Backstory: For Caltech basketball, winning is a theory of relativity

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

These two teams are hungry. Neither will leave the building quietly. That's because this one is for who goes home with none of the marbles. Translation: Inside a gymnasium at the California Institute of Technology, the visiting Whittier College (Poets) and Caltech (Beavers) are battling it out for last place in men's basketball in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC). That's a conference you've never heard of, with eight schools you rarely hear of, in the smallest-school division you may want to hear of – NCAA Division III.

The Beavers are looking for their first league win since 1985 – a year when Ronald Reagan was president, Pete Rose was still playing baseball, and Dick Clark was hosting the New Year's countdown. Wait, he still is. The Poets have the SCIAC's second-worst record. No one here even knows what "three-peat" means. The Beavers are hoping the Poets have an off night. The Poets know that if the Beavers have an "on" night, it will be a first.

A brown-fleece Beaver mascot shimmies along the sideline where seven grad students flex their bare chests to spell out "Caltech" in body paint. Spread over seven rows of bleachers is a meager crowd of 200 – large by Caltech standards.

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It is soon apparent why no one in them is named Brent Musberger or Curt Gowdy. At midcourt, Caltech guard Paxon Frady intercepts an errant Whittier pass. He bounces it crisply to teammate Michael Underhill who is streaking down the far sideline. The crowd leaps to its feet.

With precision, Underhill passes to Haussler, Haussler to Dellatorre, Dellatorre back to Frady all alone under the basket.

Air ball.

"Aaaawww." The collective sigh lasts longer than the air puckering out of an untied circus balloon. Next: silence.

"When you play against Caltech, it's not about whether you are going to win or not," whispers Allan Gibson, father of Whittier guard, Marcus Gibson. "It's about ... having a point margin that's respectable."

Final score: Whittier 71/Caltech 38.

And so it has gone for the Caltech men's basketball team – every league game for several seasons. Twenty-two years and 259 games now, to be exact. Despite better coaching, improved players, polished execution, the losses just keep coming – for two reasons, according to people here smart enough not to doubt. One, many team members never played basketball in high school. Two, most are sleep deprived. They're pooped, literally, from studying up to 14 hours a day.

"When you've just pulled an all-nighter to study quantum field theory, general relativity, or functional analysis, you're not necessarily going to have your best night on the basketball court," says coach Roy Dow, who routinely dismisses exhausted students from practice.

Mr. Dow may be the only coach in America who has to compete with top science labs to get his players to practice over the summer.

"I was giving one of my players some pointers on what kind of physical regimen he needed to stay in shape and improve his game," he recalls. "He told me he had to go work at Los Alamos."

***

That is the point, of course. The bigger story of the Caltech men's basketball team is that it's the antithesis of the old cliché: "The final score is the only statistic that matters."

"We are a special group in that we are more academically minded than most athletic teams," says Travis Haussler, sophomore center who has a double major in computational math and business. "It's academics that got us to this level, and we are using athletics more as an outlet."

Simply put, the team values things other than winning – teamwork, determination, persistence. Not to mention helping the school maintain its reputation as one of the preeminent science, math, and engineering institutions in the world. "It is a tribute to their unwillingness to compromise their [academic] standards that they have endured for as long as they have," says Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

By today's standards, the school sounds almost antiquated in its devotion to books over rebounds. In the 1950s, Caltech competed against teams like UCLA and the University of Southern California, which have since gone on to become sports powerhouses. "The caliber of players at Caltech has probably remained constant over the decades," says Richard Van Kirk, who played on the 1958 team. "What's happened is that the caliber of the competition has gotten better as other colleges have increased their recruiting, scouting, and focus on sports."

Still, the team's fortunes may be changing. This season, they tallied a first-in-a-decade non-league win (81/52 over Bard). They have attracted a top-flight dedicated coach in Dow, and they have become the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary ("Quantum Hoops").

"They are still losing every game, but now they are actually competing for real in each game," says Miles Shanks, a fan whose father played on the 1954 championship team, the only year the school ever took a top trophy.

***

No one doubts Caltech's prowess off the birch flooring. Set at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in Pasadena, the elite private school is known for its faculty and world-class research. It occupies a prominent spot in the nation's cerebellum, with, at last count, 31 Nobel recipients and 47 National Medal of Science winners.

The school is small – 2,200 students versus more than 10,000 at MIT (a name you don't want to utter too loudly around here). The school maintains 17 sports teams, from fencing to water polo. Its athletic budget is a modest $1.1 million out of a $550 million overall school kitty, but is on par with other Division III institutions.

Dow is doing what he can to recruit new players. The trouble is, it's about as easy as dribbling a gluon. Consider that 3,300 applicants vie for 215 freshman spots at Caltech. The LeBron Jameses and Larry Birds of the world usually don't get in. When they do, Dow has to contend with Nobel-laureate professors who expect his players to be able to grasp the empirical proofs of antimatter come 8 a.m.

Nor will a good sky hook buy any goodwill. "This is not a place that is going to say, 'Hey, here's someone we would not normally admit, but what the heck, he's 6 feet, 7 inches and can hit jumpers from the top of the key, so let's let him in,' " says Rick Bischoff, Caltech admissions director.

Which means, for the most part, that Dow has to choose from the pool he's handed. The result is usually a team of first-rate students – some who are very good athletes as well, some who are fairly good, and some who will have a great career at Google.

Yet don't try to depict this team as a bunch of dweebs in gym shorts. "We're not nerds out there trying to play basketball," says Wei Li, a guard from Columbus, Ohio, who is a computational neural systems major. "We're a bunch of guys trying to learn precision, teamwork, self-discipline, and loyalty in the face of incredible odds."

And that's just fine with people here, as some outsiders think it should be at a few more institutions of higher learning. "The athletic programs at Caltech provide recreational opportunities to our students – students who need a break from the rigors of classes and research," says Jean-Lou Chameau, Caltech's new president.

In other words, winning all the marbles isn't what makes the world go 'round, and here they actually know what makes the world go 'round.

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