Nico Harrison on the Mavs’ general manager job, life at Nike, Kobe Bryant, Luka Doncic and more — The Undefeated

Who is Nico Harrison?

NBA fans and media unfamiliar with the longtime Nike basketball executive immediately questioned the move when he was named the Dallas Mavericks’ general manager.

But for those familiar with the ex-Montana State basketball star who once was one of Kobe Bryant’s closest confidants, they knew that the Mavs somehow landed one of the world’s most respected basketball minds who had the needed experience after nearly two decades with Nike.

“I’m working with guys who I signed to their shoe contract,” Harrison, 49, told The Undefeated last week. “Some of the guys I’ve known since high school, or I know their family. So, I think whether it’s [NBA general managers like] the Mitch Kupchaks or the Rob Pelinkas of the world, or the people who are in the business of basketball and have been in it for the last 15, 20 years, I know all of them. I’ve worked with them.

“All the big agents, I’ve negotiated contracts with them. So, now, it’s the same people, we’re just having different conversations. So, now, you’re talking about players, but it’s not sign them to Nike, it’s like, ‘Hey, do you want to sign them to the Mavs?’ ”

Harrison was hired on June 25, 2021, along with new head coach Jason Kidd in hopes of getting Mavericks star Luka Doncic and the franchise back to a championship level. Through nearly 19 years at Nike, Harrison learned every facet of the shoe business, from negotiating contracts for players to recruiting to learning how a shoe is made to marketing, and much more. Moreover, the Portland, Oregon, native also worked with Bryant, Doncic, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and other basketball icons.

Several NBA teams also tried and failed to pry Harrison away from Nike in recent years before the Mavs prevailed. His Mavericks host the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night in a game televised by ESPN.

The following is a Q&A with Harrison in which he details his road from Montana State to a very high-ranking Nike executive who made a stunning move to Dallas.

After an unhappy season on and off the court at Army, you transferred to Montana State, where you averaged 12.1 points from 1993 to 1996. You played a big part in the Bobcats advancing to the 1996 NCAA tournament and was named to the school’s Hall of Fame in 2015. You were a three-time All-Big Sky Conference selection, once held the school record for field goal percentage and steals, and was an academic All-America as a senior who earned an NCAA postgraduate scholarship. But what was it like playing and living in Bozeman, Montana?

Big fish in a small town. Everybody knew who you were. They all came out to the games, supported the team. It was good. Culture shock, but if you were good in school and good in sports, they treated you special. I was All-Big Sky Conference the three years I played there. I was good. I probably could have been great, but I was pre-med too.

I graduated with a 3.8 grade-point average. So balancing the two, I could have been probably better as a student or I could have been better as a basketball player. But I don’t think I could have been better than I was at both.

You got a degree in biological medical science. What kind of doctor did you dream of being before going to Nike?

I wanted to be a doctor working with NBA teams or NFL teams. It was just my way of staying connected to sports. But I always wanted to be a doctor and I always liked sports. I always loved science when I was young. My dad might have said, ‘You can be a team doctor.’ So I was like, ‘All right,’ not really knowing. …

I graduate and then I’m like, ‘Well, if I don’t get a contract to play overseas, then I need to go to medical school.’ I got an NCAA postgraduate scholarship. So I was going to go to medical school at Howard or Morehouse, and then I got a contract to play overseas, so of course I’m going to take that.

How would you best describe playing overseas and why did you retire?

I played for six years. Belgium, Japan, France, Lebanon. It made me appreciate America. It was never the big stuff. It was the little stuff. You appreciate your milk. You appreciate your cereal. We appreciated just all the little stuff.

When I went to Lebanon, my body was like, my knees were very sore. I could still play at a high level, but practice and games were a lot. Then people competing against me, they’re not thinking about life after basketball — and that’s all I ever thought about. So I was scared that I would be too far away from my degree. I was thinking about becoming a physician assistant.

So what steered you away from being a doctor?

I got the job at Nike. So, I come back and I’m just applying for jobs because it’s going to take a year to apply to grad school. I get a job doing pharmaceutical sales with Johnson & Johnson. And it was the best first job because you have to go out there for a month and they teach you how to do marketing. I never had any marketing or sales jobs in college. It was good because you work out of your house, so it’s the most freedom. You don’t have to go to an office every day and it’s really just being myself, going out and talking to people.

