You’re the basketball coach at Caltech and your most formidable opponents are not opposing players but the scientific and mathematical pedigree of a school that’s generated more than 30 Nobel Prize winners and accepts only students who project to play NBA ball in the classroom. Successful applicants generally score 700 points or more on each of the three SAT disciplines – math, reading, and writing – and register very high, though not always perfect, grades in rigorous high school classes, and demonstrate passion for independent academic endeavor in clubs, competitions, and robotics. Those who’ve built things, such as computers, are also favored by admissions officers who reject almost ninety percent of those trying out for the team.
As a coach you yearn for large and swift players who shoot the basketball like a laser. At Caltech, however, you know such skills are subordinate to mastery of mechanical engineering, astrophysics, computer science, and business economics management. And you understand players will not have as much time as opponents to improve basketball skills; instead, they’ll frequently grapple with equations most of the night. Perhaps most daunting, you as coach inherit a tradition of formidable basketball futility: Caltech has won but five league games the last half century and lost 310 straight SCIAC contents during a 25-year drought. Sometimes the team was competitive but more often overwhelmed and needed advanced math to compute opponents’ baskets: a 98-point loss to Redlands in 2003 boosted the record for largest defeat; the following season La Verne beat the Beavers 108-16.
You know the records but don’t often think about them. You’re the current coach, Oliver Eslinger, and you came to Pasadena in 2008, determined to change the program. The season before, Caltech lost games by an average of 41 points and committed 29 turnovers, a rare degree of imprecise ball-handling. In your third year, 2010-11, the Beavers’ typical margin of defeat shrank to 10 points and turnovers decreased to a reasonable 14 a game. In the final contest that season your team beat Occidental 46-45, the first league victory in the lifetimes of your players and catalyst for a full house of 300 students to dash onto the court.
Two years later it’s noon on a cloudy Saturday and your team, preparing to play Cal Lutheran that evening, moves at half-pace through a one-hour shoot around. Players get loose and practice jumpers, layups, and dribbling. They then huddle around you at center circle, and about half the guys make you look short though you’re six-one. The team next sits on the floor in a corner of the gym and watches video images on the wall as you say, “Tell me what play this is. Who’s the post player? The point guard? Who’re you guarding? What are they doing? We don’t want them to reverse the ball here. Put pressure on them…” You then take the team back onto the court to run through plays. Some of your players are good athletes.
The 2007 documentary film “Quantum Hoops” chronicles Caltech’s hardwood struggles and features an interview with your predecessor, Roy Dow, who stresses that his team has more valedictorians than players with high school experience, and there’s simply not enough talent to secure any league victories. I mention this after the shoot around and, sounding like a mellow professor rather than barking Bobby Knight, you tell me: “When I got here, basketball had no culture of recruiting. I inherited a team with only five guys who had played high school varsity ball. Now most of my guys have played in high school, and about half made all league.
“We work our butts off to get our brand out, to let people know our vision. We attend camps every year. Not basketball camps. Academic camps where students may be qualified to come here, and a few may also be candidates for college basketball. I know we can attract students who have a passion for basketball and academics. My goal is to keep recruiting guys who want to improve their games and win the league title and go to the NCAA Division III tournament.”
If this still-distant goal is to be realized, Caltech will need more players like KC Emezie, whom you describe as having an “unlimited ceiling and athleticism we haven’t had. He creates his shots, and is hitting 50 percent of his threes. He didn’t play much early in the season but is developing rapidly.” You summon him to talk to me. Emezie is six-five, thin, soft-spoken, and an authoritative dunker scoring in the mid-teens in recent games. He was born in Lagos, Nigeria and at age five moved with his family to the United States.
“How old were you when you realized you had unusual talent at science and math?” I ask.
“I was interested in learning things when I was five or six,” he said. “And in middle school I discovered I was fascinated by physics, which explains so many things. For example, a basketball will roll better down a smooth surface than a rough one. But why? In physics I learned about friction and drag.”
“What do you plan to do after college?”
“I may go into web development.”
“Caltech hasn’t won any leagues games this year but has been pretty close in four of the last five games. How do you think your team’s talent matches up with other teams in the league?”
“I think we match up well with any of them.”
I thank the young man and, as I request, you call over starting guard Collin Murphy, a senior. I’m intrigued he’s listed as being from Wasilla, Alaska.
“You must be asked this frequently, but do you know Sarah Palin?”
“Yes,” Murphy says. “I went to middle school with her daughter Bristol. I didn’t see the family as much after she became governor because they moved to Juneau. But they invited some of us to come and eat dinner in the governor’s mansion.”
“What’s Sarah like?”
“She’s cool, very friendly, and a lot different than she appeared after becoming the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008. She moved to the right then. When she was governor she broke down some big oil companies, and she also said abortions shouldn’t be determined by states rights. A lot of Republicans in Alaska didn’t like her. There are some hardcore right wingers up there.”
“What was life like in Wasilla?”
“It’s very small. I played outside all the time. Even in winter I’d just bundle up and go.”
“When did you discover your math and science talent?”
“In first grade the teacher started sending me to the third grade class for math and fourth grade for science.”
“I hear you guys don’t get much sleep.”
“Lots of times we sleep two or three hours. Our leading scorer, Michael Edwards, only got one the other night.”
“What are your plans after college?”
“I’m a computer science and business management economics major. I’d like to be a project manager. I’ve been contacting firms all over the country.”
“Does being from Caltech help?”
“Most places get back to me right away.”
Tonight, impressing Google and Facebook is irrelevant. There’s a more complex task: outscore the other team. In warm ups it’s clear Cal Lutheran has larger and more athletic players, and when the game starts it’s evident the Kingmen have collectively played thousands of hours more basketball. Those so bright and certain in the classroom sometimes play basketball tentatively and throw bad passes and shoot errantly even when not pressured. They always hustle, though, and play with passion and rebound aggressively. KC Emezie, jittery at the start, makes two reverse layups and a high-arching three point shot. At halftime Caltech trails 31-17.
During break I estimate attendance at about 150 and see students, parents, and some professors enjoying an upbeat atmosphere. Behind me a young man says to his friends, “There’s Roy Dow, the former coach,” who is above noted as appearing in “Quantum Hoops.” I later learn online that the urbane Dow, crowned by a shaved head, isn’t there to check on his old team; he’s just coached the Cal Lutheran women to victory. Dow is greeted by several fans including a striking, early-middle-age blond woman, attired in tight blouse, mini-skirt, and high boots. I remind myself not to stare as she moves to talk to others nearby and mentions people she knows who’re going to various grad schools.
I’m sitting in the third row but note veterans of the gym line the upper row of bench-style bleachers and use the wall to ease their backs. I too find room at the top, and watch Cal Lutheran shoot and defend well while buildings leads of 18, 21, 23, 25, and 29 points – 55-26 with 9:31 to play. You bench your strongest and toughest player, ardent rebounder and weightlifter Alex Hunkel from Germany, when he yanks the ball from an opponent and seems ready to tussle. You also give significant minutes to reserves who make plays and delight the crowd. The final score’s unimportant. It’s about the vibe.