Nico Harrison (left) with Kobe Bryant at the 2008 Summer Olympics (Photo by Robert Beck /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS

Nico Harrison: Who is the Nike Exec Who Just Became Mavs GM?

From regional rep to Kobe Bryant’s right-hand man, the prolific Nico Harrison is uniquely poised to make an impact with the Mavericks.

As word spread on Twitter Thursday that the Dallas Mavericks were on the verge of hiring longtime Nike executive Nico Harrison to a front office leadership role, interest inevitably arose regarding the sports marketing veteran’s rise to prominence at the Swoosh — and which traits and characteristics he honed there that most warranted Mark Cuban’s outside-the-box thinking in making the hire.

Rising to the top of a company as massive as Nike is no small feat, a journey Harrison began upon joining the company in 2002. It was in his most recent role as VP of North America Basketball that he oversaw the strategy, marketing, partnerships, and activations for the NBA’s biggest stars for both the Nike Basketball and Jordan Brand divisions.

Considering that brand duo’s collective 86% market share in performance basketball footwear and 96% market share of retro basketball footwear, as noted by market research firm The NPD Group, his most recent role was a massive responsibility. 

And in his new General Manager role with the Dallas Mavericks, Cuban is entrusting Harrison with bringing a new perspective to what has long been a traditionally staffed position occupied by salary cap gurus, talent evaluators, and former NBA players directly connected to franchises.

Harrison is looking to bridge a gap, bringing an expertise and understanding in each of those silos — in addition to boasting a web of existing relationships with players, agents, power brokers, and more across the basketball community. That’s a unique, valuable dynamic he’s poised to introduce to NBA front office culture.

So, who is Nico Harrison?

Basketball Pedigree

After growing up in the Portland area as a hoops standout and later attending West Point for his freshman year, Harrison landed at Montana State University – “sight unseen,” he said – where he helped lead the Bobcats basketball team throughout his three seasons in Bozeman from 1993-1996. A 6-foot-5 two-way slasher known even more for his defense, Harrison went on to be named to the All-Big Sky Conference First Team in all three of his seasons.

He was a key member of the 1996 MSU squad that made the NCAA Tournament, the last Bobcat team to do so. Harrison was also an Academic All-American who completed a degree in biology, and had hopes of becoming a doctor down the road. 

After graduating, pro basketball opportunities overseas delayed his plans to pursue medical school, but he would be far from forgotten in Bozeman — in 2015, he was inducted into the MSU Hall of Fame.

Over 25 years since he first stepped on campus, the school began giving out an annual award in his name to the top-achieving male student-athlete on campus excelling in both athletics and academics. 

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Roots as a Regional Rep

After a seven-year career playing professional hoops throughout Europe, Harrison landed what would become his defining entry-point role in sports business in the spring of 2002. A regional Nike rep covering the southwest market, he was assigned to manage the company’s partnerships with the San Antonio Spurs’ core trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili.

Nike, whose footwear is now typically worn in games by nearly 70% of the NBA, has sports marketing reps all throughout the country assigned to several key regions. As Harrison found out early on, that meant regularly attending games and checking in often with players to make sure they were comfortable with new footwear, updated on current marketing campaigns, and continually strengthening their relationship with the brand.

And in 2003, his second year on the job, Harrison struck up a relationship that would change the course of his career.

Nico Harrison (front row, gray shirt) attends a USA Women’s Beach Beach Volleyball match at the 2008 Summer Olympics with Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, LeBron James, and Chris Paul (Robert Beck /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

“Kobe’s Guy” 

Early in ’03, Duncan — that year’s eventual NBA MVP — left the Swoosh and signed with Adidas just before All-Star Weekend, while Nike signed Kobe Bryant to a five-year endorsement deal in June. The Mamba was coming off a contentious departure from Adidas that dragged on throughout the prior season. 

Just a year into his time at Nike, Nico was re-assigned to managing Bryant directly.

The brand planned to make Kobe a signature athlete down the road, requiring a detailed 18-month design and development process between its product teams and the superstar himself for each shoe — one that Harrison helped to schedule and oversee. One of his biggest priorities was not only to establish Kobe’s signature footwear business in the broader marketplace, but also to help the Lakers star rebuild his reputation.

Harrison was by Kobe’s side at essentially all times throughout the 2000s, ushering him around packed meeting days on Nike’s Beaverton campus, touring around Asia for annual promotional tours to extend Bryant’s reach globally, and even attending the 2008 Olympics as their friendship extended well beyond work.

That year’s “Redeem Team” in Beijing was led by two of the oldest and longest-tenured players on the USA Basketball roster in Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd – who by that time had also established a strong relationship with Harrison.

Fittingly, those two will now work even more closely together in Dallas as general manager and head coach.

Rising Up Through Nike Basketball 

While still responsible for managing Nike’s relationship with Kobe Bryant throughout the remainder of his Hall of Fame playing career, Harrison’s role and power expanded considerably in the 2010s. He soon found himself one of the highest-ranking voices atop Nike Basketball’s sports marketing division, which encompassed crafting the brand’s strategy and approach to signing NBA players, its relationship with key Nike-sponsored colleges, and maximizing the growing impact that its newly formed Elite Youth Basketball League circuit for summer AAU teams was having in the grassroots sector. 

Essentially, he was the GM in charge of building Nike Basketball’s roster.

