Caltech coach found winning formula for losingest team

Oliver Eslinger let out a primal scream amid the 387 fans who stormed the basketball court on Feb. 24. His players, unaccustomed to winning, drenched him near the Caltech bench (right tradition, wrong sport).

Eslinger had coached the Caltech men’s basketball team, one of the country’s losingest basketball programs, to its first Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference win in 26 years and 310 games.

“I was floating,” he said. “This was it, this was our last chance, so our theme going into the game was being in the moment and not worrying about what might happen after the game or going into the off-season, so we tried to emphasize really believing in each possession, and staying with each other for the whole game.”

That Ryan Elmquist, one of two seniors on the team, clinched the Beavers’ 46-45 victory over Occidental on senior night, on a free throw with three seconds on the clock, was a fitting end to their 5-20 season.

“Our strategy was to get to the free-throw line and spread the floor,” Eslinger said. Caltech went 19-of-25 from the line. “We had trouble scoring and taking good shots the first time we played them, and we still had trouble scoring but we took better shots.”

Only a sports psychologist would take over a team that hasn’t posted a winning record since 1954.

“I took the job because of the history of the program,” Eslinger said. “I wanted to go to a program that hadn’t really done anything as far as winning and being competitive.”

Eslinger’s goal is to change the culture of losing and commit to building a real collegiate basketball program.

Breaking the conference losing streak, which dated to Jan. 23, 1985, is a major step.

After posting a one-win season and a winless season in his first two years as head coach, Eslinger led Caltech to a five-win season, including a three-game winning streak against nonconference teams in December.

“It’s hard to lose one game, let alone how many we’ve lost here. But what keeps me going are the players because they work so hard,” Eslinger said. “They’re inspiring just being at Caltech, but then to be able to balance and be committed to basketball in addition to everything they do with their studies and everything they want to do with the world when they get out there, that’s what keeps me going.”

Going into the final game of the season, Eslinger had put his background in sports psychology to use.

“I often talk about imagining everything that might happen during the game unfolding before it actually happens, seeing and feeling and hearing,” said Eslinger, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Boston University on “Mental Imagery Ability in High and Low Performing Collegiate Basketball Players.”

“I visualized what the atmosphere would be like so that I was better prepared. I had a clear head going into the game, which wasn’t easy because there was a lot of hype, there was media there, the place was packed, and there was pressure, but that was pretty much how it was for all our home games this year.”

Eslinger takes a spiritual approach to basketball.

The son of a Jewish mother and Methodist father, Eslinger wasn’t raised religious, but he has great respect for his Jewish heritage. The menorah he lights at Chanukah belonged to his mother’s parents in Romania.

“I never went to synagogue or church on a consistent basis, so I was stuck in between. Maybe that’s where my spirituality comes from, wanting to believe in something,” Eslinger said.

He honed his spirituality as an undergrad at Clark University, studying Zen and Buddhist philosophy on awareness of the self and the world, which he applies to his coaching.

“There’s totally a spiritual sense of being in the moment, finding a rhythm and being ‘in flow’ as they say in sports psychology. That’s part of my belief system,” he said. “It’s all about finding one’s own way, and I’ve been finding my own way since I was young.”

Eslinger changed Caltech’s approach to athletics, actively recruiting athletes who in the past would have been a lock for the Ivy League.

“I love recruiting the pool that we get to recruit from because they’re bright, they know how to manage their time, they care about education for all the right reasons, they want to go change the world, and they care about basketball, too,” Eslinger said.

Caltech is known more for Nobel laureates than basketball players, and Eslinger’s team is no different. The team comprises mostly role players and sixth men — mechanical engineering and computer science majors — who have had to adjust to their increased roles on the court.

One of these former sixth men is sophomore guard Collin Murphy, a computer science major from Wasilla, Alaska.

“Even before I came here, I could tell coach was a really dedicated guy,” Murphy said. “After I applied, as soon as I got in, he was already calling me. I’d written ‘basketball’ on an interest sheet because I’d played in high school.

