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“QUANTUM HOOPS” (2007)
Polly Staffle Rating: ***
“What’s that? Uh, playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs. You kidding me? Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game. Another game.”
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi is often credited with the phrase “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Winning is something Lombardi definitely knew a thing or two about. He was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers for nine years in the sixties and during that time his team collected six division titles, five NFL championships, two Super Bowl championships and a record of 98-30-4. I can’t say for sure, but I highly doubt a single one of his players ever won a Nobel Prize.
Now, the California Institute of Technology located in Pasadena, California on the other hand, is a completely different story. In the eyes of somebody like Lombardi, Caltech’s basketball team would probably be seen as losers. Rick Greenwald’s documentary “Quantum Hoops,” narrated by David Duchovny (“The X-Files,” “Californication,” “Red Shoe Diaries”) chronicles the team during their 2006 basketball season. The team isn’t in search of their first, second or third championship or conference title. In fact they’re not even going for a playoff berth or a winning season. Caltech is playing for a single win. That’s right, just like Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Mora expressed in his infamous 2001 press conference speech; these guys just hope they can win a game.
Caltech’s basketball program hasn’t won a conference championship since 1958. The school has lost more than 240 consecutive Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference contests. That streak goes back 21 years. Caltech is also in the mist of a 59-game losing streak. Against NCAA Division III teams, they have a 207-game losing streak that dates back to 1996. Despite the Lombardi quote and the ungodly number of losses - this film, the team and Caltech are all winners.
The school’s mission statement is to “expand human knowledge and benefit society through research.” And they do just that. They are the home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and while their hoops team, often mocked as “nerds playing basketball,” is easily one of the worst, Caltech is considered one of the top five academic institutions in the world. During the same period of their conference losing streak (1985-2007), the school produced nine Nobel Prize winners. Only one Caltech player - Dean Oliver, a current statistical analyst for the Denver Nuggets - has ever made it to the NBA, but of their 20,000 living alumni, 17 are Nobel Prize-winning scientists. A total of 31 Nobel Prize winners have taught or attended the college.
Sure, with more valedictorians (eight) than team members that played high school athletics (six), the guys on Caltech’s basketball team might not be able to beat a single school in the NCAA Tournament. However, long after they hang up their Nikes, these guys with perfect math scores on their SATs might just save the world or at least make some type of scientific or mathematical breakthrough that positively affects our daily lives. The Beavers (yes, their mascot is appropriately nature’s dam-building engineer) have a faculty and alumni roster that reads like a who’s who of greats with the likes of theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, chemists Linus Pauling, seismologist and physicist Charles Richter, biologist Stephen Hawking, as well as “It’s a Wonderful Life” director Frank Capra, World Series of Poker winner Huck Seed, Chester Carlson, the inventor of photocopying and Eugene Cernan, the last man that walked on the moon.
Greenwald explores, maybe too much so, some of the school’s rich history in his film. He also looks at the few highlights of their athletic programs. During Word War II, Caltech’s football team was untouchable. Not only were they undefeated, they also didn’t give up a single score. The squad also hasn’t lost a game since 1993 as that’s when their football program went under. Other notable sports accomplishments include students hacking into the Rose Bowl scoreboard to display silly messages and the free throw shooting of retired IBMer Fred Newman, who has set world records for most consecutive free throws, most consecutive blindfolded free throws, most free throws in ten minutes and most free throws in a 24-hour period.
It’s the 2006 ballers that take center stage in Greenwald’s film though. A basketball scorekeeper in high school, Greenwald spent a year and a half keeping up with Caltech for this documentary, which is his directorial debut. The successful movie editor served as sole cameraman for 95 percent of the project and his camera follows along as Caltech’s games get closer and closer. After being beating by an average of 60 points a game two years prior, a victory looks to be on the horizon.
But this film isn’t really about “nerds” getting their revenge on the basketball court. “Quantum Hoops” opens with the Arthur Ashe quote “Success is a journey, not a destination” and for the next 85-minutes we see exactly what Ashe’s quote means. This film isn’t about winning; it’s about the journey of trying to win. It’s about passion. It’s about drive. It’s about giving your all mentally, physically and emotionally when you know your all isn’t going to be quite good enough. It’s about the true meaning of sports.
None of these players have athletic scholarships. None of them will be leaving school early to turn pro. While some players at other schools live and die on courts and fields, sports at Caltech are an escape from academic pressures, which sometimes require as much as 14 hours of studying a day. The students on the team have declared majors ranging from applied physics and computer engineering to electrical engineering and aeronautics. Winning or losing isn’t the end of the world for them. Sports is simply something fun to do in between studies, tests, research and things like splitting atoms, inventing Teflon baseball bats and making advances in behavioral psychology or nutrition. Remarkably, even though winning isn’t everything to them, Caltech’s players still put their heart and soul into their hoop dreams.
Many critics have blamed the great Vince Lombardi for creating the win-at-all cost pathology that is so prevalent in not just sports, but all of society today. Lombardi didn’t coin the phrase and many of his supporters say he never even uttered it. “What he said, or meant to say they claimed,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss wrote in his 1999 book “Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” in reference to the coach’s supporters, “was that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing worth striving for, or winning isn’t everything, but making the effort to win is.”
Despite the oh-too-brisk runtime of “Quantum Hoops,” this film demonstrates the updated Lombardi quote of “making the effort to win” being more important than actually winning. In life, winning comes easy to some, while others struggle with all they have, only to lose time and time again. As long as the “winning effort” is there, success will eventually follow. The hardship along the way, makes the eventual victory so much sweeter. The greatest example of this would have to be Michael Jordan winning his first NBA championship in 1991.
The Chicago Bulls legend had won five straight scoring titles, been named league most valuable player twice, rookie of the year, All-NBA first team four straight years and all-defensive first team three straight years. But the media, as well as most basketball fans said Jordan would probably never win an NBA title. They said the Bulls were a one-man team and referred to Jordan as the next Wilt Chamberlain, one of the greatest scorers in basketball history that never won a championship. But Jordan proved them all wrong. He led the Bulls to their first NBA title, beating Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers and silencing his detractors. And then he wept. He hugged the NBA Finals trophy in the locker room and was unable to contain his tears of happiness. “I never thought I’d be this emotional,” Jordan said. “I’ve never been this emotional publicly.” Five more NBA titles followed and he never was that emotional publicly again.
Am I saying any member of Caltech’s “geek squad ” can be the next Jordan if they put their mind to it? No. Only four players on the team can even dunk the ball and their bloopers far outweigh their highlights. What I am saying is these players will find success. Maybe it won’t be in the world of sports, but in life they will and their successes will be that much more appreciated, having struggled as they have.
Switching gears back to Vince Lombardi; the NFL’s trophy given annually to the winner of the Super Bowl is named after him. I mention this because a friend of mine named Steve Beaudry has a quirky favorite phrase that he uses daily that makes absolutely no sense. Instead of saying XYZ is “cool” or it “rocks,” he says XYZ is “going to the Super Bowl” and he will use it in talking about his favorite movie, a drink or whatever. I’ve decide to end this review with his phrase. So, after watching “Quantum Hoops” I’ve come to the conclusion that Caltech’s basketball program will not be winning a national championship any time soon. Regardless, these guys are “going to the Super Bowl!”
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