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"Quantum Hoops" an engaging experiment that mixes whiz kids and college basketball
By Ted Fry
The Seattle Times
March 28, 2008

The Caltech basketball team, not known for its feats on the court, proves highly entertaining in the timely "Quantum Hoops."

Have you heard the one about the Caltech basketball team? As the punch line of a stale joke, the NCAA Division III Beavers of the California Institute of Technology hadn't won a game in more than 240 consecutive conference matches when filmmaker Rick Greenwald aimed his mini-DV camera at them during their 2006 season. Even for a budding applied-physics Nobel laureate, a 21-year losing streak is a hard equation to wrap your mind around.

Caltech isn't renowned for its sports program — not anymore, that is. Back in the mid-40s, the school boasted an athletic department that was home to an unscored-upon football team full of beefy guys with off-field aspirations to split the atom. In the intervening years, the basketball team proved itself to be more than capable with several notable seasons that ran the gamut from championship guts to underdog glory. But it was all downhill on the Caltech boards after 1984.

Using a combination of archival photos and contemporary interviews with former students, coaches and players, Greenwald sketches a lively anecdotal history of the school and its odd commingling of strict academic standards with athletic release. Caltech is a place where some of the smartest kids in the country show up to study fluid dynamics, pure math, astrophysics, molecular chemistry and the like. There are more than 30 Nobel Prize winners on the faculty, and alums have become world leaders of science, engineering and business ingenuity. Most students come in with perfect SAT scores and a drive to bring home a gold medal from Stockholm.

Requirements for securing a spot on the basketball squad aren't quite so rigorous. All you have to do is show up. And if you're one of the few who spent any time on a high-school team, you'll probably be playing a lot.

Greenwald mixes his thumbnails of Caltech's notable science and sports milestones with a running profile of the 2006-07 team, which was distinguished by co-captain seniors who had actually played varsity in high school. An underlying dramatic arc that leads to a climactic game offers some genuine suspense.

But the more offhand pleasure of "Quantum Hoops" comes from chats with people like Caltech chemistry professor and 2005 Nobel winner Robert Grubbs, who gets as inspired and excited about talking hoops with a freshman player as he does performing experiments in ring opening metathesis polymerization.

Another engaging character from Caltech's historical continuum of sports and science is Fred Newman, a retired IBM engineer and former player who works the front desk at the gym and holds various world records, including consecutive free throws blindfolded (88), consecutive three-pointers (209) and most free throws in 24 hours (20,371).

While it may not be the most absorbing subject for a feature documentary, the hoop dreams of a brainiac team that wants to win just once does make for an amusing diversion, especially with another season of college-bracket fever upon us.

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