Seasons Change

But for Caltech’s men’s basketball team, losing is a constant.

Caltechmensbasketball
The Caltech Beavers in action against the University of LaVerne at Braun Gymnasium.

The last time the California Institute of Technology's men's basketball team won a conference game, Michael Jordan was in the midst of his rookie year with the Chicago Bulls and basketball players were still wearing short shorts. On January 24, 1985, Caltech eked out a one-point win over the University of La Verne, giving the Division III Beavers an exceedingly rare Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) victory. Including its SCIAC triumphs in 1980 and 1971, Caltech has won just three league games in the past 37 years, a string of futility that, if nothing else, is testament to the players' perseverance. 

While Caltech rarely plays inspiring basketball, the program's long and tortured losing tradition makes for a compelling story, expertly told by filmmaker Rick Greenwald in the recent documentary Quantum Hoops (Green Forest Films), which focuses on the exploits of the 2005-06 team. When Greenwald first began the project, he didn't dream that Caltech players might actually take basketball seriously. “That's what makes their story so heartbreaking,” says the film's writer-director-producer. “They do care. They choose to put themselves out there and are willing to be humiliated almost every time they take the floor.”

Fortunately, Caltech players, fans and alumni don't need basketball to validate their self-worth. While the university—located in Pasadena, a city of 141,000 ten miles northeast of Los Angeles—lacks the national name recognition enjoyed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Ivy League schools, it has long been considered one of finest academic institutions in the world. Eighteen current faculty members are Nobel Laureates and 17 alumni are Nobel prize-winning scientists, including chemist Linus Pauling (a two-time winner who discovered the nature of the chemical bond) and physicist Carl D. Anderson (who discovered the positron, i.e., antielectron).

Just as impressive is the list of distinguished graduates, which includes Gordon E. Moore (co-founder of Intel), Charles Richter (inventor of the earthquake magnitude scale), Chester F. Carlson (inventor of Xerography), David Ho (1996 Time Man of the Year) and Frank Capra (director of It's a Wonderful Life). One might also recognize the work of alum Jack Schmitt, an Apollo 17 astronaut who walked on the moon and is credited with taking the most famous photograph in human history, the “Big Blue Marble” image of Earth that helped spawn the modern-day environmental movement. 

For better or worse, the performance of Caltech's athletic teams hasn't been as awe-inspiring. The pinnacle of the sports program's success came in 1944 when the football team (disbanded in 1993) went undefeated and outscored its opponents by a margin of 159-0. That same year the men's basketball team enjoyed what was arguably its finest hour, defeating crosstown rival UCLA by a score of 38-36, a feat that would be inconceivable today. 

Caltech athletes have enjoyed more success distinguishing themselves as individuals. Pole vaulter Glen Graham won a silver medal at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, and Phil Conley (Class of ’56) finished tenth in the javelin throw at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. Then there's Bob Simmons, who combined his knowledge of hydrodynamics and love of the water to become the father of the modern surfboard. 

It is somewhat ironic, however, that a Caltech basketball player—Fred Newman, who earned all-conference honors in five different sports in the late 1950s—is responsible for setting several Guinness World Records for free-throw shooting accuracy. Newman once made 88 consecutive free-throws while blindfolded and also holds records for converting 338 free-throws in ten minutes and 20,374 free-throw attempts in a 24-hour period.

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What makes team success at Caltech so improbable is that unlike almost all other schools with intercollegiate athletic programs, applicants are evaluated solely on the basis of academic merit; a candidate's athletic promise plays no role in the admissions process. This explains why the 2005-06 men's basketball roster featured more high school valedictorians (eight) than players with high school varsity basketball experience (six). Almost everyone on the squad scored a perfect 800 on the math portion of their SATs; not a single player received an offer to play basketball at any other school. 

