After yet another humiliating defeat a few years back, a Caltech basketball player scribbled on the chalkboard of a visitors’ locker room a seemingly nonsensical series of equations, and a challenge.
“You may have beaten us,” he wrote, “but can you solve this integral?”
The flip side of being the smartest guy in the room is that it doesn’t compensate for lack of athletic talent or help you execute basketball basics.
The Caltech Beavers’ inability to so much as make a crisp pass is comically chronicled in the opening sequence of “Quantum Hoops,” a documentary on the 2005-06 team that extended the school’s current conference losing streak of 259 games.
The film, which opens Friday at Laemmle’s One Colorado in Pasadena, portrays Caltech’s unrivaled ability to combine winning academics with losing basketball. The NCAA Division III team in the documentary featured more high school valedictorians (eight) than players with high school varsity basketball experience (six).
Narrated by David Duchovny, the 85-minute film is a bit heavy on history, which is somewhat forgivable considering that the Beavers’ best days may be behind them. Caltech defeated UCLA in 1944 and last won a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title in 1954.
The decades since haven’t generated any trophies. Recent highlights include a 1980 victory over a Pomona-Pitzer team guided by current San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich. That one ended a 99-game losing streak. Then there was a 1985 triumph over La Verne, which is Caltech’s last victory in conference play.
Notable basketball alumni include world record-holding, free-throw wizard Fred Newman and Huck Seed, who cashed in his hoop dreams to make millions as a professional poker player.
Basketball is not among the chief aspirations of any Caltech player, and it’s little wonder why.
“I didn’t go there as a basketball player,” former player Roger Noll says in the film. “I went there as somebody who was captivated by the Sputnik era and wanted to become a physicist to catch up with the Russians.”
That sentiment seems nearly as implausible among college athletes as O.J. Mayo saying he came to USC to solve global warming.
You might figure Caltech Coach Roy Dow would be feeling some heat considering he will open this season with a 3-120 record that includes an 0-70 mark in conference play. But Dow need not worry; no Beavers coach has ever been fired despite the program’s cumulative .197 winning percentage dating to 1919.
Dow says his endeavors on the basketball court aren’t so different from those of his Nobel Prize-winning colleagues in the chemistry lab: to show that what is considered impossible can sometimes be achieved.
The coach nearly pulled off the improbable in the film’s final scene, the Beavers’ home finale against Whittier. Caltech held a nine-point lead with a little more than five minutes to play before star players Jordan Carlson and Day Ivy fouled out.
The game went into overtime before Whittier won on a pull-up jumper with two seconds remaining.
Later, as Dow walked out of the gym, he told a group of supporters, “Next year.”
At Caltech, that’s pretty much all the Beavers have.