An applied-math major, Travis Haussler knows plenty about probability. But when asked to explain how the universe could allow Caltech, the college basketball team on which he plays, to lose 273 straight league games since 1985, Haussler is stumped. The Beavers--nature's engineers--had just dropped another heartbreaker, an overtime defeat to the University of La Verne, 80-74. Playing on its home court in Pasadena, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech's full name) had a 9-point lead in the first half. Yet the Beavers kept the most infamous streak in college hoops alive. "One little rebound, one little loose ball--if one part of the system gets perturbed a little bit, we win," says Haussler, staring blankly at a locker-room wall. "If you want to look at it scientifically."
March Madness, that postseason basketball binge of million-dollar sponsorships under the guise of amateur athletics, is upon us once again. The players at Caltech, who compete in the NCAA's Division III, its lowest rung, will never get an invite to that party. Playoffs? Caltech coach Roy Dow is looking for kids who can hang on to the ball. The team just finished 1-24 and, for the 23rd straight season, failed to win a game in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The legendary science-and-engineering school may have 31 Nobel Prize winners to its name, and, sure, Einstein studied there. On the court, however, Caltech is light-years away from a championship.
Just eight of Caltech's 15 players even played on their high school hoops team. And if they gain any attention on the court now, it's just for being part of a spectacular losing tradition; the team and their coach are featured in a strangely inspiring documentary, Quantum Hoops, which will be out on dvd this spring.
With all the losing, why do the players bother playing ball? Basketball can be a 25-hours-a-week commitment. Shouldn't they use that time to get a head start on problem sets instead of slogging through practice after pulling all-nighters? "I have often asked myself that question," says Yang Hai, a 6-ft., 140-lb. (1.83 m, 63.5 kg) bench player. "I'm not that good. The team's not that good. What am I doing here?"
There is actually a very rational reason why these winners in life continue coming out for a losing team. "It keeps me sane," says Ben Faber, a freshman who plans to study theoretical physics. The school is a notorious pressure cooker, where even the summers are filled with high-stakes science. For example, freshman Ryan Elmquist will be mixing molecules for a Nobel Prize--winning chemist this summer. ("Ryan is going to be loving proton nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy," says the grad student supervising Elmquist's work.) Even a crushing loss can be something of an escape.
Will Caltech ever shine on the court? Dow is a committed coach. He just wishes the administration would show more support for sports. "The school strives for excellence in so many endeavors," he says. "Why should this other experience be so poor?" At other Division III schools, coaches and admissions officers often work together to identify potential players and set aside spots for a few who may not qualify academically for the school. Dow says he has a "nonexistent" relationship with the Caltech admissions office. "People here aren't comfortable with any guarantees," says Caltech admissions director Rick Bischoff.
There are signs of improvement, if not a quantum leap. Four years ago, the team lost by an average of 60 points, dropping games with scores like 108-16 and 127-32. This season Caltech lost by 29 points per game, took two league opponents into overtime and, for the second consecutive year, won a nonleague game (the team bounced Gallaudet in December). "We've had two straight winning seasons," brags Haussler, before correcting himself. "O.K., two seasons with a win." He laughs. "The paradigm is just different around here."
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