“The basketball side is simple for me,” explains seventh-year head coach Roy Dow, who came to Caltech from Division III Colby College (Maine), but also has experience as an assistant at both the Division I and Division II levels. “All I really need to know [about applicants] is ‘Do you play high school basketball?’ If you do and you fit our admissions profile, just by virtue of being a varsity player you are an upgrade to our program. So when a high school player calls and asks if he can send a tape I'll say, ‘You don't need to.’ Seeing him play is not as critical as whether or not he can compete for admission,” continues Dow. It's no wonder that the coach's online recruiting questionnaire includes more queries about standardized tests, advanced placement courses and academic awards than it does about basketball.

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To describe Caltech's admissions process as “selective” might be an understatement. For what it's worth, the school is ranked fifth on U.S. News & World Report’s 2008 ranking of National Universities, one spot ahead of MIT and just behind Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Stanford—first through fourth, respectively. In 2007 the undergraduate admissions department received 3,595 applications, yet just 605 offers of admission were made, an acceptance rate of less than 17 percent. Among the 235 students who matriculated, the mid-50 percent SAT score was 2190-2320 (out of a possible 2400), and 99 percent were in the top ten percent of their high school class. The most popular extracurricular activity among those enrolled was “science/math team,” reflective of the fact that Caltech students are expected to have a passion for math, science or engineering. 

Not surprisingly, there aren't many young men who fit this academic profile and also happen to be tall, long, athletic and interested in basketball. “The admissions decisions and the makeup of the roster are out of my control,” says Dow matter-of-factly. "The best I can do is to identify varsity basketball players that are a good fit for Caltech, encourage them to apply, and then at some point indicate to them that they could really help our team.”

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Every so often Dow is fortunate enough to get a player like rising senior Travis Haussler, a six-foot-seven forward from Santa Cruz, California, who played a key role on a 32-1 high school state championship squad. But for the most part, Dow works with whoever is willing to make a commitment to the program. “Anyone who wants to come out can be on the team. I don't think any of Caltech's teams have ‘cuts’,” he says, highly unusual even for Division III programs, none of which offer athletic scholarships to student-athletes. 

“There are kids on the roster that never touched a basketball outside of gym class in high school,” elaborates Greenwald, noting that the best player in 2006—Jordan Carlson, a six-foot-five forward who went on to study particle physics at U.C. Berkeley—had never played organized basketball before arriving on campus. “Carlson didn't play in high school, yet he earned all-conference honors and is considered one of the greatest players in Caltech history,” marvels the filmmaker. 

But players like Haussler and Carlson are few and far between, and Caltech's basketball program has earned precious few wins since the school made a conscious decision to de-emphasize liberal arts studies and began focusing on math and science with a laser-like intensity. The last time Caltech won more than a handful of games was in 1954, when the Beavers—beavers are “nature's engineers,” making the beaver the natural choice for school mascot—won seven times and captured the conference championship. But even in those halcyon days, schoolwork had a way of intruding on the team's success. One potentially strong season was derailed when the squad's best player inhaled poison gas in a chemistry lab and was lost for the year. 

“They stopped having success because of the curriculum and the type of kids they started attracting,” opines Greenwald, "but also because winning games has become more and more important and the other schools [in their conference] started recruiting kids who could play.” And sometimes playing basketball—or even staying in school—just isn't that important to a standout player. Consider Huckleberry Seed, a six-foot-seven frontcourt presence who dominated the opposition for one season in the late ’80s before dropping out—“flaming out,” in Caltech parlance—during his sophomore year to become a professional poker player. For Seed, the gamble paid off; he won the 1996 World Series of Poker and has earned millions of dollars playing cards.

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The most commonly asked question of Caltech basketball players is simply, “Why? Why do you play?” When Greenwald first began filming he posed this question to each and every member of the team. “Without hesitation, they all said, ‘Because it's a release’,” he reports, noting that the intellectual demands of the academic programs at Caltech make it almost imperative that students find an outlet for their physical energy and pent-up frustration. 