“Everyone always jokes that, with how tough it is to get in, you have to recruit 80 players and hope a couple of them get in. [Eslinger] puts in a lot of work to get good players here.”

According to the most recent freshman profile, 98 percent of Caltech students graduated in the top 10 percent of their class. While 74 percent listed science and math teams as an extracurricular activity, only 36 percent listed sports.

But these Caltech basketball players are now in the media not for their research or inventions, but for their love of basketball.

“I can’t think of another [Division III] school or sport that has garnered this much attention from a game,” Eslinger said. “We’re going to use all of it to build our program.

“The way things have played out, winning the last game of the season, you can see what’s unfolding here, and we’re only in the beginning stages. We want as many people to be a part of it as possible. It’s special.”

‘Hoops’ harder than rocket science

Caltech has more Nobel laureates than any other university and is considered among the top five academic institutions in the world. The Pasadena campus’ contributions to science and technology are vast.

And then there’s their basketball team, the Beavers.

It figures that athletics at such a prestigious technical university would take a back seat to rocket science and particle physics. But as of the 2005-06 season profiled in the documentary “Quantum Hoops,” the NCAA Division III Beavers had yet to win a single Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game in 21 years. The team’s last conference title was in 1954.

The history-heavy film narrated by actor David Duchovny, which comes to DVD June 24, follows the Beavers as they attempt to win their first conference game since the 1980s.

Focused on the last nail-biting game of the season against Whittier College, the film took the Top 10 Audience Choice Award at the 2007 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. However, it’s probably the only award the team is likely to see, if tangentially, for a while.

Rick Greenwald says the win-less Beavers appealed to him on his first time out as a director. The 36-year-old documentary filmmaker from Chino grew up watching the college’s pranks, which inspired the 1985 comedy “Real Genius.”

But for all the opportunities to poke fun at the team, Greenwald says he resisted the urge to cut in scenes like Charlie Brown failing to kick a football.

“I abandoned that plan,” he said. “I was very sensitive to making fun. I don’t use the term nerd once.”

Still wanting to score points with Caltech’s geek factor, Greenwald hoped to secure Duchovny as narrator based on his “X-Files” credentials. The actor, a college basketball player for Princeton, agreed to voice the film a few weeks before its theatrical release.

“I still can’t believe it happened, to be honest,” Greenwald said.

The documentary profiles many of the team’s quirky student players, but the camera lingers primarily on Roy Dow, a veteran college coach who has helped the team close its average losing margin from the high 50s to roughly 20 points.

While Dow doesn’t have the pressures of an NCAA Division I coach, Greenwald says the doc certainly evokes a strong reaction from more sensitive viewers, especially when the coach shouts at players for performing at a level below that displayed in practice.

“You’re playing like dumb smart kids!” Dow yells.

Rather than alienating the players, Dow’s passion for the game inspires them.

“They respect him, they believe in him,” Greenwald said.

The reasons why players join a team as underwhelming as the Beavers varies, the director says, from bragging rites that they played in the NCAA to blowing off steam from the intense academic pressure.

“Once these guys get going, they really want that win,” Greenwald said. “They’ve never failed, statistically, on a level like this in anything they’ve ever done in their entire life. And I think a lot of them like the challenge of that part.”

Caltech basketball on ESPN’s College Gameday 1/20/07

Retiring Cal Tech Chief Reflects on Roots

The announcement that David Baltimore will retire next year as president of the California Institute of Technology has been greeted with a rich outpouring of encomiums that go well beyond the mandatory praise on such occasions.

What has not been mentioned is that the career of the brilliant biologist, who won a Nobel Prize at age 37, stands as well for the breadth and social responsibility of an American intellectual rooted in his Jewish heritage.

Such a man of science, like many of his peers, tends to be neither religious nor involved with the organized Jewish community. However, as The Journal reported in an earlier, lengthy interview with Baltimore, he “sees himself now as a secular Jew, but one whose outlook and achievement are rooted in his early Jewish upbringing and family life, and who hopes that he has transmitted the same values to his daughter.”

