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A team of geniuses finds a test it can't ace in 'Quantum Hoops'
Five out of five stars
The basic Hollywood formula for a basketball movie is pretty simple. Nothing sells tickets quite like the generic coming-of-age tale of an underdog triumphing over adversity - especially if in the end, there's a championship to be won. From "Hoosiers" (1986) to " Glory Road" (2006) and everything in between, the story remains the same.
"Quantum Hoops," a documentary written, directed, produced and edited by first-time filmmaker Rick Greenwald, is no such story. The film is set in Pasadena, Calif., ironically just 15 miles from Hollywood. But thematically, the miles might as well be light-years. There are no championship rings in sight in "Quantum Hoops" - rather, this is the story of a team on a quest for a single win.
The setting is the California Institute of Technology, one of the most prestigious universities on Earth in many respects. Its students have gone on to construct the atomic bomb, lead the United States into the space race, and over the years, amass 31 Nobel Prizes. Caltech students are the best and the brightest everywhere except on the basketball court, where they just can't seem to win a game.
The film is narrated by David Duchovny, a man better known for his role as Fox Mulder on "The X-Files" than for his career at Princeton, which he attended on a basketball scholarship. Duchovny opens "Quantum Hoops" by announcing, over a montage of bloopers from a typical Caltech loss, that the Beavers have lost an unbelievable 243 consecutive conference games, a streak dating back over two decades. "The odds of a team losing this many games are so hard to calculate," he says, "it would take an entire team of mathematicians to figure it out."
The joke is that a team of mathematicians is precisely what coach Roy Dow has on his hands. Dow's roster includes just six players with high school basketball experience; eight, however, were valedictorians. "Quantum Hoops" follows Dow in his fourth season at Caltech, and while he hasn't yet won a game, he remains hopeful. He explains that while his Beavers started out losing by an average of 60 points a night, he's closed that gap to around 25. "Instead of being hopeless, we now have hope," he says. "Rather than it being impossible for us to go out there and compete, it's now improbable."
But as it soon becomes clear, the Beavers' dream of a win, any win, is getting closer by the day. As the season wears on throughout the winter of 2006, scores from unprecedentedly close games flash onto the screen. There's a loss to Pomona, 57-48; then Claremont, 59-49; and LaVerne, 75-65. Finally Caltech suits up for its last home game of the season, taking on a mediocre Whittier College team on Feb. 20. For the Beavers' two captains, seniors who enter the game 0-92 in their careers, this is their last chance.
The game itself is one for the ages, as thrilling as any game between two bad Div. III teams can be. But regardless of the final numbers on the scoreboard, the film's ending is a foregone conclusion. None of these kids are headed for the NBA. Their leading scorer, Jordan Carlson, becomes a grad student at Berkley, studying particle physics. His co-captain, Day Ivy, moves to Wall Street to become a derivatives trader.
In a way, "Quantum Hoops" isn't even about basketball. It's about a culture at Caltech in which basketball is an afterthought, where everything else in life is more important. Greenwald introduces us to some of the team's most interesting alums - the men who have made names for themselves in fascinating ways off the court.
There's Robert Grubbs, an honorary coach at Caltech who won the 2005 Nobel Prize for chemistry. There's Huckleberry Seed, who was one of the program's all-time greats before he dropped out, declared himself a pro gambler and became a millionaire at the 1996 World Series of Poker. There's Fred Newman, who no longer plays basketball competitively but etched his name in the Guinness Book of Records when he made 20,000 free throws in one day. And there's Dick van Kirk, a former player who made it to the 1984 Olympics. (Of course, it was as their VP of technology.)
Into an 85-minute film, Greenwald packs a multitude of compelling stories, and he tops them all off with a climactic final scene. With the Beavers rallying, the music pumping and the seconds ticking away, Greenwald builds a level of suspense all but impossible in a game played before an audience of a few dozen. In the end, you'll find yourself pulling for those irresistible Beavers, right down to the final shot.
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