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March Geekiness—Caltech basketball doc ‘Quantum Hoops’

by Adam Wills

March 28, 2008 | 4:12 pm

Caltech has more Nobel laureates than any other university, and is considered among the top five academic institutions in the world. The Pasadena campus’ contributions to science and technology are vast.

And then there’s the Beavers.

It figures that athletics at such a prestigious technical university would take a backseat to rocket science and particle physics. But as of the 2005-06 season profiled in the documentary “Quantum Hoops,” the NCAA Division III Beavers had yet to win a single Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game in 21 years. The team’s last conference title was in 1954.

The history-heavy film narrated by actor David Duchovny, which has been getting renewed attention (most notably in TIME) during March Madness in advance of the DVD’s spring release, follows the Beavers as they attempt to win their first conference game since the 1980s.

Focused on the last nail-biting game of the season against Whittier College, the film took the Top 10 Audience Choice Award at the 2007 Santa Barbara International Film Festival in January. However, it’s probably the only award the team is likely to see, if tangentially, for a while.

Director Rick Greenwald says the winless Beavers appealed to him on his first time out. It didn’t hurt that the 36-year-old documentary filmmaker from Chino grew up watching the college’s pranks, which inspired the 1985 comedy “Real Genius.”

But for all the opportunities to poke fun at the team, Greenwald says he wanted to treat his subjects with respect. For instance, he resisted the urge to include scenes of flubber-sporting basketball players in the 1961 Disney film “Absent-Minded Professor” or Charlie Brown failing at trying to kick a football.

“I abandoned that plan,” he said. “Part of it was that I was very sensitive to making fun. … I don’t use the term nerd once. I tried to walk a fine line.”

Still hoping to score points with Caltech’s geek factor, Greenwald hoped to secure Duchovny as narrator based on his “X-Files” credentials. The actor, himself a college basketball player for Princeton and an avid sports fan, agreed to voice the film a few weeks before its release. “I still can’t believe it happened, to be honest,” Greenwald said.

The documentary profiles many of its quirky student players, but the camera lingers primarily on Roy Dow, a veteran college coach who has helped the team close its average losing margin from the high 50s to roughly 20 points.

While Dow doesn’t have the pressures of a NCAA Division I coach, Greenwald says the doc certainly evokes a strong reaction from more sensitive viewers, especially when the coach shouts at players for performing at a level below that displayed in practice. “You’re playing like dumb smart kids!” Dow yells.

Rather than alienating the players, Dow’s passion for the game inspires them.

“They respect him, they believe in him,” Greenwald said.

The reasons why players join a team as underwhelming as the Beavers varies, the director says, from bragging rites that they played in the NCAA to blowing off steam from the intense academic pressure.

Jeremy Leibowitz, an applied math sophomore from Las Vegas, played basketball in high school and says he joined the Beavers to have fun. He admits the losing streak is daunting.
“It was discouraging, but it wasn’t something that would motivate me to quit in any way,” he said. “There are some games that are close and competitive … that’s the heartbreaker.”

He added that while jokers tease players off the court for their losing streak, the Beavers also have their share of loyal fans at every game.

“Once these guys get going, they really want that win,” Greenwald said. “They’ve never failed, statistically, on a level like this in anything they’ve ever done in their entire life. And I think a lot of them like the challenge of that part.”

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