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Fran Blinebury

As a rookie in 2002, Yao Ming became a phenomenon in the U.S. and China -- much like Jeremy Lin is today.
Bill Baptist WNBAE/Getty Images

Yao among many Chinese fans rooting on Lin's success story

Posted Feb 16 2012 7:05AM

He knows the thrill of excitement to walk out onto the court every night with the eyes of the basketball world upon you and he knows the burden of increasing expectations.

He understands what it's like to find yourself standing at the intersection of athlete and celebrity, brain swirling, headlines screaming and each shot, pass or rebound placed on a slide and examined beneath the media microscope on opposite sides of the Pacific.

At this point Jeremy Lin may have bigger fans somewhere on the planet, but surely none taller than 7-foot-6 Yao Ming.

"If he keeps playing like this, he could be an All-Star, don't you think?" Yao said by phone from his home in Shanghai, China. "Right now, he is handling everything -- the game and the attention he is getting -- perfect."

The 31-year-old retired Houston Rockets center would know. Before "Linsanity" there was "Yaomania."

As the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft, Yao was the face of his homeland on both sides of a vast ocean and became an eight-time NBA All-Star due to his popularity.

"Fans here in China are very excited about Jeremy Lin," Yao said. "He is news all over the place. His story is always on the cover page of the newspaper now. He is not drafted. He signs a minimum contract. In his first year he barely gets minutes to play. Then he gets a chance and in one night he owns New York town.

"Since the NBA games are on in the morning because of the time difference in China, you wake up every day and you want to see what he did. What was the score? What were his points and assists? Every day the excitement grows. They win again today and now he is 7-0. Where does the story go next?"

Yao hopes the direction of Lin's story goes to furthering the development of basketball talent among Asians and Asian-Americans and getting more to reach the highest levels of the game.

"I know that Jeremy was born in California and we both had very different backgrounds growing up," Yao said. "But I feel that we are both Chinese and I am happy that a guard like him could come out of nowhere and make this big effect on the NBA. I hope it is the next step for us."

Yao chuckles at some of the stories that have circulated on the Internet saying that he has been a mentor to Lin.

"Please, don't let anyone think that Yao has given him any secrets about how to play," he said. "First, Jeremy doesn't need my help. He is very talented himself. And I am a big man and could not teach him how to be a guard.

"I know Jeremy. We have exchanged text messages, just normal stuff, not deep. I congratulated him this week. That is all."

The two players met in the summer of 2010 when Yao was hosting a pair of charity all-star games in Beijing and Taipei that also included Steve Nash, Baron Davis and Brandon Jennings, among others. After the first game in Beijing, Yao read that the Golden State Warriors had signed Lin to a contract.

"I had heard of him before," Yao said. "I knew he went to Harvard, a very good school, but not one of the strong basketball teams. I also knew that his family came from Taipei, so I thought it would be great if he could come and help us with the game there.

"There were only three days between games. But I contacted his agent and Jeremy was willing to come right away to join us in Taipei for the game. He made a quick decision to help.

"When he played I was impressed. I liked his game. We exchanged contact information and stayed in touch, but not constantly. That's the time I was concentrating on my last rehab for the NBA. He was not my main topic of conversation. And like I said, I don't want anyone to think I was giving him tips about how to play. He is different than me."

Lin is different than most of the Asian players who have been in the NBA. From the towering Yao to the 7-foot Wang Zhizhi to the 7-foot Yi Jianlian of the Mavs to the 6-foot-11 Mengke Bateer, it has been a steady line of big men.

"Lin is 6-3, more like a normal-sized person, and I believe that is what makes him even more popular in China," Yao said. "He is the size that the average person can relate to. They like watching him play against many taller, bigger players and succeed."

Yao, owner of the Shanghai Sharks (who clinched a playoff berth in the Chinese Basketball Association on Wednesday) says he believes there are young guards in his country that have the raw athletic talent to match Lin.

"But they are undeveloped," he said, "and you must remember that is not just a physical game. It is mental. Jeremy is smart. You can see the way he plays. He has high basketball IQ, but he also has more. He has an IQ about how to get along with people. He communicates.

"A player like Jeremy has to reach out and connect and I think we can see he has done that. Look at his teammates. I believe Steve Novak likes him. I believe Jared Jeffries likes him. And Landry Fields and all of the rest. He seems to be natural at making friendships and getting the team to play with him.

"Many great players, LeBron (James), Hakeem (Olajuwon), (Michael) Jordan, for that kind of player, the game is not hard for them, everybody and everything on the team is going to them. And they dominate with their body.

"What I see from Jeremy and what I hear in his interviews is he appreciates everything. He pursues his dream. His attitude is so peaceful, but there is strength to him. It is not a violent strength like fire or something aggressive. It is like the ocean, very peaceful, very quiet when you look at it. But you can never underestimate the power that is in there."

On the far side of the world, Yao is transitioning to a different phase of his life, attending Jiaotong University in his hometown of Shanghai to study history, economics and management. In November, he released the first-ever bottles of his new Yao Ming-branded wine, a 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which is currently available only in China. In January he became a politician, a member of an advisory body to the Shanghai legislature. And he is a hands-on type owner of the Sharks.

"My life is away from basketball as a player," Yao said. "But I don't think the game will ever go away from me. I can be a fan. I can watch Jeremy Lin now and be happy for him."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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