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Beautiful Mind Games
November 26, 2007
A documentary follows Caltech's brainiac basketball team
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November 26, 2007

Beautiful Mind Games

A documentary follows Caltech's brainiac basketball team

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Directed by Rick Greenwald

THE CALTECH basketball team lost 243 consecutive SCIAC conference games between 1985 and 2007—a period of time during which Caltech gave us nine Nobel Prize winners, Washington gave us four presidential administrations, and Hollywood gave us three Revenge of the Nerds sequels. The struggle of the Beavers' senior class of 2006 to snap their hoops losing streak is documented in the endearing new documetary Quantum Hoops.

The dweeb-versus-jock dynamic has been a favorite of Hollywood for years, primarily because it affords the opportunity for wacky sight gags, crass jokes and—especially in films made in the 1980s—gratuitous shots of showering cheerleaders. (Really, it's a can't-miss formula.) Inevitably, the celluloid dorks prevail when they discover that they can use their bookishness to their advantage. Who can forget Louis, Gilbert, Booger and the rest of the boys in the original Revenge of the Nerds—the gold standard by which brain-versus-brawn films are judged—constructing a javelin designed to soar through the air when tossed with an especially limp-wristed throwing motion?

So when the camera follows Caltech's David Liu into a lab, where he says, "With liquid nitrogen, you can do a lot of things that are quite fun," one can't help but envision the 5'9" Liu surreptitiously freezing the opposing team's high-tops before a big game. Of course, that never happens, because this is real life, and in real-life games, as Quantum Hoops reminds viewers repeatedly, brains can only take you so far. There's a reason why Albert Einstein, who taught at Caltech, isn't remembered for his basketball prowess: Understanding the physics of a bank shot is one thing; successfully executing the maneuver in a crowded lane is quite another.

If there's one thing Quantum Hoops, which is narrated in perfect low-key fashion by Princeton grad David Duchovny, is missing, it's a sense of urgency. There's not much on the line here. It's clear from the opening scene—a montage of errant passes and bricked shots set to The Blue Danube waltz—that this isn't Hoop Dreams; you're pretty sure the Beavers are going to land on their feet when their playing days are over, making a lot of money doing something the rest of us probably can't pronounce, let alone grasp. (At Caltech—which plays in Division III, where there are no athletic scholarships—the 2006 team had eight valedictorians and only six players with high school basketball experience.)

And still the movie succeeds, because it's hard not to feel for the players—especially when senior guard (and applied physics major) Scott Davies plaintively says, "I really want to win a game." No one likes losing, not even kids whose mothers had to force them to get their noses out of books and go outside to play.