It was a cause for celebration when UCSB took an 18-17 lead over Long Beach State 12 minutes into last Saturday’s women’s basketball game at the Thunderdome. Long Beach’s 49ers were leading the Big West Conference with a shiny 16-1 overall record, while the Gauchos were seeking their first regular-season win. Alas, the euphoria lasted only as long as a time-out. The 49ers crushed UCSB’s hopes with a 17-2 run en route to an 81-44 triumph.
An unthinkable prospect is emerging ― this team is 0-16 and may not win a game. The only other Big West team with a sub-0.500 record is UC Irvine at 3-15. Irvine’s visit on January 29 may be UCSB’s best chance to avoid the ignominy of a winless season. Out of 349 NCAA Division I teams, only three others currently have a bagel in the win column.
There is a Division III school in Pasadena that would consider UCSB’s slide a mere hiccup. At least Gaucho women’s fans have memories of an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in 2004. The men’s basketball team at the California Institute of Technology has not enjoyed a winning season since 1954.
Santa Barbara resident Fred Anson was senior captain of that 1953-54 Caltech team, which went 14-7 and won the school’s only Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) championship.
In the 60 years since, the Beavers have not gotten the faintest whiff of another title. Their futility reached historic depths. It was the subject of Quantum Hoops, an entertaining 2007 documentary produced by Rick Greenwald, a UCSB film studies graduate. At the time, Caltech was buried in a streak of 250 consecutive SCIAC losses dating back to 1985. The despair continued four more years, culminating in 310 conference defeats, until the Beavers beat Occidental in the 2011 season finale, 46-45. Victory was never sweeter.
Athletics has never been a priority at Caltech, a preeminent institution in the education of future leaders in science and technology, with an undergraduate enrollment of fewer than 1,000. The basketball teams often had starters with no high-school varsity experience. “We struggled to have enough guys coming out,” Anson said. “Just after the Korean War, veterans came to the school. They were older, rougher, and tougher and helped make the team more formidable.”
Anson was an industrious youth who rose at 2 a.m. to deliver the L.A. Times in his neighborhood while attending high school in Alhambra. He played basketball but did not make the varsity team until his senior year. The Times rewarded his outstanding work as a carrier by endowing him with full-tuition scholarship to Caltech – $600 a year.
Caltech’s only basketball court at the time was a gritty outdoor clay surface. “We practiced in the armory and played our home games at the PCC [Pasadena City College] gym,” Anson said. He did not consider his participation a detriment to his studies in chemistry. “It was a way of getting relief from all the pressure of labs and classes.”
Anson was a slim 6’6” player who was adept at sinking shots, while his bulkier teammates set screens. He scored 1,199 points in his career, a school record that stood for 43 years. He was also a high achiever in the classroom. Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize–winning head of the chemistry department, offered him a job as a young instructor. “Part of the reason was that I was an athlete,” Anson said. He remained on the faculty for 47 years, retiring in 2002 and moving to a home on the Mesa.
Caltech has not forgotten the part that Anson played in putting the only championship pennant in the school’s gym. Alphabetically and athletically, he was the first basketball player to be inducted into the newly established Caltech Athletics Hall of Honor last May.
FUN FACTS: Another Caltech basketball honoree was Fred Newman, a 1959 grad who was one of Anson’s early students. Newman, a lifetime gym rat, once made 88 consecutive free throws blindfolded. He also holds a world record for most free throws made in a 24-hour period – 20,371. His fingers were rubbed raw like those of the El Capitan climbers in Yosemite.
Pomona-Pitzer, one of Caltech’s rivals in the SCIAC, gave Gregg Popovich his first head-coaching job in 1979. The Sagehens went 2-22 in his first year, including a loss to Caltech. Popovich stayed eight years and won a conference title in 1986. He has done all right in the NBA, winning five crowns as coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
MORE HOOP FUN: The Washington Generals, who endured the granddaddy of all losing streaks, will play at UCSB’s Thunderdome on Wednesday, February 11, before a crowd that pays to see them embarrassed. They will take on the beloved Harlem Globetrotters. Playing the straight men against the “Clown Princes of Basketball” over the years, the Generals came up short night after night. They had lost 2,495 consecutive games when, one night in 1971, the Globetrotters lost track of the time and the score. A last-second basket by Red Klotz lifted the Generals to a shocking 100-99 victory. Klotz, the team’s founder, died last year with that priceless memory. The Globetrotters’ exhibitions in Southern California next month have been billed as “The Washington Generals Revenge Tour.” For information, visit harlemglobetrotters.com.
NEVER GIVE UP: There is a certain nobility in the character of teams like Caltech’s Beavers and the Generals. They keep showing up to play games in defiance of almost certain doom, hoping that on this night, lightning will strike and their persistence will be rewarded. Faith Mimnaugh is in her 18th year as Cal Poly women’s basketball coach. In her first season, UCSB defeated the Mustangs, 114-44. Now she is riding a streak of six consecutive victories against the Gauchos. After this month’s 56-41 win at the Thunderdome, Mimnaugh said, “You look up and see banner after banner. I cherish every win we have in this building.” She also said that the Gaucho women played harder than her winning Mustangs did ― a reversal of the teams’ roles in the past. “That’s a starting point [for UCSB],” she said. Gaucho fans just hope it doesn’t take decades to end.