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Last February, when Jeremy Lin emerged as a unique and unlikely NBA star, he exuded a striking mix of confidence and composure.
But it was not as if he did so without support, and Lin said he got much of that from Yao Ming, the NBA's first Asian superstar. Lin, as he struggled in his first season and a half to stay in the league, became close to Yao, playing in charity events with him and exchanging text messages. As Lin tried to both enjoy and endure his sudden celebrity last season, he talked with Yao nightly.
“He’s a role model and a mentor to me,” Lin said at the time.
So it was no surprise that as Lin figured out his future, seeking millions on the free-agent market while trying to remain loyal to the Knicks, he consulted with Yao.
This time, Yao said, he was of only limited help.“Only he knew what he needed most,” Yao said in a telephone interview from China. “He had to make the decision on his own. I didn’t want to affect him too much.”
Lin’s decision to sign an offer sheet from the Houston Rockets, Yao’s former team, and the Knicks’ decision to let Lin go, set off a fierce debate in New York.
Yao, for his part, thought the outcome was ideal.“I’m so glad the Knicks didn’t match the contract,” Yao said. “Houston is a good place for Jeremy to come to. It’s a good fit because both sides can provide the best opportunity for each other.”
Yao recalled that the environment in a smaller market helped make him a better player. In eight seasons, all with the Rockets, the 7-foot-6 Yao averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks as a center.
“In Houston, we have a very good community and great fans,” Yao said. “With less media coverage, I think it made me focus more on basketball. I think that’s one reason I played so well.”
The Rockets hope that Lin, who is of both Chinese and Taiwanese descent, can continue the franchise’s popularity in China, for which Yao was responsible.
“The people in China are very familiar with Houston,” said Yao, who, since retiring from the N.B.A. because of chronic injuries, has become the owner of the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association.“The Rockets have been a symbol here for the last 10 years, and now that can be continued. It’s great for people here. I can’t imagine them being any more excited than this.”
Last week, N.B.A. China announced a partnership with Yao to help raise basketball participation among youths in China while also holding an annual camp intended to develop elite Chinese players. Yao said passion for basketball in China has never been stronger.
“Yao absolutely triggered the interest in basketball, and a lot of the credit should go to him,” said David Shoemaker, the chief executive of N.B.A. China. “The interest in basketball has matured to where it goes
beyond any player or one team.”
Ratings for N.B.A. games last season on CCTV5, the Chinese sports channel, were up 21 percent from the previous year, and page and video views on the league’s Chinese-language site reached new highs. Shoemaker said Lin certainly didn’t hurt.
“What Jeremy has done has further captivated the hearts and minds of people here,” Shoemaker said. “We’re beginning to see the fruit of that. His success will continue our success.”