My NBA Mount Rushmore: Polo Bustamante

Published December 27, 2023, 10:00 AMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

Who are the top four players who made you fall in love with the game? NBA.com Philippines writer Polo Bustamante shares his list.

When talking about love, usually it doesn’t make sense. Why do you love something or someone? The answer isn’t a straightforward one. That’s why when asked who the players or teams that made me fall in love with the game, the list won’t involve the usual suspects. 

LeBron, MJ, and Kobe are all great. And they’re great additions to any Mt. Rushmore of NBA Player lists. But indulge me as I shine a light on some players that might not be your GOAT, but they’re mine. Here’s my list of players that made me fall in love with the game.

Damon Stoudamire

I was a local basketball fan first and foremost. As a short kid, I gravitated towards point guards, players who, despite their size, could do amazing things in a big man’s game. My first-ever basketball idol was Johnny Abarrientos. He was fearless, skilled, and most importantly, not far from my height.

When I started getting into the NBA back in 1995, I tried to find the player closest to the Abarrientos to idolize. That same year, a 5’10” point guard was drafted by a new NBA expansion team to be their leader. Damon Stoudamire was my first NBA idol.

Just like the Flying A, Stoudamire was a whiz on the court. The nickname Mighty Mouse fit him perfectly. He could get anywhere he wanted on the floor, he was a tough finisher and had a quick J. 

Stoudamire was a great leader who also put his young teammates in positions to succeed. Of course that didn’t matter to me as much back when I was 11 years old. All that mattered was he looked super cool attacking the hoop in a purple jersey with a hoop-playing Raptor.

Penny Hardaway

If Stoudamire was my gateway drug, Penny Hardaway was the cause of my full-blown NBA addiction.

Back in the 90s, Hardaway was unlike any other player I’ve ever watched before. I’ve never had the opportunity to watch Magic Johnson in his prime, so watching a 6’7” player dribble, shoot, and pass like a 6’2” point guard was totally mind-blowing to me.

Hardway was the smoothest player I’ve ever watched. He was like silk on the court. There were no wasted movements, no jaggedness to his game. His dribble flowed into a jumper seamlessly. When he jumped, he could hang in the air and either lay it in or wait a split second more to dish out a beautiful dime.

I fell hard in love with the game because of Penny. I was so invested in the NBA that I would fight for the sports section of the newspaper just to see the game results of the 1996 Orlando Magic. I could blurt out his stats off the top of my head because I would pore over all the details of his basketball cards. I might never forgive Nick Anderson for robbing Hardaway of at least a win in the NBA Finals.

Penny is my GOAT. He’s at the very top of my Mt. Rushmore.

Mike Bibby

Playing basketball is very different from watching basketball. Playing hoops humbles you. When you watch basketball, you imagine yourself playing like Penny. Then you play. And then you realize you’re not a graceful 6’7” baller. 

When I started seriously playing hoops back in the late 90s, I had to find a new role model. I accepted I was never going to play like Penny Hardaway. I started to follow the Sacramento Kings and at that time they had a no-nonsense point guard on the team. 

Unlike his predecessor, Mike Bibby was all about substance. He might have been the least flashy player on that highly entertaining Kings squad, but his impact was immense. He didn’t have the creativity that Penny or Jason Williams had. But he used his limited arsenal to the fullest. He understood his limitations and worked within them.

Bibby wasn’t a creative passer like Chris Webber or Vlade Divac. So he used angles and timing to get the ball to where it had to be. He wasn’t a killer 3-point shooter like Peja Stojakovic. So he was content taking a step in to pepper opponents with midrange jumpers.

For a short, unathletic player like me, he was the perfect player to pattern my game after. Bibby served as a reminder to focus on what I could do on the court to help my team win.

Kobe Bryant

There comes a point in time when you idolize basketball players not just for what they can do on the court, but for who they are beyond the court. That’s how I became a Kobe fan. I appreciated him for what he believed in.

Coming from cheering the Kings in the early 2000s, Kobe was the enemy. He projected himself as a cocky, selfish player who only cared about himself. That was only magnified when Shaquille O’Neal left him and he had to carry the LA Lakers all by himself. As a fan of Bibby and the Kings (and after Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns), there was no escaping Kobe. He was always there, ready to drop 50 or deliver a dagger to my team.

But, hate-watching Kobe also opened me up to learning more about him. I read more about his maniacal training sessions. I watched other NBA players – both teammates and opponents of Kobe – profess their love for one of the most obsessive players in the league. 

I slowly began to appreciate his confidence, which I realized was borne out of hours of work and not out of empty swagger. Kobe has shown time and time again that talent can only take you so far. Greatness can only be reached by excruciating, repetitive work. Kobe’s love for the game is manifested not in what he’s done on the court, but in the hours of meticulous work he’s done off it.

It sounds cliche, but Kobe has inspired me to be better. Not a better player. But a better person through consistent improvement.