“It's nice to take a break. It's nice to go out and play some basketball and work up a sweat,” confirms chemical engineering major David Liu in one sequence from Quantum Hoops. The discipline required to play for Dow may yield another less-obvious advantage. At a school where students have precious little time for anything but classes and homework, playing basketball seems to help team members manage their time effectively. Call it a coincidence, but all five seniors on the 2005-06 roster graduated with honors. 

At the same time, there's no doubt that it takes a special disposition to endure losing—game after game, week after week, month after month, year after year. In the film, guard Scott Davies relates, “Not winning a game, it's horrible. Going through the four years, working hard every day, it would be nice to come out with a win,” admits the applied physics and economics major. 

Although it never happened for Davies, Greenwald hypothesizes that Caltech students are uniquely well suited to handling their on-court failures, remaining upbeat even as everything seems to be working against them. “Most of these guys are studying to be scientists and scientific discovery isn't about quitting,” he begins. “You don't often make an important discovery the first time you try. It's a long-term process, and I think that's part of the mentality of these kids,” he says. 

Perhaps no Beaver athlete exemplifies resiliency more than Brett Bush (Class of ’87), who turned down a volleyball scholarship from UCLA to attend Caltech and now works as an astrophysicist. While Bush did get to enjoy a single conference win during his four-year basketball career (he was a member of the 1985 team that beat La Verne), he also spent four years playing baseball at Caltech. Believe it or not, the basketball team was more successful than the baseball team, which went a demoralizing 0-72 in league play during his time on campus.

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In addition to keeping pace with their schoolwork and trying to win, the Beavers have another obstacle to overcome: the perception that they are a team full of nerds. Certainly, there's a grain of truth to this characterization, best exemplified by Stewart Peebles, a player from the early ’80s who possessed the stereotypical Revenge of the Nerds look, complete with the quintessential taped-together glasses. Peebles' on-court appearance was further defined by an unusual accessory, one necessitated by a chronic medical condition. “Peebles kept a handkerchief in his basketball shorts because he had a sinus problem,” relates Greenwald, “and in the middle of games he would pull the handkerchief out and blow his nose. He was a good player but also the first guy hecklers would make fun of. All the fans knew him as ‘handkerchief guy’,” he says. 

So it's fitting that when Greenwald compiled his short list of potential narrators for Quantum Hoops, he chose to embrace the film's high nerd-quotient and approached geek icon David Duchovny, best-known for playing FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder on The X-Files. Much to Greenwald's surprise, Duchovny agreed to narrate, in part because he felt a certain level of kinship with the Beavers, having played on the Tigers' basketball team as an undergrad at Princeton University. “He told me he really responded to the story—felt a connection to it. I probably got the only actor in Hollywood who is a geek icon, went to an elite academic institution and played college basketball,” exclaims Greenwald. 

Current Beaver players confirm that spectators do sometimes refer to them as geeks, taunting them about the losing streak and also for being brilliant students. “There's always the [sarcastic] ‘smart kid’ jokes, like, 'If you're so smart why can't you make a free-throw?’” states Carlson in the documentary. Similarly, Ben Turk (Class of ’98) recalls former player Josh Motes regaling him with a story about a fan of an opposing team who had the audacity to question Motes' study habits. “Shouldn't you be doing homework now?” shouted the heckler, leading the accused to pause and reflect that, yes, in fact he did have homework to do. 

This is not to say that Caltech players always let the harassment go unanswered. Greenwald relates an incident when an opposing fan was taunting the team with, You don't have a chance!—or words to that effect. One of the Beavers suggested that the heckler log on to the university's Web site, which happened to be touting that Caltech astronomer Mike Brown had recently discovered a new planet—dwarf planet Eris. “We can discover a new planet and you're telling us we can't win a basketball game?” the player shot back, incredulous. 

