After 25 Years of Losses, Caltech Basketball Instills Fears in Presidents’ Hearts

Pasadena, Calif. — I went to the Caltech-Whittier College men’s basketball game Saturday evening because, as a journalist, I have a responsibility to history. Also because Sharon Herzberger, Whittier’s president, had told me she was afraid Caltech might actually win.

In case you’re no more of a sports fan than I am, what you need to know about the California Institute of Technology is that its men’s basketball team last won a game in its conference, the NCAA’s Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, in 1985. The team, known as the Beavers, has occasionally beaten colleges outside the conference—in fact, Caltech won three nonconference games in a row in December—but its SCIAC record is remarkable, and not in a good way.

Nonetheless, Ms. Herzberger said Caltech had been playing pretty well all season, at least by the standards of a conference that includes such other powerhouses as her own team, the Poets, and the Sagehens of Pomona and Pitzer Colleges. In fact, Caltech lost to Whittier by only two points last month and fell to the University of La Verne by just one point in early February. Caltech even forced a January game against the University of Redlands into overtime, though Redlands eventually prevailed.

Now it’s not like Whittier is the kind of college where alumni call for the president’s ouster if a team has a couple of losing seasons. Still, Ms. Herzberger said none of the conference presidents wanted to be the one whose team loses to Caltech after all these years of its being the butt of jokes. Another president, who I’m pretty sure would like to go unnamed, scoffed at Ms. Herzberger’s concerns. “They couldn’t beat statues,” she said of Caltech, but that seemed to me unkind. You have to respect players who show up for practice in the face of a legacy like the Beavers’.

Caltech’s gym, when I finally found it, proved to be refreshingly small and cramped. No luxury suites, no press box, just six or eight rows of bleacher seating and a Caltech band squeezed down in the far corner. I’m sure there are plenty of high schools with facilities far more lavish. I sat surrounded by young Caltech alumni who were wearing lots of orange—Caltech’s color—and talking about what they would set fire to if the team won. Someone was passing out noisemakers and orange leis.

A few feet away, a couple of hundred Caltech students were crammed into the small section of the stands reserved for them. They were a multihued, polyglot brain trust, many of them wearing glasses and looking like they would head back to the library as soon as the game was over, but they stood throughout the contest, stomping their feet enthusiastically whenever they yelled “DEE-FENSE! DEE-FENSE!”

Which, as it happens, they did a lot.

I know just this side of nothing about basketball, so you won’t be getting a close analysis of the game from me. Caltech took an early, 2-0 lead, but for the most part it was downhill from there. The Caltech students and alumni did enjoy one moment of glory, in the second half, when sophomore Mike Edwards (“Interned at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during summer of 2010 and helped develop new platinum-based alloys for use in hydrogen-air fuel cells,” Caltech’s roster says) cut the Whittier lead to 10 with an uncontested breakaway dunk.

The final score was Whittier 70, Caltech 50. History was not made, but I did leave wondering whether it’s time for a story about students who work on platinum-based alloys for use in hydrogen-air fuel cells—smart people are, to me, a lot more interesting than sports. And the band, by the way, was excellent.

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