Bozeman, Montana started it all. An unassuming city in Southwest Montana, Bozeman is home to Montana State University, the state’s largest university with an enrollment of almost 17,000, in a city with just under 50,000 residents.
In 1992, a young Nico Harrison — after a season at West Point Military academy — left his native Tigard, Oregon and arrived at Bozeman’s airport to embark on the second part of his collegiate career. Harrison described his first impressions of Montana in an interview he gave to his alma mater.
“There were like moose on the walls in the airport and I thought ‘What have I got myself into?’, Harrison said. “But, coming here turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.”
Harrison, like most college students, selected a major with hopes of following through with it professionally. And like most college students, that major didn’t quite pan out.
“I thought I was going to be a doctor”, Harrison recalls. To this end, Harrison worked hard to excel in the classroom, eventually earning academic honors.
Athletically, Harrison made an impact on the Montana State University basketball team. During his time at MSU, Harrison was a three-time, first-team All-Big Sky selection who excelled offensively — Harrison scored over 1,000 points in his first 3 seasons. He also made a name for himself on the defensive side of the ball.
Harrison’s senior season at MSU found his Bobcats in the NCAA Tournament, a journey cut short when the Bobcats were eventually eliminated by Syracuse.
The success he garnered during his time in Bozeman showed Harrison that maybe he had a future in basketball. Harrison graduated from Montana State University with that biology degree, but his plans to attend medical school were shelved when an overseas professional basketball opportunity presented itself.
Harrison pursued his pro basketball hoop dreams for just under eight years in Belgium, but all good things come to and end. Eventually, Harrison found himself back in the United States. The plan, for the holder of a biology degree, was to look for a graduate school and while working in pharmaceutical sales.
Then his life changed.
“Then somebody told me that Nike was looking for an NBA rep and I applied. I got the job on April 2, 2002,” Harrison recalled in an interview with Montana State University.
No doubt, his almost decade of professional basketball playing experience put the folks at Nike at ease with Harrison. His first assignment with the apparel behemoth was working in the Southwest as marketing representative. The San Antonio Spurs were undeniably the hottest NBA team at the time as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginóbili led the Spurs to a 60-22 record and an NBA Championship that 2002-2003 season.
Harrison got to work with championship caliber talent during his inaugural year at Nike, and this went a long way to cement his reputation in the industry. In 2003, Harrison’s work ethic and acumen led him to be assigned to work with Lakers mega superstar, Kobe Bryant.
Nico Harrison’s life would change again at this juncture.
Kobe Bryant had been arrested for rape in Colorado, a case that would grab the rapt attention of the sports and non-sports worlds alike. Bryant was in the midst of a trial that greatly tarnished his brand identity — his brand appeal was rock bottom.
Nike assigned Harrison as Bryant’s marketing liaison, a tough ask for a relatively green employee with just a year under his belt on the job. But Harrison was more than up to the task. Working with Bryant, Harrison was able to connect his client with the community in a series of well-coordinated events.
As Bryant’s brand appeal started to rise up again, so did Harrison’s stock within the Nike ecosystem.
Harrison deployed the same community-focused initiatives he had used with Bryant to his work with myriad athletes across the professional sports landscape. He would go on to undertake collegiate athletes, and more recently, high school athletes, too.
Relating to the athlete and the athlete’s passion for basketball is the hallmark of Harrison’s approach. Coupled with a focus on community, this one-two combo helped vault Harrison’s stock to meteoric heights in his almost two decades with Nike.
“Being able to work with the community at a high level, and building relationships. If you can do those things, you will be successful,” Harrison said in his interview with MSU prior to being inducted into the MSU Bobcat Hall of Fame (2015).
In recent years, it has been reported that Harrison was being pursued for several NBA franchise front office positions. But Harrison seemingly shunned the offers — until that is when Mark Cuban came calling in 2021 after the Dallas Mavericks and GM Donnie Nelson separated after nearly 20 years together.
Harrison leaves behind a lucrative and well-earned position with Nike to come to Dallas, a franchise that, over the last decade, has notoriously missed out on several free agent players for one reason or another. With a once-in-a-generation talent in Luka Doncic, Harrison’s first charge will be to build a roster that perfectly accompanies Doncic.
So Harrison will soon land at Dallas Forth Worth International Airport, and just like when he landed at the Bozeman airport almost 30 years ago, he might very look around at the Texas-centric decor and ask himself what he’s gotten himself into. But Harrison in 2021 has the benefit of decades of experience under his belt, along with a reputation as a community builder and player favorite.
And he’ll need all of that to help patch up a reeling, and broken Dallas Mavericks franchise back together.