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Of course, the reality is that the orange- and black-clad Beavers rarely beat anyone. It was a national news story when Caltech vanquished Bard College (New York) in January 2007, ending a 59-game losing streak that dated back to November of 2004. That was also Caltech's first victory over a Division III opponent since defeating Principia (Missouri) during the 1995-96 campaign, a string of 207 consecutive losses. Meanwhile, the 23-year SCIAC losing streak continues, this in spite of the fact that Caltech has managed to attract several spectacularly successful head coaches to preside over its program. 

Take Dow, for instance. In the 16 years he led or assisted a collegiate team prior to Caltech, his clubs finished with a winning record 12 times, a remarkable statistic when one considers that he started a Division III program from scratch at Wheaton College (Massachusetts). Prior to Dow's arrival, the Beavers were guided by Gene Victor, a coaching legend who came to Pasadena as the winningest coach in California junior college history. Including 28 seasons at Mt. San Antonio College, Victor amassed 797 wins; he failed to win a single conference game during his 15-year stint at Caltech. 

Dow believes that the success he experienced coaching at other schools has been invaluable. “If I wasn't as ultra-competitive as I am and from such a successful background, I wouldn't be nearly as effective at Caltech. And I think I'm pretty effective,” he says, a sentiment echoed by Brian Newhall, head coach at Occidental College, who praises Dow as “a helluva teacher of fundamentals. I don't think any of us,” referring to the seven other SCIAC head coaches, “could go to Caltech and do even close to what he has done with his talent,” recognizes Newhall. 

Still, one can't help but wonder about Dow's career prospects should he ever leave—or be asked to leave—Caltech. “Realistically, when you have three [non-conference] wins in six years, it's pretty difficult for an athletic director at another school to look at that and say, ‘This is somebody we need to hire',” concedes Dow. “But then again, the documentary certainly validates to some extent what is going on with the coaching and the response by the student-athletes,” he counters.

Anyway, it doesn't appear as if Dow will be leaving Pasadena anytime soon. For one, no Caltech basketball coach has ever been fired in the 93-year history of the program. Second, Dow makes it sound as if there couldn't be a more exciting coaching challenge. “Caltech students are incredible people—the best thing about this job,” he begins. “A close second would be the Caltech professors. The combination of our faculty and our student-athletes makes this one of the most unique coaching jobs that exists in college athletics.” 

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Contrary to what one might expect, opposing teams don't relish the idea of playing Caltech, despite the fact it's an almost guaranteed victory. The mere thought of losing to the Beavers terrifies even the most established SCIAC head coaches, whose careers could conceivably be jeopardized by such a defeat—or even a near defeat. 

“In February 2007, Caltech played a game against La Verne that went to overtime and the Leopards' coach [Gabe Duran], resigned four months later,” recalls Greenwald, implying that the two events were somehow related. The filmmaker also notes that the head coach at Whittier College, Rock Carter, refused to be interviewed for Quantum Hoops after nearly losing a late-season contest that is a prominent part of the documentary. “He won the game [86-84 in overtime] and still didn't want to have anything to do with the film. If you have a close game against Caltech it just sticks you to the core—the fact that you almost lost. The fear of failure makes opponents shudder,” he says. 

That's why Greenwald figures it will be a cataclysmic event for the SCIAC team that loses to the Beavers. When La Verne fell to Caltech back in 1985, the Leopard players were so frustrated that they fought amongst themselves after the final buzzer; nevermind that the Leopards were themselves an exceptionally bad team, having lost 16 consecutive games entering that contest. 

Caltech's next-most-recent SCIAC win (in 1980, versus a Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens squad that finished 2-22) was even more remarkable, not only because it brought a 99-game losing streak to an end, but because Pomona was led by a first-year coach named Gregg Popovich—yes, that Gregg Popovich—who has since won four NBA titles as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. “I knew they [Caltech] had lost a humongous number of games in a row,” recalls Popovich in Quantum Hoops, “and that's a coach's nightmare because you don't want to be the next one. And we were,” he says with a smile. 

