BEIJING – The excitement surrounding New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin is providing a fresh impetus to the NBA's lucrative China business in the wake of Yao Ming's retirement.
The Harvard graduate's stunning rise this month is spurring further growth in viewership and merchandise sales that soared during the years Yao played with the Houston Rockets, NBA China CEO David Shoemaker said in an interview Friday.
The league's Beijing office is working hard to nurture the frenzy surrounding Lin, whose parents were born in Taiwan. That includes ensuring Knicks games are as accessible as possible, providing online content, and using social media to stir the discussion, Shoemaker said.
Yao was quoted Friday as praising Lin's performance and dismissing any notion of him having been a mentor or inspiration.
Noting the differences between them — Yao was born in Shanghai and raised to play basketball, while Lin hails from Northern California and attended Harvard — Yao said the two were friends and sometimes exchanged text messages.
"The environments in which we were raised were very different, but I'm really happy that a guard like him could appear out of nowhere and have such a huge impact on the NBA," Yao was quoted as saying by the official China News Service.
Yao, who is owner of the Chinese Basketball Association's Shanghai Sharks, also noted that Lin, at 6-foot-3, is much closer to average height than any of the four Chinese players who have gone to the NBA, all of them 7 feet or taller.
Lin and Yao never played against each other, although Lin took part in a charity game in Taiwan last year organized by Yao. Lin also has visited China as part of the NBA's outreach program and to visit his grandmother's hometown in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
"What we've seen, the huge enthusiasm and the frenzy around Jeremy is just serving to act as a further catalyst to grow the sport of basketball and to grow the NBA in China in a very short period," Shoemaker said.
The league plans to bring Lin to China this summer, as soon as his schedule permits, Shoemaker said.
China's enthusiasm for basketball and the NBA has held strong despite Yao's retirement and China remains the league's biggest market outside North America, according to NBA China, which doesn't provide revenue figures.
Even the country's vice president and designated future leader, Xi Jinping, recently said he enjoys watching NBA games in his spare time.
Twenty-five years after the league partnered with state broadcaster CCTV, the audience for NBA games on television and online has risen 39 percent this year over the last season, the NBA says. The league also claims 41 million followers on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging service, including many who pay for its premium service, along with 25,000 points of sale in shops and online.
Despite that, the league is struggling to get jerseys into stores to satisfy demand for all things Lin, whose followers on Weibo have soared this week from 150,000 to 1.4 million by Friday.
Lin, who was ignored by every Division I college team except Harvard and was cut by two teams before joining the Knicks, wasn't on many fans' radar before this month, but Shoemaker said the NBA in China had been keeping an eye on him for a while. Still, the "Linsanity" phenomenon has been as breathtaking to him as to anyone.
"We're caught up witnessing what we see globally as a passion for sport, really a love of the underdog story and the global appeal for the NBA and that's all come through in spades in a short period of time, in about 10 days," he said.
Lin's exploits also have riveted Taiwan, with reporters staking out the apartment where his grandmother and an uncle live.
Lin's success in both sports and academics again raises questions about China's state-run system of sports academies that has produced scores of Olympic gold medal winners by relentlessly training athletes from an early age, while offering them little chance of a normal childhood or proper education, said Jin Can, an expert at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences Sports Culture Research Institute.
"Lin's case tells us that the regular education system can produce an excellent athlete, and a first-rate player can come out from a world-class university. I think our sport authorities should pay more attention on this question," Jin said.