On another level, Baltimore’s biography represents the familiar success story of the American-born son of struggling immigrant parents ambitious for their children.

His father, Richard, was the only son of a poor, Orthodox family from Lithuania, orphaned at age 14. He worked in the garment industry, never went to college, but taught his two sons that “the most important thing in the world is a book.”

Baltimore’s mother, Gertrude, grew up in the household of a tailor from Ukraine. After her sons were born, she went to college, earned an advanced degree in psychology and at age 62 became a tenured professor at Sarah Lawrence College.

Although Baltimore’s father was a religious Jew and his mother an atheist, they maintained a comfortable relationship with a mutual understanding of their differences.

Young David attended Sunday school at Conservative Temple Israel in Great Neck, N.Y., and celebrated his bar mitzvah there. Hand in hand with the family’s intellectual interest went a humanitarian life view and an “inchoate socialism” that dictated concern for the underprivileged.

During his nine-year tenure as Caltech president, the 67-year old Baltimore translated many of his family’s principles into practice, on top of raising the university’s already elite level of scientific research and education. He showed a keen interest in the quality of student life through improved housing and a multimillion dollar student activities fund, and raised the profile and number of women on the faculty and in the student body.

On the public stage, shunned by more cloistered scientists, Baltimore spoke out freely on controversial issues, an attitude consistent with his family background.

Indeed, he almost lost out on his 1975 Nobel Prize, when, on the cusp of a breakthrough experiment, he shut down his laboratory to protest the U.S. Army’s invasion of Cambodia. An early and insistent advocate for AIDS and stem cell research, Baltimore has not hesitated to criticize President Bush and his administration for endangering the nation’s future scientific strength.

Will there be a future generation of great Jewish scientists whose home environment spurred them on to excellence? Perhaps, but Baltimore is not overly optimistic.

“In my generation, and the one before, the leading scientists have been extraordinarily and prominently Jewish,” he said. They rose to the top because they made “the necessary sacrifices to develop the skills to become great scientists.”

Encouraging and enforcing the needed sacrifices were the Jewish parents, “who exerted, and believed in exerting, the necessary pressure” on their sons and daughters. Today, that pressure is largely absent, not because the parents are less ambitious for their offspring, but “because they believe that their kids should define their own existence,” Baltimore said.

Baltimore is married to Alice Huang, senior councilor for external relations at Caltech and a faculty associate in biology. The couple has one daughter, Teak, who is married and lives in New York.

As for now, the driving ethos of the old Jewish home, he observed, seems to have been taken over by Asian immigrants and their children.

Baltimore will remain at Caltech as professor of biology and focus on his scientific research and teaching.

In June, he received a $13.9 million grant by the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Baltimore’s proposal, “Engineering Immunity Against HIV and Other Dangerous Pathogens,” will address the challenge of creating immunological methods to deal with chronic diseases.


Community Briefs

Couple Airs Mideast Views at

The Middle East conflict came to the Caltech campus in Pasadena
last week, when Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf presented a talk on “Eyewitness
to Occupied Palestine.”

Shapiro, a Brooklyn-born Jew, and his wife, a Palestinian
Arab, are founders of the International Solidarity Movement, which has garnered
some headlines by interposing “international activists” to protect Palestinians
against the alleged brutality and excesses of the Israeli army.

Shapiro gained a measure of fame last March, when he joined Yasser
Arafat at his besieged headquarters in Ramallah and was asked to share
breakfast with the Palestinian Authority leader.

The two-hour lecture-discussion proceeded in a civil and nonconfrontational
style, according to Robert Tindol of the Caltech public information office, who
attended as a neutral observer. The generally pro-Palestinian crowd listened to
a litany of alleged Israeli brutalities inflicted on a generally peaceful Palestinian

Some counterbalance was provided by four members of the StandWithUs
pro-Israeli grass-roots organization, according to founder and president Roz
Rothstein, “We asked pointed, respectful questions … and the Jewish students
on campus were enormously grateful that we attended.” Rothstein acknowledged
that the two speakers gave a “very personal and effective,” if one-sided,

The talk was sponsored by the Caltech Y as part of its
Social Action Speakers Series. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Foundation Awards $371,000 in

The Jewish Community Foundation, the largest Southern
California Jewish philanthropic organization, recently announced that it had
made 11 grants worth $371,000.

