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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Robot Hoop Dreams


Proof that one doesn’t always live up to their IQ (see the blog from March 15, 2018), this particular article is the second attempt at writing it because after spending two hours previously, I mysteriously decided NOT to save it before closing down the program. 

When I was a young kid in Toronto, one of my wintery past-times on a weekend afternoon was to watch with rapt attention the goings-on of the NBA (National Basketball Association), paying particular attention to Bob McAdoo of the Buffalo Braves (later the San Diego Clippers and now the Los Angeles Clippers). That guy could play. He was a five-time NBA All-Star and the 1975 league MVP.
He's one bad mamma-jamma!

When Buffalo lost its franchise at the end of 1978, that was kind of it re: basketball for quite a few years, as the Toronto television audience was no longer privy to catching games from the Buffalo stations across the border.

Still, I paid enough attention through the newspaper and the sports highlights on the evening news or through my once-a-year purchase of Sports Illustrated (for the Swimsuit Edition) to be a fan of other great players such as Julius Erving (Dr. J), Pistol Pete Maravich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor), Kurt Rambis (he wore sports glasses, as I did for soccer and squash and racquetball - they would call me GI Joseph when I played soccer); Earvin Magic Johnson; Larry Bird (I had and have too much respect for him to ever call him “The Hick from French Lick”); Michael “Air” Jordan, and countless others.

Man... basketball players have great nicknames. They used to have great nicknames in hockey, but now they kindda just add an "er" to a guys name or shorten it and then add an "s"... like Gardner becomes "Gards". I mean the so-called greatest hockey player in the game today is named Sid The Kid Crosby. He's 30 bloody years old! 

I would also make the annual trek to Maple Leaf Gardens to watch the Harlem Globetrotters when they came in town, as well as their appearances on ABC’s Wide World of Sports - I miss that show!

Geese Ausbie (Downtown, going downtown!) Curly Neal, Twiggy Sanders, and Marques Haynes - the most awesome dribbler ever!!!  He'd slide on the ground, lyingsideways with his hand propping up his head and would dribble!


And, of course, the extremely talented leader, Meadowlark Lemon. I met him a few years ago at a sports card show in Toronto. He was all smiles when I thanked him for entertaining me, and told him I saw him in Toronto for their 50th anniversary game (1976), and that I still have the gold cover event program (see below). He thanked me and shook my hand, shook my then eight-year-old son’s hand… who had never seen the Globetrotters, but at least he knew that my fandom of he Clown Prince of basketball was something that must have indeed been great, and that I wasn’t just snowing him.
Not MY copy, but you'll notice that on the suitcase, Japan's flag is directly below Canada's... it doesn't mean anything... I'm just pointing out the connection. As a Canadian, I always like to be on top.
You know that Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain was a Globetrotter, right?

Of course, the following are also Honorary Globetrotters.. take of it what you will:

    •    Henry Kissinger, statesman (1976);
    •    Bob Hope, entertainer (1977);
    •    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1989);
    •    Whoopi Goldberg, actor (1990);
    •    Nelson Mandela, political icon (1996);
    •    Jackie Joyner-Kersee, heptathlon (1999);
    •    Pope John Paul II (2000);
    •    Jesse Jackson, civil rights activist (2001);
    •    Pope Francis (2015);
    •    Robin Roberts, newscaster (2015).

And, Magic Johnson signed in 2003, a $1/year lifetime contract with the Globetrotters.

Man… I have to take my kid to see the Harlem Globetrotters. He doesn’t care for basketball, but I think the Globetrotters are much more than just a sports entertainment team.       

When I was in Japan, back in 1990-93, I happened to be in a Tokyo department store in 1992, and as I rode up an escalator I came face-to-waist with a larger-than-life cutout of a basketball player I had never seen or heard of. That was Shaquille O’Neal, or so I quickly learned from someone who caught me staring… a newbie in that year’s upcoming season for the Orlando Magic. He blew me away with his size, and width… here was a guy who looked like he could stop a tank just by flexing his arms, sending out muscle waves to smash the steel into tiny shards.