Popovich claims he realized the magnitude of the loss even before the game ended. “I just had this chill go all through my body [knowing] I was going to be the coach that ends their streak. I went home with my wife and I said, ‘What have I done?’ It really hit me—hit me hard. But it was a great experience in life,” he says now, the pain no doubt blunted by his NBA rings and the fact that he was able to revive Pomona-Pitzer's program, ultimately leading the Sagehens to a conference championship. 

Unfortunately for Dow & Co., it may be a while before any SCIAC head coach experiences the same emotions Popovich did. Although it might be difficult to comprehend how the Beavers could fare worse, Dow realizes it's possible—even likely—that his players won't be able to sustain the level of competitiveness they have reached in recent seasons. “Next year we'll only have 12 returning players and six of those are seniors. A year from now we'll have five seniors,” he says. 

Do the math and one realizes that thanks to the school's brutal admissions standards Dow has been rewarded with only one new “recruit” in the past two years (Ryan Elmquist, a six-foot-five forward from Woodbury, Minnesota). To make matters worse, the current roster includes a surplus of guards (12), but only four forwards (none taller than six-foot-seven) and not a single center. Dow needs several legitimate Division III players to enroll in each of the next few freshman classes or “it's really going to start showing up over the next two or three years,” he admits.

Specifically, Dow fears that the program might regress to where it was during his first few seasons, when his charges were losing games by scores as lopsided as 108-16 and 64-12. "And that's with those other teams doing a really nice job of managing it so it wasn't worse. There was no redeeming value to having survived getting beat by 60 points, on average. And most schools don't want to have to play a team that is so bad. Because it isn't basketball,” he says. 

But if the dogged determination of past players is any indication, there's no doubt that future Beavers will continue to play—enthusiastically—no matter how long the odds against them. Greenwald notes that the point guard for the 1980 team, Pete Edwards, had successful open-heart surgery prior to his senior season, but came back to lead his teammates to the win over Pomona-Pitzer. 

Almost equally compelling is the story of Paxon Frady, a recently-graduated five-foot-eleven guard from Atlanta, Georgia, who suffered four anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears during the course of his brief basketball career. “He has had ACL surgery four times—twice on each knee—and was so dedicated to the team that he worked his way back for the final game of his senior season. He was rehabbing for the purpose of playing in a Caltech basketball game, of all things,” marvels Greenwald. 

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Looking ahead, Dow remains focused on preparing for the 2008-09 campaign, during which the Beavers will play the usual assortment of SCIAC foes, as well as a challenging non-conference schedule that includes Amherst College (Massachusetts), the Division III national champion in 2007. “I'm not necessarily looking to schedule opponents we can beat,” he says, noting that in recent years the Beavers have hosted games against Williams College (Massachusetts), Grinnell College (Iowa) and Johns Hopkins University (Maryland). "I want to play other Division III schools, because that is the best way to show we're serious about basketball—to a point,” he clarifies, perhaps stating the obvious. 

But the Beavers' veteran coach doesn't allow himself to fantasize about what it would be like to end the losing streak. Nor does he spend much time lamenting what might have been if more so-called recruits received acceptance letters and chose to attend Caltech. Instead he prefers to focus on short-term goals like getting his kids ready to play and raising the profile of the program. 

In that regard, Dow is appreciative of Greenwald's efforts, saying, “I thought Rick did a great job of capturing the essence of Caltech. The documentary [to be released on DVD in June] certainly validates that we do have an athletic program and that we would really like to succeed. This is not a Bad News Bears-type situation," he emphasizes, making reference to the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears (starring Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal), whose title has become a euphemism for describing a hopeless group of losers. 

At the same time, Dow is careful not to promise that his players will be successful on the court, at least not in terms of wins and losses. But if his track record is any indication, observers can expect the young men on his roster to learn and develop as each season progresses, even if the incremental improvements aren't immediately apparent to the untrained eye. Liu sums it up best when he likens playing under Dow to the process of scientific discovery, saying, “We'll take the knowledge we've learned from the past and try to improve. We'll try not to make the same mistakes, all while going for the same goal—that one victory.”