God, there is beauty in every body. Walt Whitman stands
at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket.
Walt Whitman cannot tell the difference between
offense and defense. He does not care if he touches the ball.
— Sherman Alexie, “Defending Walt Whitman”
“Anybody from the outside looking in, and a lot of people from the inside here, have said this is impossible,” says Roy Dow, “that you can’t make this better, that you can’t have some level of success. In fact… you can’t have any success whatsoever.” Dow knows a little something about lack of success, having coached the Caltech basketball team since 2001. At the time he’s speaking, for the documentary Quantum Hoops, the Beavers have not won a game for 21 years.
Coach isn’t making a case for his players’ imminent “success” so much as he puts its elusiveness in some perspective. The Beavers — the film reveals they were named after “nature’s engineers” — are all exceptionally bright guys, and their priorities are specific. They’re interested in applied physics and economics, medical engineering and software design. Graduates of California Institute of Technology include Frank Capra, Linus Pauling, astronaut Harrison Schmitt, the only geologist ever to walk on the moon, and 31 Nobel laureates.
Students now arrive with astronomical test scores (many members of the 2006 team, this film’s focus, scored perfectly on the math SATs) and sincere dedication to homework. They play basketball too, even if some were cut from their high school teams. Here, they get “a second chance to be athletes.” And, with no athletic scholarships, Dow notes, the Caltech team is comprised of “whoever shows up the first day of practice.”
But for Dow and the team, as well as alumni who played on previous teams, none of this is bad. True, as technical engineering sophomore Yang Hai says, “There are a lot of lowlights in every game that you just sort a want to erase from memory.” Still, each game is another chance to break the streak. On the one hand, as narrator David Duchovny says, “The odds of a team losing this many games are so hard to calculate that it would take an entire team of mathematicians to figure it out” (his signature deadpan is the only way to deliver this overwritten line). On the other hand, Dow observes, “Part of what they do [at Caltech] is let the rest of the world know why things are not impossible.” Just so, the film intimates, when the players take the court, they just might have a chance to do just that, calculations be damned.
Quantum Hoops leans heavily on this chance as a plot device. It helps to build suspense, create expectations in the fashion made popular in recent uplifting sports documentaries like Go Tigers!, Through the Fire: The Sebastian Telfair Story or Heart of the Game. The team starts losing by fewer and fewer points, and the best players — Jordan Carlson and Day Ivey — begin to embody something like hope. Following in the footsteps of other storied Beavers, Carlson makes moves that impress his coach and give his team opportunities. Having weathered a couple of seasons’ worth of “smart kid jokes” (“You’re so smart, how come you can’t make a free throw?”), Carlson is pleased not to be losing by 40 and 60 points.
The film is not all about this team, though, and spends a few too many minutes making the underdog case. One strategy is to provide history by way of sometimes interesting filler, stats and images concerning early triumphs and actual attention to sports (mostly football). Former Beaver Fred Newman, now a computer programmer for IBM, holds several Guinness records, including consecutive free throws and consecutive free throws made while blindfolded. The film’s resort to historical short-hands is sometimes tedious: a shot of a soldier in Vietnam on top of a guitar track signals “the ’60s,” a montage of poor playing is accompanied by “Rescue Me.”
Other background stories involve other sorts of celebrities: one break in a previous losing streak was made against a team coached by Greg Popovich, known since his stint at Pomona-Pitzer (1980-’87) as the coach for the San Antonio Spurs. “I just remember thinking,” he says, “‘I’m gonna be the coach of the team that breaks their streak’… I provided a great deal of enjoyment for about 15 or 20 people, I remember that.”
The film’s other favorite distraction from actual games is to look at the nerdy lives of Caltech students. The housing system, says Duchovny, has been described as “Hogwarts for science, part dorm, part fraternity.” The kids who live in those dorms, so wacky and charismatic, provide charming moments apropos of nothing much. The irrepressible David Liu explains how “scientists” think, and why basketball provides a break. “In general,” he says, standing in his lab, “when you talk about a science experiment, you want to see some gooey slime or some green things bubbling… Or, on the other side of the spectrum, you expect something really bizarre to pop out, all of a sudden, ‘Oh oh, my goodness, an alien!’ or ‘Oh my goodness, here, eureka! Something I never expected!'”
If Quantum Hoops is not precisely “something unexpected,” it does raise worthy questions about the expectations it evokes and fulfills. For one thing, the enduring appeal of sports films is premised on freakish spectacle — the vigorous slam dunk, the brilliant run, the soaring catch. But when triumph is less plainly visible, how can it be measured or appreciated? What if winning is not synonymous with success, and the “journey,” as Arthur Ashe said, is most significant? Perhaps most importantly, how might competition be rethought, so that a variety of achievements and competitors can “count”? The possibilities can only multiply.