Yao Ming enjoyed huge success in the NBA while playing with the Hosuton Rockets
Compared to American-born New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin, who has Chinese-Taiwanese roots
Lin's fan base on Sina Weibo, China's top micro-blogging site, has already hit the two million mark
The two players bonded after meeting at an event for Yao's charity two years ago
When Yao Ming retired from professional basketball seven months ago, there were fears that interest in the NBA among China’s 1.3 billion people would dwindle.
But now the former Houston Rockets center – one of the most successful overseas players in the league’s history – could be forgiven for feeling like yesterday’s star in China thanks to Jeremy Lin, the American-born New York Knicks point guard with roots in mainland China and Taiwan.
“We have a lot of talented young athletes here who are passionate about basketball,” Yao told CNN in an interview Wednesday. “They all want be the next Jeremy.
“I think they can relate more to Jeremy because they’re more common-sized.”
For Yao, 31, who stands at seven feet six inches (2.29 meters) tall and remains a towering presence off court, Lin’s natural talent more than makes up for his below average six-foot-three-inch (1.91 meters) frame in the league.
“The easy part is to find a strong basketball player – I have the size; Shaquille O’Neal: big and strong; Kobe, LeBron, all those names,” he said. “Jeremy has basketball IQ – you can’t program that.
“He’s the kind of player I’d like to play with if I’m still a player – he’s a team player and everybody likes the way he wins a game,” he added. “Honestly, he did much more than I’d expected.”
Lin, 23, only recently a little known back-up player sitting on the Knicks bench, has been leading his team to a wave of recent victories without their established stars – pulling off an average of 20 points and eight assists in six successive games.
Halfway across the globe, Lin’s fan base on Sina Weibo, China’s top micro-blogging site, has already hit the two million mark, four times the number of his followers on Twitter.
Inside the Yuanshen stadium Wednesday night, in between cheering Yao-owned Shanghai Sharks at a tight playoff game, local basketball enthusiasts gave a huge thumbs up to a player far from their court.
“Jeremy Lin is great,” one man gushed. “He plays so good – lots of Chinese love him.”
Another added: “He was born in America, but his blood is Chinese.”
Echoing this fan, Chinese media – to the chagrin of its Taiwanese counterpart – has been quick to claim Lin, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan but have family roots in mainland China.
The two sides split after a Chinese civil war in the 1940s, but the Beijing government regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland.
Ever the sports diplomat, Yao has a simple answer to solve the contentious issue of Lin’s identity: “He’s a great basketball player.”
Politics aside, comparisons between the two seem inevitable.
Shanghai native Yao grew up in China’s state-sponsored sports system and, amid much fanfare, was signed by the Rockets in 2002 as the NBA’s top overall pick. Paid $93 million by the league during his nine-year career, Yao scored an average of 19 points per game and was voted an All-Star player eight times.
Lin, born and bred in California, was overlooked by most NBA teams before the Knicks picked him. Even with his new-found stardom, the Harvard graduate earns much less than many of his teammates.
Despite their different paths to professional basketball, the two bonded through similar cultural experiences after meeting at an event for Yao’s charity two years ago.
“He gives a lot of hope to kids with the same background like his: Asian-Americans, second generation or maybe third,” Yao said of Lin’s recent achievements.
“They can follow his footprints and have more confidence in playing basketball.”
While both have been called trailblazers, some argue it would be difficult for anyone to fill the void left by Yao, whose popularity helped the NBA franchise make huge inroads in the world’s most populous nation.
“I don’t think anybody in the NBA, from the Chinese perspective, will ever become a bigger star than Yao,” NBA commissioner David Stern told China Daily, the country’s official English-language newspaper, early this month.
“Yao was the first, the biggest and the most successful – and he will always have a special place in the heart of NBA and Chinese fans.”
“(Lin’s success) was wonderful for our league… but I don’t want to overburden him with expectations,” he added.
“We have to see how he does in the next 300 games before we make any judgments.”
Yao, however, appears to have made up his mind about Lin. The two talk on the phone or exchange messages after the younger player’s games.
“I know people talk about me giving him tips – it’s really not that,” Yao said with a laugh. “I just congratulated him and said I’m happy for him.”
“I told him we’ll support him and I’m a big fan of his.”