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No more mystery: Inside Nico Harrison’s circuitous journey to becoming Mavericks GM

From Montana State, to the Middle East, to Nike executive, Harrison is uniquely prepared to lead an NBA team.

Amid his first training camp as an NBA president and general manager, Nico Harrison’s itinerary no doubt has been hectic, but it isn’t evident in his demeanor.

Whether it’s patiently posing for a 15-minute photo shoot or intently watching the first week of practices, he’s resonated calm and control, in both demeanor and impeccable attire.

No inkling of concern or hint of lint.

Certainly it’s a monumental time for the Mavericks franchise, and playoff success-starved fans have doubts about the mystery man GM, but this is an opportunity for which Harrison has prepared much of his 48-year life — even if he didn’t always envision this, exactly.

He’d never considered leaving his dream job as a Nike executive until several NBA teams approached him in recent years. He says he never got to ask the most influential person in his life, his father, what he thought about the overtures.

Steve Harrison died of cancer in 2016, but Nico sometimes still refers to him in the present tense, and he has a pretty good idea what Steve would say about his dramatic career change, from behind-the-scenes Nike powerbroker to the spotlight.

That place was so good to you, Nico. Why would you ever leave that?

“That’s my dad,” Nico added, smiling. “That’s how I grew up. That would have been his opinion.

“But, he also knew that I would have done what I wanted to do.”

In time, fans will form their own impressions of Harrison, though what will most matter is the on-court results under new coach Jason Kidd.

For now, know this: Harrison’s family and friends say he is very much his father’s son, but also his own man.

Steve Harrison only missed one day of work in his 30 years at the Kaiser Aluminum plant in Spokane, Wash., where he rose to wroughting room supervisor.

That work ethic, and Steve’s meticulousness in dress and general tidiness, are among the traits Nico has carried through a winding path that has been marked by achievement at virtually every stop.

He was a standout multi-sport youth athlete, nicknamed The Blade because of his sheer speed. He became a star basketball player at Tigard High School, southwest of Portland, Ore. He was a West Point appointee and honors student during his one year as a cadet.

He transferred to Montana State, where he was all-conference and all-defensive team all three seasons. He captained the Bobcats to the NCAA Tournament in his senior year, in the process earning Academic All-American honors and a degree in biological and medical sciences.

“It’s weird to say, but Nico was always smarter than all of us,” his mother, Christie Martinez, said. “We knew he would achieve something above and beyond what most of us could.

“Nobody was shocked when he got into West Point. It was like, ‘Well, yeah, it’s Nico.’ "

Role models

New Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison (left) pictured with his father Steve Harrison and brother Brandon Harrison. Steve Harrison died of cancer in 2016.
New Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison (left) pictured with his father Steve Harrison and brother Brandon Harrison. Steve Harrison died of cancer in 2016.

Nico Tyrone Harrison was born in Seattle on December 28, 1972, the fourth of Steve and Christie’s five children.

When the Mavericks hired him, reporters scrambled to learn more about him. Stories conflicted about whether he grew up in Washington or Oregon.

The correct answer: Both.

Steve and Christie divorced when Nico was 5. Christie said the divorce was amicable and that she and Steve always put the kids first, but career opportunities led her to move to Tigard, where she opened a piano store and taught piano and voice.

Nico moved back and forth until after the ninth grade, when he decided that Tigard High and basketball were his most likely avenues to a scholarship and the college education his father never got.

For years Nico watched Steve iron his work clothes each morning and return at day’s end covered in grit, sometimes with boils on his back from spatters of aluminum smelt.

Steve also ironed the kids’ clothes, even their jeans. He considered grooming to be indicative of personal discipline.

Christie recalls the morning early in their marriage when Steve got to the factory and realized he’d donned one brown sock and the other blue. He phoned Christie and had her bring a matching sock.

Nico says he saw the inside of the factory only once, when he was in middle school and workers’ families were invited to tour the facility. The wroughting room, though, was deemed dangerous and off-limits.

