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Winning isn’t everything:Caltech athletes find victory off the court in ‘Quantum Hoops’
In the annals of film history, there are many great sports tales of athletes rising to championship heights or at least coming really close: “Rocky,” “Hoosiers” and “Pride of the Yankees” are just a few that come to mind. But Rick Greenwald has made a, well, different kind of sports film.
As the filmmaker behind the new documentary “Quantum Hoops,” Greenwald spent a year and a half following the travails of the Caltech men’s basketball team. He wasn’t pursuing the story of a championship team. In fact, he — like the team itself — was hoping to see them win a single game; just one.
That’s because the Beavers were in the midst of a 21-year losing streak in which they lost more than 240 consecutive conference games and had failed to win a game of any kind since 1996. But in the course of following their quest for some sense of victory — which finally happened last January amid worldwide attention — Greenwald came to discover a much more powerful story, one that showed the incredible dedication that Caltech’s athletes displayed in the face of near-certain defeat while enduring the intellectual strain of studying at one of the most challenging universities on the planet.
The result for viewers is surprising too: You expect to see one game and one result, but through twists of fate and timing, Greenwald winds up dishing out a truly surprising outcome instead.
“I was looking at doing a few different stories for documentaries, but this was the only one with absolute deadlines because they had a game schedule. Every day that went by was getting closer and closer to the season ending,” recalls Greenwald, who studied film at UC Santa Barbara before opening his own editing facility in Burbank. “I needed to get in or wait eight to 10 months for the season to start again. Luckily, the coach let me in, and that led me to former coaches, former stories, celebrity stuff. It kept growing and growing, and that I didn’t expect at all.”
Indeed, Greenwald’s film richly details the surprisingly stirring history of Caltech’s athletics programs, including the Beavers’ 1954 Southern California Intercollegiate Conference championship. Using a clever and entertaining assortment of clips and enthusiastic interviews with former athletes who look back with pride on achievements that are modest by most other schools’ standards, it’s hard not to be impressed with the heart on display.
Also enjoyable is the portrait Greenwald draws of student life outside of athletics and the classroom, showing that life in Caltech student housing isn’t straight out of “Revenge of the Nerds.” While viewers are shown the amazing, record-setting ability of one student to solve a totally mixed-up Rubik’s Cube in 16 seconds, they also get to see the legendary pranks these geniuses pulled off, including hacking the Rose Bowl scoreboard to display hilarious messages and replacing the Hollywood sign for a day with the word “Caltech.”
That multilayered approach to the subject matter was key to Greenwald’s impressive feat in landing actor David Duchovny as narrator for the self-produced film.
“I approached Duchovny’s people, pitched the idea and, as dumb luck would have it, he played basketball at Princeton, so he had the academic angle down and loves basketball and said yes right away,” explains Greenwald. “I was looking for somebody relevant with a decent voice and that field was limited. I figured Caltech people would appreciate his ‘X Files’ background, and to learn that he played at Princeton sealed it.”
Ultimately, the film’s focus rests on the Beavers and their headstrong coach Roy Dow. It manages to balance the good-natured humor of the fumbling early games with a dramatic sweep that leads viewers into a climactic cliffhanger game against Whittier College. The fact that Greenwald is able to leave viewers riveted to the outcome of a team this statistically troubled is a testament not only to his sense of story, but his remarkable ability to follow the fast action of a basketball game all by himself.“I was the sole cameraman on 95 percent of the film, so it was really fortunate that I was able to cover that game as well as I did, and it was all done without editing tricks,” says Greenwald. “When I started following the team, if I didn’t have that dramatic game with Whittier that was worth showing 20 minutes of highlights near the end, this film wouldn’t exist. It’d be a 30-minute short or 40-minute TV show. People anticipate that there’s going to be a win, but I was lucky to get something to be an actual storyline as opposed to just telling little segments and talking about the team.”
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