Nico Harrison always loves a challenge.
And one of his biggest challenges to date has been leaving behind his longtime job at Nike, where he rose to prominence as the vice-president of North America basketball operations before severing ties this summer to become the new general manager and president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks.
After spending 20 years at Nike, this is a totally different wall Harrison is trying to scale. But he’s more than ready for the challenge.
“The biggest challenge probably is that I’m coming into an industry that I’m familiar with, but I’m not an expert in it — all the nuances around the game,” said Harrison, who turns 49 on Dec. 28. “It’s the learning curve, so to speak.
“So that’s probably been the biggest challenge. But it’s also been the most exciting part of it, too.”
Born in Seattle and raised in Portland — not far from the Nike headquarters – Harrison was first-team All-Big Sky Conference for three years during his three seasons at Montana State, where he posted career averages of 12 points and 4.2 rebounds.
In addition to his athletic skills, Harrison graduated from college with a degree in biological and medical sciences. He also was selected as a two-time winner of the Arthur Ashe Jr. scholar-athlete award while attending Montana State.
Harrison sat down with Mavs.com to discuss a variety of topics, including his thoughts on becoming the new general manager and president of basketball operations on the NBA block.
Mavs.com: How has everything been going for you so far since you joined the Mavs?
Harrison: Everything’s been great. I’m enjoying the transition. I’m really glad that as the season’s started we’ve started to get into a little bit of a rhythm. With practices and games and travel, it’s starting to feel rhythmic.
Mavs.com: How much did your excellent work at Nike set you up for a situation like this with the Mavs?
Harrison: I think it set me up a lot. One, the leadership skills that I learned at Nike. And then also, I’ve been around the game in all different levels for the last 20 years. So the people that I’m talking to are the same. We’re just having different conversations.
Mavs.com: You played some pro basketball back in the day. Tell us about that experience?
Harrison: It’s funny, but Maxi Kleber’s agent, (Guy Zucker), who only has maybe one or two NBA players, he was my last agent. He’s always had one or two NBA clients, but the majority of his players have been international.
Mavs.com: What was that like for you to play overseas and be so far away from home?
Harrison: I played in Belgium, Lebanon and Japan. Growing up as a basketball player you kind of put all your energy into being as good as you can be. And then the fact that you have an opportunity to go play in a professional league. . . It’s not the NBA, but it still validates the fact that you are an elite player and not just a college player. But there is another level. I think it kind of just validates all the work that I put in.
Mavs.com: Speaking of validation, you were inducted into the Montana State Hall of Fame in 2015. How did that happen?
Harrison: I look back on my college years and I’m extremely fond of them. Trying to balance academics and athletics is probably one of the toughest things I had to do, because I was pre-med and I had a heavy course load. But then I also had to be fresh to play basketball. Trying to balance the two was challenging.
Mavs.com: When you say pre-med, did you eventually want to become a doctor?
Harrison: Yes, that’s the degree that I chose. Again, heavy science, heavy lab, organic chemistry. All the crazy courses that nobody likes to take. I’m the dummy that took them.
Harrison: Once I got done playing basketball, it was like, ‘Ok, I got to figure out what I want to do.’ I’m from Portland and one of my friends told me about this job at Nike that was in basketball, and I’m like, ‘Oh, wow! I can stay in basketball and work?’ Who knew that was actually a profession? I applied, and dumb luck, I got the job and I was there for 20 years.
Mavs.com: While you were at Nike, three of your top clients were the San Antonio Spurs’ three-headed monsters of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. What was it like to work with that trio?
Harrison: It was great. And really with Tim, I only had him for maybe two years before he actually switched over to adidas. But the point is you’re able to stay around the game and still be a part of the game without being an NBA player. There are other options than just being an NBA player.
Mavs.com: You also worked with Kobe Bryant. That must have been amazing to work with one of the most iconic players in sports history?
Harrison: Whenever you get a chance to work with one of the best, it’s obviously going to be challenging. But it’s also going to be rewarding.
Mavs.com: Can you describe your relationship with Kobe?
Harrison: I really don’t even talk about it much, because I see a lot of people being on podcasts and talking about their relationship to Kobe. People that know, know. And I’ll just leave it at that. I don’t talk about it too much. It’s just something that’s special and I don’t want to cheapen it or exploit it.
Mavs.com: What are your thoughts on the Mavs?
Harrison: I really like the team. I think they play extremely hard. Obviously, we’ve been battling injuries since the start of the season – from KP (Kristaps Porzingis) to Luka (Doncic) to Maxi (Kleber). So, I still say that our best basketball is yet to come and I’m looking forward to that. And getting everybody healthy so that we really see what we have and how we can gel and get better. That’s going to be the name of the game throughout the whole NBA is injuries and staying healthy and getting better. The key is to be better in a month from now than you are now, and obviously you want to be playing your best basketball in May.
Mavs.com: The Mavs’ players all seem to thoroughly enjoy being around each other on and off the court. Is that a positive?
Harrison: A great group of guys. Selfless. I’m excited about the future. And I say “future,’ but I don’t mean ‘future’ like five years from now. I mean as we build this thing a month from now, two weeks from now, I’m excited about that. But I’m also enjoying the process.
Mavs.com: Since you are the newest general manager and president of basketball operations on the NBA block, do you feel the veteran general managers and presidents of basketball operations may try to take advantage of you during possible trades?
Harrison: I would imagine that if people can take advantage of me, they will, for sure. But I always tell people this is not the Nico Harrison Show. There’s a team of people that’s surrounding me. There’s (assistant general manager Michael) Finley, obviously (owner) Mark (Cuban). There’s (coach) Jason Kidd. There are so many people around the team that are going to influence what we do, so it’s not just Nico making decisions. I’m the face of it, but it’s always going to be inputs from a lot of different people.
Mavs.com: How do you like working for Mark Cuban?
Harrison: I’ve enjoyed working for Mark.
Harrison: Everybody’s seen how great Porzingis has played this year. But the thing about Porzingis is he works. The guy works not just on basketball, but on his body. He spends a lot of time on it. When people do that, good things are going to happen.
Mavs.com: Is that the side of Porzingis that the average fan doesn’t know about. They figure if he’s frequently hurt, that means he’s not doing anything to better himself as a player?
Harrison: No, he’s the actual opposite. He works his butt off at maintaining his body, maintaining his movements and flexibility and strength. That’s why you see the jump from what he was playing (last season) to now, because he’s finally healthy.
Harrison: His vision is amazing. Obviously, he built such a strong company from the ground up, but he’s an amazing leader and people person and visionary. He sees things before they happen.
Mavs.com: Is Phil Knight similar to Mark Cuban in any way?
Harrison: If you think about it, most successful people that are visionaries have a lot of characteristics that are very similar even though they’re different people. That’s the same as great CEO’s and great leaders. The characteristics that make up a great leader, they’re all the same.
Mavs.com: How do you like working with coach Jason Kidd?
Harrison: It’s great. Hall of Fame point guard, he played the game at the highest level. He’s been a head coach before twice (with the Bucks and Nets) and then as an assistant coach (with the Lakers) he won a championship (in 2020). And he won one as a player (with the Mavs in 2011). He just has so much knowledge. I think when you’ve played and you’ve coached – not only as a head coach, but as an assistant coach – you see the game from different perspectives. And then now you combine all of those perspectives and now make it your own.