It was 10 years ago that the Rockets, with , pioneered the N.B.A.’s aggressive push into China, attracting millions of TV viewers there and generating millions of dollars in merchandise sales. Now Lin, who is of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, will introduce the Rockets to the international fan base he cultivated in his breakout season with the .
At his first news conference since signing a $25.1 million contract with the Rockets, Lin said Thursday that he and Yao had been “texting back and forth,” mostly congratulatory messages, but “when things settle down I’ll be talking with him with regards to the city of Houston.”
Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a sports consultancy based in Chicago, said the Rockets’ acquisition of Lin was savvy if the team wanted to continue its popularity in China. Yao played his entire N.B.A. career with the Rockets before retiring last year. When Ming was on the roster, Rockets games had a Chinese audience as large as 30 million, according to CCTV5, the Chinese sports channel. And the N.B.A. said it subsequently had amassed more than 41 million combined followers on Sina and Tencent (the Chinese versions of Twitter). An estimated 300 million children and adults play basketball in China.
Houston’s population is 6 percent Asian, with some suburbs having concentrations as high as 18 percent. (New York City is 12 percent Asian).
“I am really excited about Lin coming here,” said Bing You, a doctor of integrative medicine who immigrated to Houston from China’s Sichuan Province in 2000. “Lin is smaller than Yao but very talented. He went to Harvard. He plays with his brain.”
Dr. You said he and many in his community were planning to attend Rockets games, and their relatives in China are already requesting tickets to games when they visit.
Lin tried to reassure Rockets fans Thursday that he was excited to be a part of the team after it was widely reported that he would have preferred to stay in New York.
“Coming into free agency, I didn’t expect to be anywhere besides New York,” he said. Nevertheless, he added, “I wouldn’t have signed an offer sheet with Houston if I wasn’t excited about the possibility of playing here as well.”
The Rockets’ owner, Les Alexander, sitting next to Lin, explained that his team was making a correction, having cut Lin just seven months ago, setting him on a path to unlikely stardom in the country’s biggest market.
“It’s always difficult when you make an error,” Alexander said. “We made an error when we let him go. I think we rectified it now.”
Lin was not drafted when he graduated from Harvard in 2010 with a degree in economics. He was then signed and quickly waived by both the Golden State Warriors and the Rockets before signing with the Knicks last December.
He played only three months with the team before a knee injury sidelined him for the season. But his short time on the court was extraordinary. In his 12 starts before the All-Star break, Lin averaged 22.5 points and 8.7 assists. In February he scored a career-high 38 points in the Knicks’ 92-85 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
New York was suddenly in the throes of Linsanity, dazzled by a 23-year-old point guard many had not heard of months before.
Reaction to his move to Houston among fans here has ranged from muted to skeptical.
“It seems like a lot of money for someone who’s unproven,” said Tristan Clement, 22, a recent graduate of Rice University who was with friends at a bar located near the campus. “Dwight Howard would have been a better investment,” referring to the Orlando Magic center.
Ganis, the sports consultant, said, “Lin exceed expectations by thousands of miles,” but noted that his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame must prove sturdy enough for the rigors of a full N.B.A. season.
“He’s kind of frail by N.B.A. standards,” he said.
Lin admitted Thursday that “I have a lot to prove” and said he would focus on building strength in his legs to withstand a full season. “My knee is feeling better,” he said. “I am almost to the point that I have all the speed and explosiveness as before.”