Backstory: For Caltech basketball, winning is a theory of relativity
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
"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."