But it trained me really on how to work, and you have to wear a suit every day. I was making like $70,000. I’m starting to study for the GRE so that I can apply to grad school. Then this job came open at Nike as an NBA field rep. I never thought about Nike. One of my friends said, ‘Hey, you should apply to this job. You would be perfect for it.’ And so I did and I got the job as a Nike basketball field representative and started in Dallas.

You spent 19 seasons working on pro basketball for Nike, culminating with vice president of basketball operations. How did working at Nike prepare you to become the GM of the Mavs?

I felt like I was at home at Nike. I was in my element. I learned the business, which wasn’t my background. My ability to connect the dots and then build relationships, and then basketball, combining business and basketball, that’s what I was born to do. My job is very undefined. It’s like, ‘Hey, go out here and build relationships with these teams and players and take care of their needs off the court, and basically play a support role,’ which is fine.

But it all comes down to building relationships. And then, they have Nike contracts, so they need anything, they call you, you send them shoes, whatever. And the goal is, you service them and meet their needs and try to predict what they need before they need it.

I was initially a field rep. I had players on 12 teams. And I literally would fly in, I would work with the equipment manager, make sure that they all had their game shoes, and then I would work with them to make sure they had the stuff they needed for off the court, like sweats and stuff like that, Air Force 1s back then. That’s what I did. And then basically, I was just representing Nike. I was their conduit to Nike. I wasn’t signing contracts, I was just the conduit to everything Nike. So I was their face. They didn’t know Nike, they knew me. And that was my goal, to make sure that everybody knew me.

Who were the initial group of NBA players you worked with?

Amar’e Stoudemire, Caron Butler, Jermaine O’Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Bruce Bowen. Bruce Bowen was the first player that on a road trip invited me to his house to eat after the game.

What are your fondest memories of working with Dirk Nowitzki? (Nowitzki’s number will be retired after Wednesday’s game.)

Coach George Raveling, Susan Mulders and I came to Dirk’s last regular-season game a few years ago. He meant so much to us at Nike. He really transcended the game and was our sharp point for growing basketball outside of the U.S. He meant even more to the Mavericks. You can literally talk about eras of the last 20 years of hoops depending on who his teammates were. Fin, Nashy, The Jet [Jason Terry] and J-Kidd, J.J. Barea and Luka. The one constant through all that is Dirk and his greatness. I don’t know if we will see another great play his whole career in one city.

What was the key to bonding with these NBA stars?

It wasn’t challenging. I’m not forceful, I’m respectful. And if it happened, great, if it didn’t happen, then I would have to figure out another angle. And my goal was never to be everybody’s best friend. I just wanted them to know that I’m here, I’m available, if you need anything, call me and I’ll get on top of it ASAP. And I’m going to deliver.

If I say I can get it to you by Friday, I’m going to get it to you Thursday, just so you know it. So, it wasn’t hard. And then I was everywhere. I was on the road constantly. So, you would get tired of seeing me, because I was going to be there all the time.

How did you learn the business side of Nike basketball when you didn’t have a business background?

I read through every single contract with every player to understand how we put contracts together. I sat in on all the marketing meetings to understand who and why they market players. I sat in all the footwear meetings to understand how they make … I went to shoe school to understand how they make shoes, what they do to put in the shoes. It’s a class Nike used to offer for incoming shoe designers to teach you the parts of the shoe, what goes into making the shoe, how long the process is, all that. I went to shoe school with [sports marketing businessman and media personality] Maverick [Carter].

I wanted to learn everything. I used to get kicked out of meetings because they’d be like, ‘You’re not supposed to be in here.’ [Then-Nike basketball executive] Lynn [Merritt] was my boss and mentor. He’s like, ‘Just go.’ And even one time I’m looking through contracts and this one guy says, ‘Hey, you’re not allowed to do that.’ I was like, ‘Well, you’re not my boss. And if you don’t think I’m allowed, you can ask my boss.’

I’m trying to learn everything. By the time I was done at Nike, I knew the business of basketball. I knew apparel. How stuff was put together. Footwear. I knew the process. I knew everything that went into it. So, all the different groups, I knew what they did. And then I knew basketball and had a relationship with the players. I could not only do anybody’s job, but I knew their job. So then it just made me better at my job, because I knew what they were doing. So, you couldn’t come in and bulls— with me.

