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O God Of Players

February 25, 2017

ogodofplayersThere’s an airport bookstore bestselling paperback to be written about the the first dynasty in American women’s college basketball, the “Mighty Macs” of Immaculate College.

O God Of Players is not that book.

Author Julie Byrne has other ambitions. Among them are: locating those championship teams (1972-74) within the decades-long tradition of basketball excellence at Immaculata, exploring the interplay of gender, class, race, religion and competitive athletics, and perhaps most of all, capturing the sense of sheer pleasure created and experienced by mid-20th century Philadelphia Catholic young women as they entered into, carried forward, and reshaped what was at the time arguably the finest basketball culture for women in the world…and in doing so, reshaped their own sense of identity and possibility.

In mid-20th century Philadelphia, Catholic girls could play basketball; and Catholic girls could play basketball. Byrne writes:

They played basketball, they told me, because it felt good to run and jump, shoot and sweat. It made them happy to be part of the team, a select group of girls. It was fun to get on a team bus and go somewhere. It gave their prayers meaning and intensity. It thrilled them to play for raucous fans. And it was fun to win.

Remembering their playing days years later, former Immaculata team members told me stories about close games and hard practices, team masses and bus antics, losing streaks and national championships. And as they remembered stories of Immaculata basketball, they told other stories in between their words. About Catholic girls in Philadelphia. About mothers and fathers, nuns and priests who cheered them on. And about a local church whose favorite sport gave them hours and hours of their sweetest pleasure. (p. xiv)

Basketball is “a cheap, urban sport, requiring minimal gear and space“. (p. 17) In Philadelphia, Cardinal Dennis Dougherty‘s passion for single-sex Catholic education meant that not only virtually every parish in the archdiocese had a school; they had two schools, one for boys and one for girls. “Whatever the pros and cons of this separate-but-equal policy, it meant that most Philadelphia Catholic all-girls’ schools fielded basketball squads long before their coeducational counterparts“. (p. 17)

Archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools (and sometimes Immaculata faculty member) Msgr. John Bonnerset an unquestioned tone of support for boys’ and girls’ varsity play” (p. 18), in part because he believed “athletics were self-evidently part of…Catholic education“. (p. 20)

Sr. Mary of Lourdes McDevitt, a Philadelphia high school basketball star in the 1930s, an Immaculata alumna and Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) sister, and Immaculata president from 1955-72, exemplified the support for women’s basketball not only at Immaculata but throughout the schools, colleges and parishes throughout the archdiocese that may have been ruled by priests, but were run by nuns.

Immaculata coaches like Jen Shillingford and Cathy Rush built a powerhouse basketball program locally, and then—when the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was formed in 1971–nationally…and modeled positive ecumenical relationships for their Catholic players, many of whom had never before interacted with a Protestant.

Byrne romanticizes exactly nothing about the Mighty Macs’ accomplishments (and failings) and their roles on the court and in their society. In every respect—including their attitudes and experiences with respect to race, gender, class, sexuality and faith—they were women of their (changing) times. However, as she concludes, “They might never have consciously or broadly questioned the path of traditional Catholic womanhood laid out before them But they found in basketball a strategy, a lever, a loosening of limits, tangible in their very bodies, as they practiced, played, prayed, and delighted in basketball, day after day.” (p. 211)

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