Quantum Hoops (2)

January 19, 2009

beaversmiling405What about the Quantum Hoops video?  The documentary is very ably put together.  It combines a bit of the history of Caltech and its athletic programs with the story of the amazing conference record of the basketball Beavers over the last few years.  Not only do they lose a lot, they most often lose badly.  Yet the documentary succeeds in finding the right tone and integrating the viewer into the problematic of a not very good team representing a high power academic institution in a fairly weak basketball environment.  We are far from epic hoop battles in the Big East or the PAC-10, but we want this group to fulfill its specific hoop dream.  Caltech will  not play in front of a large crowd or on national television.

Although the institution once fielded competitive teams in some of the major sports, Caltech does not give  priority to recruiting accomplished athletes.  In fact, the documentary is careful to underline the role that basketball plays in the lives of the students who make up the team.  Caltech is a Division 3 team and basketball is essentially a diversion:  for the players, it’s a complement to an arduous program of study, not a potential ticket to a professional sports contract.  Here we see  basketball at the collegiate level as pure sport.  The players are certainly serious about learning the game and improving their performance.  They want to win, to be competitive, but  most of them have neither the talent nor the experience to excel at even the D3  level.  As the promo for Quantum Hoops proclaims:  the team has more high school valedictorians than players with extensive high school basketball experience.

To adequately treat its subject, it is important that the documentary  not moralize.  We cannot help  seeing the humor in the ineptness of the team and the severity of its conference losing streak, but at the same time we must admire the academic accomplishments of the players, their real dedication to gradual athletic  improvement and their enjoyment of participation in sport.  So the errant passes and occasional airballs make us laugh, but that laugh never turns into derision.  We learn to admire their tenacity and appreciate the pedagogy of their excellent coach.  The commentary by director Rick  Greenwald  not only adds to our appreciation of certain details of the film, but also shows how careful he was to give the video the right tone.

But I have no intentions of being a film critic.  Quantum Hoops can attain cult status simply on the basis of its title.  Having gone through a few years of a joint math/physics major before deciding to definitively opt for mathematics, I have a modicum of appreciation of the difficulty of doing theoretical physics.  Attending a conference given by Paul Dirac at Syracuse University early in my undergraduate years was one great moment in my early academic life.  (Again my friend Dante Giarrusso was responsible for motivating this trip to our neighboring campus.)  The presenter at that conference was the head of the Physics Department at Syracuse during that epoch, the great Peter Bergmann, a one time associate of Albert Einstein.  I still remember the pleasure that he took in introducing Dirac that day.   So anyone who teaches and does research in theoretical physics has my admiration.  In fact, even for the profane, the history of the development of theoretical physics in the last century is fascinating.  (If there were footnotes in this blog, I would  here make reference to the very enjoyable, recently published book by Sheilla Jones,  The Quantum Ten,  Thomas Allen Publishers, Toronto, 2008.)

Of course, I have been a basketball fan for a long time.  My personal basketball career was less than illustrious, but I always understood attendance at our high school games as an implicit obligation.  The Syracuse Parochial League of that epoch consisted of teams from virtually all the parish high schools in the city.  Its caliber was not as good as the county league which featured larger schools and better players, but competition was fierce between certain rival schools.  In the same way, when I was a student at LeMoyne College I attended many home games, but the caliber at LeMoyne was far below that of  the neighboring  D1 powerhouse Orange.  So I would hardly look down on Caltech basketball because it is D3.  Success is, of course, relative.  We must remember that not every college or university possesses the institutional culture which demands quasi-professional athletic achievement.

So Quantum Hoops can also be used as a point of reference for a reflection on NCAA sports.  It is hard to combine stellar basketball talent and stellar academic achievement.  We recall  Bill Bradley and David Robinson, both of whom were exceptional NBA players.  They were outstanding athletes  by professional basketball standards and equally exemplary individuals  in both academics and social commitment.  Yet neither passed through a program of study as demanding as theoretical physics before landing in the NBA.

Bradley and Robinson both contradict the popular view that athletic stardom and a modicum of intellectual achievement are inversely proportional.  Using the Quantum Hoops video as background, we can appeal to them to bring the perennial topic of the relation between academics and sport to the forefront.  Weekend television in the Fall and the Winter is inundated with collegiate  football and basketball;  in many areas of the country, collegiate sports are more popular than the corresponding professional leagues.  American male athletes in the major sports (basketball, football, baseball) often grow up with the dream of one day playing professional ball.  That dream can quickly turn to illusion relatively early in their lives.  Playing NCAA sports is already an accomplishment, especially at the D1 level.  But even then, only a relatively few NCAA players will subsequently play professional sports in the major sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB).

The dynamic that characterizes participation in sport at that level is sometimes not appreciated by the public.  The sports structure is like a pyramid.  To make it to the top normally demands talent, work and a certain measure of luck.  Playing at a high level on that pyramid is already exceptional.  For example, we can easily name many great collegiate basketball players who either never got a chance to play in the NBA or were not quite able to make a career in that league.  A similar thing can be said for other sports.  I was extremely pleased that my son was able to pitch in D1 baseball, but more pleased that he combined a reasonable athletic career with graduation in 4 years,  a degree magna cum laude and  induction into Phi Beta Kappa.  At the same time, I saw others who misinterpreted their situation, ending up with neither a professional career nor a diploma.  I have no sympathy with the purist’s version of academia which would seek to ban organized sports from campus.  But there is a point of view from which  the Caltech Beavers can be considered successful and, if there is a lesson to be reiterated from Quantum Hoops, it may be the banal reminder that enjoyment of sport and personal success do not always have to be evaluated from the perspective of a culture mesmerized by professional sport.

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