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