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Losing isn't the only thing
By Jeff Fellenzer
Money Players
November 15, 2007

Good friend and UNC Annenberg School Professor and Pete Newell Challenge president Jeff Fellenzer wrote a review of "Quantum Hoops":

With the college basketball season now dribbling into play, I can highly recommend a new documentary to put you in the proper roundball frame of mind. It's called "Quantum Hoops," which may be the most apropos movie title I've come across in years. The film chronicles the 2005-06 Caltech basketball team in its epic quest to merely win a single conference game for the first time in 21 years and almost 250 contests.

This is an absolutely terrific experience...and that's just what it is, an experience. Caltech, located in Pasadena, Calif., plays basketball at the non-scholarship Division III level, with young men who are much more student than athlete, who welcome the chance to take daily breaks from the classrooms and laboratories of one of the world's elite institutions of higher learning, merely for a chance to compete in practice and games...while doing something they love. And as will become abundantly clear very quickly, they do indeed love the game.

During the journey, you'll get to know these kids on a personal level, meet some engaging former players and accomplished Caltech alums who also happened to be athletes at one time, and have a greater appreciation for the school itself...and the extraordinary discipline and self-sacrifice needed to succeed within its walls. A sampling of the players' major fields of study provides a clue to the immediate challenge that lies ahead on the basketball court: aeronautics, chemical engineering, biology, applied physics and economics. There are more valedictorians on the team than players with high school playing experience. Yikes.

As you are reminded throughout the film, life at Caltech has very little connection to intercollegiate athletics. There are Nobel Prize winners standing in food lines with students, and sophisticated equipment available to help train some of the brightest young scientists and engineers in America. At least these basketball players would figure to have no trouble grasping the intracacies of a matchup zone defense.

Known as the Beavers--the ultimate animal engineers--the school actually has had some memorable moments in athletic competition, most of which occurred, oh, about 60 or 70 years ago. But it was cool to see vintage photos and film clips of a few of those moments. There is also a great interview with San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, describing what it was like to lose to Caltech in his first league game as coach at rival Pomona-Pitzer. Somehow, the night of that infamous loss, I don't think "Pop" was fast-forwarding 20 years and picturing himself as coach of an NBA championship team. Just a guess.

The film is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, as the season winds down to the final week...and the last chance to taste victory in yet another lost season. If you have a pulse, you will find yourself getting way more involved in this story than you may have expected. You will admire not only the players for their commitment and heart, but their stellar head coach, Roy Dow, who never loses his will to win or his passion for the job...and who both looks and sounds like he could become the next Popovich. And former coach Gene Victor, long one of the most respected in the profession...who rarely matched his surname with results on the floor, but who never lost his desire to teach.

I couldn't help but think of John Wooden, who is mentioned and pictured at several points, and who talks often about not measuring success by victories or championships won, but merely by doing one's best at all times. I visited with Coach Wooden in his home this week, and he is hoping to see the film. He won't be disappointed.

"Quantum Hoops" is narrated by actor David Duchovny, whose familiar low-key voice and feel for the game provides a nice touch...something that most of these players could have used on their free throws and three-point shots.

In the end, though, it still comes down to a group of guys trying to win a basketball game, and no one cares--for a few minutes, at least--whether the key players are future astrophysicists, Wall Street commodities traders or Oxford economics professors. Winning may not be the only thing, as Vince Lombardi once famously said (and later regretted), but don't try telling that to this unique group of hoopsters. At least not right away.

I did have a few minor quibbles with the film. There isn't a clear timeline established to tell the story, so you'll notice a lot of bouncing back and forth between historical references and the current team and its season...which can be confusing. I wanted to call a 30-second timeout on a few occasions.

Still, my best advice, and it's a familiar one to friends when I feel particularly amped about a movie: Run, don't walk, to see this film. And thank me later.

Note: I saw "Quantum Hoops" at a Laemmle theater in Pasadena , not far from the Caltech campus. It seems to be in very limited release at the moment. A distribution deal with Mark Cuban's Landmark Theatre chain may happen soon, according to a source.

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