Jeremy Lin reopens bridge to Far East for NBA stars

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For everything the Miami Heat's suffocating defense did to stop Jeremy Lin, the Heat's stars ultimately understand the immense impact his phenomenon will have on them. For LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, for Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, Lin is a lifeline to the Far East, a bridge to restore and revitalize Asian interest to the NBA. Yao Ming retires, and, somehow, Jeremy Lin emerges out of the shadows.

When you hear criticism from NBA players of Lin’s rapid ascension into fame, don’t expect it to come from the biggest stars in the sport. Lin is a boon for them, and the shoe companies promise to be there to remind them. The global impact of Lin is unmistakable, and he represents the perfect re-entry into a Far East market that has become immensely important for the sport’s biggest stars.

Lin isn’t stealing the lights from the NBA’s iconic players, but making them even brighter.

“In this moment, there’s no doubt in my mind that Jeremy has become as big of a star as Kobe and LeBron are over there – and maybe bigger,” said Giovanni Funicello, an agent who has emerged as a prominent powerbroker between Asia and North America. “Put it this way: A lot of people were seriously fearful that the level of interest in China would drop dramatically because of Yao’s retirement. I think this is going to be help bridge the difference in interest.

“The NBA really needs the Far East to compete as a global icon brand.”

[ Related: Heat give Jeremy Lin and the Knicks a dose of reality ]

Funicello has been negotiating player contracts in the Far East since 1998, when Chinese teams were paying $8,000 to $10,000 per month. He’s played a part in pushing those salaries into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and was the agent responsible for cutting the deals that sent J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin to China during the lockout.

After three weeks of Lin hysteria with the New York Knicks, Funicello knows Lin is already in demand in China this summer for appearances, clinics and much, much more. Bryant, James and a host of NBA stars have also learned through the years that the more eyes on Yao and Lin, the more eyes on them.

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the immense popularity of NBA stars in China was further validated with the frenzy that surrounded them. Walk the streets of China’s cities, and you’ll see more NBA player jerseys – Tracy McGrady, Chris Paul and on and on – than you do on many American sidewalks. Yao is bigger than life in China – and elsewhere – but Lin’s talent, his story, is more accessible to people there and here. He’s the everyman, the underdog, and that crosses every cultural, every ethnic line.

[ Y! TV: Jimmy Fallon sings Pearl Jam's 'Jeremy [Lin]' ]

Rest assured, the Heat wanted to crush Lin on Thursday night, and that is absolutely what they should’ve done. That’s what makes them competitors, makes them great. Still, there’s so much money to be made in the Far East as shoe pitchmen and endorsers that Lin has a chance to be the ultimate vehicle for them. On the night Yao limped onto the floor against the United States at the Beijing Olympics, Bryant said Yao had built the bridge for all of them to the Far East. He did, and that’ll never change.

Yao is a statesman now, and yet suddenly, out of nowhere, someone stepped into the void: Jeremy Lin. The young Knicks guard is sharing the stage on All-Star weekend with the biggest figures in the sport, and it won’t be long until they all truly understand his value. Perhaps someday Lin will be an All-Star on merit, but make no mistake: For LeBron and Kobe, for Dwyane and Dwight, Lin isn’t stealing the spotlight. He’s making the biggest lights, out of the biggest continent in the world, even brighter.

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