Good basketball players are quick and agile, with fast reflexes and well-honed hand-eye coordination.
But when robots play 3-on-3 basketball, there’s physics, geometry and computer programming involved.
FIRST teams from Washington and Idaho brought their robots to Hoopfest, pitting their mental athleticism against each other. While other players flew across the court Sunday with easy grace, the robots advanced in jerky motions, relying on catapult-style mechanisms to shoot baskets and lumbering after stray balls.
FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” This year, the nonprofit program for high schoolers required the students to design a basketball-playing robot in six weeks.
Tahoma High School team’s robot is a strong offensive player, scoring up to 30 points during the brief, 3 ½ minute matches at Hoopfest. But “Bearmageddon” – named for the school’s mascot and the 2012 apocalypse predicted by the Mayan calendar – arrived in Spokane on Friday night with technical issues.
“We showed up Friday and it didn’t work. It was something with the wiring, so we got a crash course in wiring,” said Nathan Kohls, 17, who attends the high school near Maple Valley, Wash.
The students worked on the robot until 12:30 a.m. in the parking lot of their hotel, getting the 5-foot-tall Bearmageddon in shape for its first match at 9 a.m. Saturday. It was a short night but worth the effort, said MacKenzie Dowell, the team’s president.
While Bearmageddon was a top scorer, the robot designed by Post Falls High School didn’t make a single basket during Hoopfest. “It’s not doing so hot today,” explained Sam Hunts.
“It has some programming problems,” added Zach Esqueda.
But the team members still felt loyal to their robot. They raised $2,500 to purchase the raw materials to build it. Esqueda, who graduated last month, said being in the FIRST program revolutionized his attitude about school.
“I don’t care if we win or lose, this program has been incredible,” he said. “My first two years in high school, I didn’t care. I slacked off. Now here I am, going to college to become a mechanical engineer.”
Putting together a robot that shoots baskets takes some thought, said Rahul Bhardwaj, who competes on a Seattle-based FIRST team.
“You want a very fast drivetrain, with a lot of pushing power,” he said. “You want fast ball acquisition and the ability to (shoot baskets) fast and accurately.”
Part of the competition pitted the robots against people shooting free throws. “Generally, humans do better because robots are programmed to shoot from certain areas,” Bhardwaj said.
The 23rd annual Hoopfest wrapped up Sunday under mostly sunny skies, with a brief shower in the early afternoon.
Downtown Spokane teemed with people. More than 28,000 players participated in the 3-on-3 basketball tournament, which covered 42 city blocks. Kids who weren’t on the court splashed in Riverfront Park’s fountain. People of all ages were eating snow cones to beat the muggy heat.
Crystal Lamebull watched her 6-year-old daughter, Kayana Corpuz, compete in the children’s bracket. She was playing her fifth game of the day. Her daughter’s team, coached by her husband, wore tie-dyed shirts emblazoned with “Girls Rock.”
“We found them at Kohl’s,” said Lamebull, who lives in the Yakima Valley.
Just over 4 feet tall, Kayana was a spirited player and aggressive guard. She’s been playing basketball for about a year.
“This is our first year, and we’ll come back again,” said Lamebull, who also had a brother and cousins competing in the tournament.
Sunday was comeback day for the three cousins who made up the Bone Arrowz team. They lost their first game on Saturday in the family bracket, but finished with a string of eight wins. The fourth player dropped out on Sunday, which left Cody Stensgar, William Stensgar and Jordan St. Clair.
“Chemistry,” Cody Stensgar promptly replied, when asked what makes a successful 3-on-3 team.
He has been playing basketball with St. Clair since second grade. The two men anticipate each other’s moves. Now in their early 20s, they were All State players at their high schools.
“It’s fun being competitive,” Cody Stensgar said of Hoopfest. “You’re just having fun playing basketball.”