From left to right: Rich Paul, Kobe Bryant, Rob Pelinka and Nico Harrison talk during a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets on Oct. 25, 2018, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

What was the key to building a working relationship with Kobe?

It was challenging because he’s demanding. But that’s how it should be. He made me better, because I knew I couldn’t just tell him X, Y, and Z and he was going to accept it. He would want to know why or how. And honestly, people were like, ‘Well, how did you and Kobe become friends?’ Well, because I was great at my job, and he knew it. I was the best at my job and he knew that. Had I not been, we never would have been cool, because he would have had no time for me.

I would say challenging more than intimidating. Because I was friends with people who played with him, from the [Ron] Harpers to the [Brian] Shaws. So, no, it wasn’t intimidating. I was never intimidated. But it was more challenging.

You and Kobe not only became great Nike business partners who traveled the world together. What were your most memorable moments?

There’s too many memorable moments to name, honestly. We went to two World Cups together. We’ve literally been on safaris in Africa. You name it, we’ve done it. But probably the impact that he had on people is one of the things that I will always remember. He could connect with little kids. He gets down to their level. My daughters, they used to think he was their friend. And he made them feel that way.

His ability to reach people of all ages and make them feel a certain way, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s impressive. It’s a job. And it’s energy. And I’ve seen him in the worst mood in the world and he can still make the person that he’s talking to for that brief moment, whether it’s 10 seconds or a minute, that they’re the only person that matters, and they’re the only person in the world for that moment, and it makes them feel special. And I’ve seen him do it like countless times.

It has almost been two years since Kobe tragically passed away. How do you reflect on his amazing life now that touched so many?

When it first happened, I couldn’t even remember any memories of us. Literally. My mind just went blank for about a week. And then, it’s all come back since. But so many amazing memories of the years and traveling all over the world. That’s the one thing that we always have. Being around, if not the greatest, one of the greatest of all time, definitely one of the most influential, being around them at the height of their career, to have the front-row seat at that, that’s pretty special. If he was still here, he’d be winning Emmys, be a CEO, be a successful businessman. Pretty much whatever he puts his mind to, he’s going to be successful.

Was it hard to leave Nike?

I had a great job at Nike. I was being groomed to be in the No. 1 job in sports marketing. So I’ve never been a grass is greener on the other side person. My father worked at an aluminum factory in Spokane, Washington, for 35 years. That’s just what I come from. I’m never looking around to see what’s better. I make the best of where I’m at.

It was timing. My oldest daughter was going into eighth grade. So, I’m thinking about how do you get her through high school. So, timing mattered. I think the city mattered. Are you in a city where you think you can get guys to come and would want to play there? Having a guy like Luka on the team. Do you have a good enough player that you can win around? Yes. City? Yes. Owner, an owner that will spend the money? Check. A coach that you can partner with and believe in? Check. So, just go down the line, and you add that along with timing, it just made sense.

From left to right: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, general manager Nico Harrison, CEO Cynt Marshall and head coach Jason Kidd pose for a portrait during Kidd’s news conference on July 15, 2021, at American Airlines Center in Dallas.

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Did you have a good relationship with Doncic prior to coming to Dallas?

I signed him to his Nike deal and his Jordan deal. So, I knew him, his family, his agent. There was familiarity.

What kind of relationship do you have with Kidd?

We’re friends. We can challenge each other. He has a different job than I have. He’s the coach and I’m trying to make his job easier. My job is how can I enable his job to be easier? Get him better players, get him players that fit what he likes and what he needs. And also trying to help our roster long term.

When you look at this team, what are your ultimate hopes and dreams with Luka and the Mavericks?

Well, when you got a guy like Luka, he’s going to win championships. So, hopefully, he wins them in Dallas and I’m a part of it.

How much pride do you have in being a Black NBA GM?

I’m super proud of being a Black general manager. That’s a badge of honor. I think there needs to be more of us, and that’s not just in basketball, but in football, in baseball, in corporate America, we need more Black leadership. Diversity, equity and inclusion is real, and I stand by it and support it. It was what I did at Nike. It’s what I’ll do here.

What do you think people could learn from your story?

Hopefully, there’s somebody I can inspire. But honestly, I just think whatever the job is, or whatever you’re doing at the time, whether it’s school, whether it’s playing on a team, be the best version of yourself at all times. And by doing that, great things can happen.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.

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