelphia’s Spectrum.
More significantly, Immaculata’s success
inspired an army of coaches, many of them
Rush disciples. Her summer camps became
a mecca for anyone interested in learning the
game. In 1972, when Title IX suddenly re-
quired colleges to spend equitably on men’s and
women’s sports, schools raced to Rush’s camps
to fill their basketball programs with coaches
and players schooled in her technique.
Soon a “cheesesteak chain” of Philadel-
phia coaches such as Vivian Stringer, now at
Rutgers, Jim Foster of Vanderbilt, Connecticut’s
Geno Auriemma and three of Rush’s Immacu-
lata starts—Theresa Shank Grentz, Marianne
Crawford Stanley and Rene Muth Portland—
stretched across the country. They became a
network of evangelists for a sleek and compel-
ling sport, one that only a few years before had
been played with byzantine rules in cramped
gymnasiums by women in skirts.
Modern women’s basketball took root in
places like Storrs, Conn., Chattanooga, Tenn.,
and Los Angeles. Now there are universities where
women’s games outdraw the men’s. College teams
have multimillion-dollar budgets and play in huge
arenas. Women’s coaches get perks once reserved
for football coaches and college stars can even
keep playing after graduation in the WNBA.
Later this week, with hoopla and media
coverage unimaginable in 1972 when Im-
maculata won the first national tournament in
Normal, Ill., the Women’s Final Four will be
contested back in the cradle, Philadelphia. The
hallways at the arena, the glittering First Union
Center, will be packed with exhibits about the
game’s history. It’s a chronology that focuses
T
Where it all began
TH E CR A DL E OF WOME N ’ S BA S K E T BA L L WA S BU I LT
I N PH I L A DE L PH I A’ S BACK YA R D
W R I T T E N B y F r a n k F i t z p at r i c k
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