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Nerd Squad: The Tale of Quantum Hoops
By Henry Abbott
November 30, 2007

There has been this documentary out there that I have been hearing about called "Quantum Hoops." Sounded really cool ... but there's almost nowhere you can see it at the moment.

Then -- praise be to the PR industry, or something -- people doing PR for the movie sent me a copy on DVD. I recently watched the entire thing and enjoyed it all.

Caltech basketball, "Quantum Hoops"The gist is this: Caltech is a place for smart people. Like really really really smart people. Nobel prize winners, the people who made the atomic bomb (a certain kind of smart, anyway), and the leading lights of science and technology.

Caltech, as a school, simply does not have the werewithal to take sports seriously. For these students, basketball will never be anything more than a diversion. The basketball coach can try to recruit players, but he can't expect any breaks from the scary high standards of the admissions office.

As a result, a fair chunk of the basketball team (last season, all five seniors, for instance) did not even play high school basketball. The Caltech basketball team has more valedictorians than high school basketball players.

But they play real deal NCAA Division III basketball.
And, predictably, they get killed.
Night after night. Week after week. Year after year.

At the time this documentary was made, the team had not won a game in 21 years. Let me say that again. The team had not won a game in the lifetime of most undergraduates. One of my favorite passages of the movie, a conversation between Caltech players, goes like this:

Jordan Carlson: The fans of the other teams will heckle us just like you know against any other team.

Scott Davies: They just laugh and think it's absolutely ridiculous, you don't really see teams getting blown out the way we have.

Jordan Carlson: This year they've picked up on our losing streak, they jeer us about that quite a bit. You know there's always the smart kid jokes, "if you're so smart, why can't you make a free throw?" Things like that.

Ben Turk: A guy who played with Josh Motes, he tells a story about, you know, someone in the stands was yelling at him: "Hey, shouldn't you be doing homework right now?" And he was like, "Well, yeah, I actually do need to."

But as "Quantum Hoops" tells in dramatic fashion, towards the end of last season, things were staring to look up. While this documentary is rich with the history and personalities of the program, it is hung on a narrative of the last few days of last season, when the team felt things begin to change.

Would they break the streak?

I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Along the way, though, we get a real sense of what it's like to play basketball at Caltech. Frankly, it's a team any of us would love to play for, right? Nice, smart guys who play hard but know that their real life is elsewhere. A lot of them say getting exercise and a break from the academic rigors is the real reason they signed up. Impressing people -- that's not part of it at all.

There are a ton of people you might know in this tale.

* Huckleberry Seed was one of Caltech's best players ever. He is 6-7 and dunked on people. Those involved in the program were very excited about the team when he was around, but he dropped out in his sophomore year to become a professional gambler. (And in true Caltech fashion, went on to win the World Series of Poker.)

* San Antonio Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich is there, talking about the night his miserable Pomona-Pitzer team once lost to Caltech, and then later rebounded to win the SCIAC conference. "That struggle from that two and twenty-two," Popovich remembers, "to getting a conference championship really, really means a lot. So in my office that SCIAC ball is on my book shelf. No other ball."

* I'm not sure if you remember when I blogged about the work of a Stanford undergraduate showing that scores in some NBA games were consistent with point shaving. The adviser of that work was the very respected economist Roger Noll (who later weighed in on the research). Noll is a former Caltech basketball player, who had a great quote in the documentary: "I would say that we had a team that was capable of competing with almost anybody," he points out, "but we wouldn't win."

* The king of basketball statistics, Dean Oliver, also played for Caltech, and speaks in reverential terms about former coach Gene Victor, who had enjoyed great success in junior college, but still managed to fit in with Caltech's ethos: "He was very competitive. Not that he thought he was going to win a lot of games, but he learned to temper it down. He couldn't get mad at the kids, there's only so much you can do. Looking at it from a different perspective: it's hard to get mad at certain people who can't get 1600 on the SAT's. How do you get mad at people like that?"

As I watched, I started to feel a little bit like I'm sure John Feinstein felt as he was writing "The Last Amateurs," his book about college basketball in the Patriot League. I mean, why the hell shouldn't college basketball be like this? Why don't more colleges field teams rich with walk-ons?

What we are used to as college basketball is really basketball as a college major, or in many cases instead of college. Not basketball as an activity.

The version at Caltech puts stuff like health, education, and love of the game first. I can't speak for basketball, but I think a lot of colleges would be better off with that kind of athletic presence on campus. Maybe all the professional development of basketball players should take place somewhere else -- somewhere that is not supposed to be about academics.

I don't know. Maybe that's crazy talk. But it makes for a good movie, anyway. I hope this film gets into wide distribution so you can see it soon.
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