Chinese basketball icon Yao Ming has been taken aback by Jeremy Lin’s rise at the New York Knicks and thinks his style and size could make China’s state sports system rethink how it selects and grooms its athletes.
Yao, who opened up the world’s most populous country to the NBA, retired from the game last year. In 2002, the 2.3m former Houston Rockets center was the first international player to be top pick in the NBA draft and was an eight-time All Star.
Taiwanese-American Lin has taken the NBA by storm with a series of dynamic displays at point guard for the Knicks. His fast-paced, high-scoring, playmaking performances could hardly be more different from the towering Yao’s plodding, robust style.
Shanghai native Yao said Lin, who stands 1.91m, could change the way China selects and trains its basketball players.
“This is something else that Jeremy Lin has brought to us. It has given us something to reflect on, whether there are imperfections over the development and selection process for our basketball players over the past 10 or 20 years,” he said in an interview.
The soft-spoken 23-year-old from Harvard went undrafted and was cut by Golden State and Houston before finding a place at the end of the Knicks bench in December.
Given his chance, Lin seized the NBA spotlight with both hands, and has inspired the Knicks with a string of stunning performances.
Yao said he had known Lin was a good player, but was stunned that he was able to reproduce the sensational form night after night.
“I am very surprised, but also very happy,” he said. “When he played well in his first game, I thought this was a great start and perhaps he would soon have more stable game time, but I never thought he would perform up to such levels as he had today.”
Lin has said he communicates often with Yao, who he regards as a role model. Yao said he did not have much advice to give because of their different backgrounds, but had always encouraged him.
“First, New York and Houston are different. Also, the cultures of the two basketball teams are different, the cities are different, the teammates he faces are different, so I don’t wish to tell him too much,” he said. “If I do so, perhaps I will give him too much pressure.”
Since retiring last year after a succession of foot and ankle injuries, Yao has embarked on a new journey in life.
In addition to taking on the role of a Chinese basketball team owner, Yao has become involved in animal conservation projects, launched his own wine label and has returned to his studies at university.
Despite the numerous projects, Yao feels like life has become more of a marathon than a sprint.
“Perhaps in the past, it felt like I was doing the 100m sprint, but now I feel I am more of a long distance runner,” he said. “For the 100m, you need to just spend a short time doing the sprint, and for the rest of the time you can choose to walk, jog or even lie on the ground and not move. For now, my working hours are getting stretched every day, but in terms of individual units, you don’t have to be moving as fast as sprinting.”
Yao was China’s flag-bearer at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and said he had promised to do some commentary work for the basketball competition at the London Games.
China reached the quarter-finals in 2008 and while they had to undergo a tricky transition period, the national basketball team is adjusting to life without the retired Yao.