“O God of Players” is an unapologetically academic “project” (the author’s own word for her undertaking), but the stories in it are terrific anyway.

In the early seventies, Immaculata College, the small, Catholic school in Philadelphia produced the first three basketball teams to reign as national women’s champs. This circumstance struck
Professor Julie Byrne as a perfect case study for the examination of such matters as the evolution of Catholicism over the second half of the twentieth century. She surmised that the women who played basketball at Immaculata might have seen their activity as risky, if not rebellious, and that the changing basketball program might work as a representation of more profound cultural and religious change on the Immaculata campus and beyond. But when the surveys began coming back from the one hundred thirty former players Byrne reached, she found that most of the Mighty Macs had just played because the game was fun. Virtually none of them regarded themselves as rebels or advocates of women’s liberation. They just liked being players. They liked being Catholics, too, although they welcomed the opportunities the game gave them for interaction with folks from outside the parish.

To her credit, Byrne recognizes the stories she discovers as compelling, even if they don’t fit her thesis. When the Immaculata team is invited to the first national tournament, the sisters have to scramble to find the money for the trip west, and their efforts are only partly successful. Several members of the team are left behind, and the sadness of their exclusion from the fun colors the celebration when the champs return to Philadelphia. When the basketball program takes off, the players begin to find themselves receiving various perks, and some of the other students complain to the nuns; they don’t want to see Immaculata become “a jock school.” When the captain of the team becomes pregnant, her teammates and then the rest of the campus rally around her. She marries her boyfriend, has the baby, and returns to the court for her senior year. These are set pieces worthy of a distaff “Hoosiers,” and if Julie Byrne’s account of the adventures and misadventures of the Mighty Macs is spare, it is also clear and real.

Byrne strikes some weird notes occasionally. Under the heading “Building the Catholic community” she writes “Not only the fact that the Mighty Macs won but also the way they won – surmounting obstacles of size, poverty, and obscurity – justified Catholicism.” (I wonder how comfortable any of the players might have been at the foul line if they’d been conscious of that burden.) She’s nostalgic about the days when a little-engine-that-thinks-it-can could actually win a national championship, and clear-eyed enough to understand that the implementation of Title IX has erased the possibility that it could happen again. Champs these days are well-financed. They don’t need bake sales and they don’t leave players behind. No fan of the women’s game would have it otherwise, but the story of the team that won three titles on a shoestring and a prayer makes a good book.