Perhaps more than any other aspect of his two decades at Nike, it was the foundation he built in this distinct window of his Swoosh run that uniquely qualifies him for his new role as Mavericks GM. While his Nike work certainly placed more of an emphasis on overall marketability than pure on-court basketball fit when it came to player signings, Harrison’s role eventually shifted from player manager and marketing eye to influential authority on which players to target, recruit, and elevate.

With his personal experience playing the game at a high level, his immersive nature at all amateur levels of the sport, and his deep understanding of the NBA and its players, Harrison acquired an authoritative, multifaceted perspective on the game that any front office would consider attractive. In recent years, at least three teams have pursued Harrison for various front office positions.

The Infamous Curry Meeting

Yes, before this week, one of the first results when searching Nico’s name on Google is a resurfacing of the 2016 ESPN feature by Ethan Strauss detailing how Under Armour signed Stephen Curry away from Nike in 2013. As Curry explained on Boardroom’s “The Sneaker Game,” a series of circumstances, including Nike’s unwillingness to give him a signature shoe, led to his eventual departure. Under Armour was also offering stock options and a Curry-headlined summer basketball camp for the next generation of elite high school players. 

Meanwhile, Nike was enjoying success with its Kobe, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant signature lines, and had already pegged Kyrie Irving as the next player worthy of his own signature shoe.

Curry, who had been experiencing a series of serious ankle issues heading into his sneaker free agency period, went on to win his first MVP award and NBA title less than 18 months later. As his star continued to rise, he took Under Armour’s recently launched basketball category to new heights. 

Years later, the biggest takeaways from Strauss’ revealing story have long remained that a fateful meeting with Curry, led by Harrison in his then-role as Nike Basketball Sports Marketing Director, was botched. Someone from Nike (not Harrison, to be clear) reportedly mispronounced Curry’s first name as “Steph-ON” during the sit-down – and never made a correction. As a kicker, a seemingly repurposed slide on the presentation deck contained Kevin Durant’s name instead of Curry’s.

While the Warriors superstar left the company for a variety of reasons and the key meeting gaffes weren’t attributed directly to him, Harrison is often ultimately still linked to that meeting and the agonizing series of what-ifs that come along with it.

One of the Most Influential Execs in Hoops

Though his influence already extended throughout every level of basketball, Harrison also helped lead one of the biggest refreshes in the history of the company’s player roster. After going from regional player rep himself in the early 2000s to overseeing Nike’s entire web of more than 50 regional reps, he had risen to become one of the company’s highest-ranking sports marketing executives.

As he was promoted to additionally oversee the Jordan Brand’s roster of NBA athletes in 2018, that section of the business was experiencing a bit of a shift, as Hall of Fame signature shoe headliners like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul were entering the final chapters of their careers.

Harrison and the team had its eyes set on revamping its endorser list with a younger, more expressive, and more explosive batch of players that could carry Jordan Brand into a new era and cultivate a Gen Z audience. 

Over the next year, Jordan signed Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura, and Caris LeVert, a sudden overhaul unlike ever seen before in the industry.

Mavs fans should likely not expect a roster revamp that dramatic, but that bold flurry of moves does point to Harrison’s ability to identify, recruit and land elite players and build a strong roster of athletes.

Earlier this week, Nike Inc. reported that for the fiscal year ending on May 31, Jordan Brand’s revenues were up 31%, now topping $4.7 billion in annual earnings.

Harrison’s work has done numbers – and his preexisting business relationship with Doncic, who’s due to sign a Max extension with the Mavs this summer, doesn’t hurt, either. He played an instrumental role in Doncic’s shift from Nike Basketball to Jordan Brand during the fall of 2019.

A Basketball Lifer

While Nike operates as the largest global athletic brand, there’s still a surprisingly small orbit that makes up the hoops community’s key figures. Paramount for Harrison to continually rise up the corporate ranks, execute impactful partnerships, and create a collective win-win environment for the brand, player, agent and all involved, is an undeniable ability to build strong relationships. 

The flurry of tweets from media personalities who have interacted with Harrison and offered context about him to their audiences may have initially sounded like a coordinated talking point – literally everyone used some variation of the term “well respected” in their descriptions of him. But he is.

Universally.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the basketball and athletic industry community who doesn’t speak highly of Harrison, a measure of his integrity, work ethic, reliability and straightforward approach to negotiations and business.

As the Mavs’ new front office boss, those traits will prepare him for navigating communications with rival front offices, agents, and players around the league.

Another nuance of his character that should suit him well going forward? His comfort level for operating behind the scenes. Harrison would often decline interviews that would spotlight him and not the athletes the brand was looking to celebrate.

He was also highly respected internally at the Swoosh, as well as by agents and players alike, for his confidentiality, a quality that Mark Cuban is known to value in an era renowned for media leaks.

During his time with Nike, the strong relationships he developed with players around the league figure to be advantageous in recruiting talent for a Dallas franchise that has historically not fared well in free agency. His strong ties with Luka Doncic are the anchor, and he’ll now be tasked with providing an upgraded roster around the young superstar.

Having one of the league’s most exciting players in your stable is a great place to start. Now, with the franchise’s expectations and ambitions to contend likely to accelerate with the arrivals of both Harrison and Kidd, the former Nike man has a compelling chance to build his best brand yet.

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