This is what I saw...
In the 1990s, along with Shaq, my favorite baller was David The Admiral Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, who served in the United States Navy. His real rank, however was Lieutenant, Junior Grade.         

I had always wanted to be tall like a basketball player… yes they were freakish in height, but I was always the shortest person in my classes growing up, as I was nearly two years younger than everyone else, wore glasses, wasn’t white and although I had big floppy clown feet for most of my teenage years, there was never any proof that I would ever grow into them…

Fortunately, I had that growth spurt as I was about to enter my 18th year… but still, despite loving basketball, I couldn’t make a basket if my life depended on it.

I would play basketball with my friends pre-high school, usually in the position of traffic cone; played intramural in high school, and since I was always open, because I couldn’t make a shot, I always took a shot hoping for the fist time. I think I did score one basket over several futile attempts of playing.

I even played "horse" - with my fellow AET (assistant English teacher) Colin McKay from Calgary who lived a few towns north of me in Kuroiso-machi. Although Colin was several inches shorter than me, and had a few extra non-muscular pounds, he dominated me without ever having to wear a lot of leather. 

Apparently height does not equal talent.

But I like basketball. I followed the college fortunes of the University of Kentucky Wildcats, loved the Washington Bullets (now Wizards), and when Toronto got an NBA team - well… yee-haw. Let's Go Raptors!!! With apologies to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trailblazers, We the North, baby!

So… aside from shooting rims with Colin in Japan (i don’t shoot hoops, I shoot rims), what the fug am I talking about basketball for here in this wonderful blog about Japan?

Well… 

The Toyota Engineering Society has created an android that shoots baskets better than professional basketball players…. though those basketball players specifically are from the Japanese B League team Alvark Tokyo.
Exterminate the competition! Exterminate! Exterminate! Image by Alvark Tokyo.
Not an A-league team, but a B league team… and while I have no doubt any of those fine folks can out-shoot me blindfolded and spun around and me open and unguarded, I wonder if having the android learning from a Japanese B league team is the best strategy?

The android is named CUE, he/it stands 1.9 meters (6 foot 3 inches) tall, and despite lacking having any lower limb mobility, is considered good enough to be the team’s unofficial mascot and shooting guard - even getting to wear Alvark Tokyo jersey No. 70… not sure why No. 70… 

Anyhow, CUE has AI (artificial intelligence), which means it actually can learn on its own… in this case it observes the actions of real basketball players on Alvark Tokyo and refines its own shot-making capabilities.

Oh... I get it... it takes its cue from you... if that's what it means, that's pretty witty. 
Image by Alvark Tokyo
Apparently, after some 200,000+ shot attempts from close-range, CUE is now shooting pretty damn close to perfect.
Image by Alvark Tokyo.
I suppose his is all a Revenge of the Nerds kind of thing, where the nerds the Toyota Engineering Society build a better athlete than what their arch-enemies the jocks could ever possibly be. 

Would you be surprised if I told you that the 17 engineers at the Toyota Engineering Society had no robotics experience before they designed and built CUE?

Sure, but, d’uuuuuuuuuuuh, dem nerds is good at things d’uuuuuuuuuh.

Would it surprise you to learn that the Toyota Engineering Society engineers were initially inspired to create this robot because of Sakuragi Hanamichi, the protagonist of the manga (comic book) Slam Dunk. Ahhh, now that’s nerdy.

If you would like to see a video posted on the Asahi Shimbun (newspaper) website, showing CUE taking his cue from some basketball players on the Japanese team, well… Whoomp THERE it is. 

Apparently AI is far better than I, as I have watched basketball attempting to learn to play the game… and it simply does not compute for me.

Some where in a space Jam,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Today's title is a mashup of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (a 1968 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick) and Hoop Dreams (a 1994 documentary that follows the real life of two Black high school students in Chicago and their dream of becoming professional basketball players). The book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was adapted into the 1982 movie Blade Runner

PPS: And because I mentioned it, here’s the music video from hip hop specialists Tag Team and their 1993 smash hit Whoomp! (There It Is), a main stay to this day a basketball arenas everywhere.
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