The grants will go toward construction and renovation
projects at several Jewish community facilities, ranging from preschools to
senior housing to boarding schools.

“We are committed to supporting a wide variety of building
projects which strengthen the core of our local Jewish community,” Foundation
Chief Executive Marvin I. Schotland said in a news release.

The awards were approved in June and announced in late
December. The gifts represent about one-third of the $1 million the nonprofit
group earmarked last year for local charitable organizations through Foundation
Legacy Grants.

Among the award recipients:

Menorah Housing Foundation, which owns and operates 13
residential buildings for low-income seniors, received $50,000 to open a
41-unit Echo Park apartment complex last October.

Aviva Family & Children’s Services received $50,000
for construction and renovation of high school buildings to accommodate
expanded special education services.

Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles was awarded $36,000
to help underwrite a new shelter in Van Nuys that will serve up to 75 women and
150 children annually.

  B’nai David-Judea Congregation received $40,000 to
upgrade an existing building.

Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles, a nonprofit Jewish boys
boarding school, was awarded $25,000 toward the construction of a new building
at its Calabasas location.

Grants will be paid out until 2004. — Marc Ballon, Staff Writer

Hearing on Heschel Property Delayed

The new Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West campus in Old
Agoura may take longer than expected to come to fruition. The first public
hearing, originally scheduled last month, will now be held on April 2,
according to the Los Angeles County Planning Department. The hearing will focus
on the 71-acre property’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR). While the school
plans to build on only 15-18 acres, the Old Agoura Hills Homeowners Association
is concerned about the Chesboro Road location causing excess traffic, unwanted
noise, the effect on wildlife and changes to the community.

Currently located near the Liberty Canyon exit of the
Ventura Freeway, Heschel West serves 144 children in transitional kindergarten
through fifth grade. The day school purchased the new property four years ago
so it could  accommodate 750 students from preschool through ninth grade.

Although the delay will extend the approval period, Rick
Wentz, executive vice president of the Heschel West School Board, is not
discouraged. “It’s an inconvenience, but [the hearing process] can get held up
for a multitude of reasons,” he said. “This is just one of those times.”–
Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Education Writer

Tu B’Shevat Time: Hundreds of people
turned out on Jan. 12 for the Tu B’Shevat Festival at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu.
The Festival included performances by the Klezmer band The Shirettes,
informative booths on conservation and alternative fuel vehicles, an art contest
and, of course, tree planting, above. The next community-wide Tu B’Shevat
Festival will take place Sunday, Jan. 18 at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in
Simi Valley from 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. For more information, call (805) 582-4450
or visit

Debunking the Bible Codes

A Caltech mathematician and a leading Orthodox educational institution teamed up recently to turn up the heat on a simmering controversy over what they say is a scientifically and religiously suspect tool used by Jewish outreach organizations — the Bible codes.

Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem-based outreach organization with offices and branches worldwide, stands by its use of the codes, saying that while some have been found to be insignificant, other key codes withstand scientific scrutiny.

Popularized a few years ago by the publication of Michael Drosnin’s “The Bible Codes” and utilized for years by Aish HaTorah, the codes are purported to uncover encrypted messages in the Bible that allude to historical events thousands of years before they happen.

By counting letters at specific intervals, researchers claim to have found a divinely encoded subtext in the Hebrew Bible on such subjects as the Holocaust and modern Jewish thinkers. Aish HaTorah’s Discovery Seminars, one- or two-day crash courses that set out to prove the existence of God and the authenticity of Judaism, use the clusters of related words found in the text to prove the Divine authorship of the Torah,

Now, Barry Simon, head of the Caltech mathematics department and an Orthodox Jew, says that he has found similar word clusters alluding to Chanukah, the death of Princess Diana, and the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. But Simon’s clusters appear in such works as Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Melville’s “Moby Dick” and the Unabomber manifesto.