Such qualities make Lin a successful point guard; they're also a perennial sore spot for China, which has never won a men's Olympic basketball medal despite its tireless efforts to rack up the gold. Taiwan has a team, but it has never qualified for the Olympics.
If Lin's exceptional play continues, some believe, his unexceptional height, his Ivy League education and his passion for the game could make him more of a role model than Yao.
"The big phrase from Michael Jordan was 'Be like Mike,'" said Larmer. "Very few Chinese people feel like they can be like Yao Ming."
Apart from Yao, only four other Chinese nationals have played in the NBA. The only current one is 7-foot forward Yi Jianlian of the Dallas Mavericks; the shortest among them, Sun Yue, is 6 feet 9. Sun's NBA career consisted of 10 games for the Lakers in the 2008-09 season; he scored a total of 6 points and committed 10 personal fouls.
Chinese basketball fans seem to be responding to Lin's rise with a combination of ethnic pride and honest contemplation. One Internet user evoked Chinese Olympic speedskater Zhou Yang. After winning a gold medal in 2010, Zhou ignited a national controversy by thanking her parents first and her country second.
"I want to ask a question," wrote the user, who expressed hope that Lin would someday join the Chinese Olympic basketball team despite such obstacles as his American citizenship and Taiwanese heritage. "If we win the championship and the first sentence he says afterward is, 'Thank God for helping me make that shot,' what would the consequences be?"
The surge in pride hints at a generation of Chinese who are attracted to something beyond what their own society can offer them. "Lin's story is somewhat like a Hollywood story," said sportswriter Xu. "He realized the American dream."
Large billboards advertise Kobe Bryant's line of Nike sneakers at a public basketball court in central Beijing. But these days, Lin is the talk of the town.
"Lin is an inspiration," said Zou Jiachen, 20, a college freshman in Beijing, as he stood watching a game. Zou said that he had given more thought to Lin's work ethic than his ethnicity. "I saw on a TV documentary that he works from morning to night," he said.
Zou said that although he wouldn't mind becoming a basketball superstar himself, Lin has motivated him to work toward another goal. Now, he said, he wants to attend graduate school in the United States.
Kaiman is a special correspondent.
Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.