Steve’s job was grueling, but the reward was being able to afford a nice house with a pool. And when the kids — Joe, Elizabeth, Shivaun, Nico and Brandon — needed speedskates, tennis rackets, boxing gloves or gymnastics gear, Steve made sure they got the best.

Christie said Steve also stressed education and accountability, recalling a day that remains family lore: As they rode on their bikes back from a convenience store, Nico realized Brandon had stolen a candy bar. When confronted by Nico, Brandon tossed the evidence into a bush.

When the boys got home, Nico told Steve what happened. Brandon and Nico rode back, found the candy bar and returned it to the store.

“That’s the way Nico’s always been with everybody,” Christie said. “His brothers and sisters always say, ‘Don’t do the wrong thing in front of Nico.’ "

Early success

Nico Harrison, new Mavericks general manager, with his sisters Elizabeth (right) and Shivaun.
Nico Harrison, new Mavericks general manager, with his sisters Elizabeth (right) and Shivaun.

Harrison said his first sports love was football, in which he excelled as a receiver and running back. Though his decision to finish high school in Tigard and focus on basketball proved wise, one of his new varsity teammates was far from thrilled by his arrival.

Emile Shephard, then a junior, admits he was jealous that a sophomore made varsity. Shephard also was unimpressed with Harrison’s knuckleball perimeter shot.

That is until Oregon state-ranked Tigard, without its injured starting point guard, had to face Washington state-ranked Columbia River, which not only thrust young Harrison into the starting lineup, but out of his natural position.

“He balled,” Shephard said. “He did spin moves in the lane, finished in the clutch and we won the game. I don’t know if I apologized to him, but I told somebody, ‘Yeah, we need that guy.’ "

Nico Harrison, new Mavericks general manager, as a youth basketball player.
Nico Harrison, new Mavericks general manager, as a youth basketball player.

Shephard and Harrison became inseparable high school buddies, offseason training partners when they played at separate colleges and, eventually, roommates when each embarked on overseas professional basketball careers.

Shephard says that on the court Harrison was tenacious, confident and physically fit. Off the court, Harrison’s bedroom was much tidier than that of most teenagers, his clothes were folded in a “professional way” and people seemed drawn to him.

And that knuckleball jump shot? “It looked a little bit different,” Shephard said, “but it sure did go in.”

Harrison was so fast, and tall for a guard, that even when opponents backed off of him he often got to the rim or overpowered them with a post-up.

He was recruited by Pac-10 schools until a broken ankle during his junior season and torn thumb cartilage his senior year raised durability questions. Among bigger schools, only West Point continued to recruit him, which was more than OK, given Harrison’s ambitions.

If he graduated from West Point, the Army would pay for medical school.

“I never had a Black doctor growing up,” he said. “And I always loved the sciences, so I figured I could be that doctor.”

So, why didn’t he stay at West Point, despite averaging 9.7 points and 3.8 rebounds as a freshman and holding his own academically?

Harrison provided a candid assessment in 1996, on the eve of what would prove to be his final college game, against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. “I don’t mind hard work,” he told the Syracuse Post-Standard: “but I don’t like someone always being able to tell me what to do.”

Move to Montana

Washington State associate head coach Jim Shaw met Harrison when he was about 15.

Shaw knew Harrison’s high school coach, immediately noticed Harrison on the court and quickly was drawn to his polite persona and quiet confidence.

Shaw at the time was an assistant at Montana State. Shaw considered Harrison out of the school’s recruiting reach, but he was so impressed by him that he sent scouting tapes to bigger schools.

Nico Harrison, new Mavericks general manager, is a member of the Montana State Hall of Fame.
Nico Harrison, new Mavericks general manager, is a member of the Montana State Hall of Fame.

It was a kindness Harrison never forgot. Upon leaving West Point in late June 1992, he had several transfer offers fall through. Though Harrison never had seen the Montana State campus, he phoned Shaw with what seemed like an absurd proposal:

If Harrison paid his way during the year he’d have to sit out under NCAA transfer rules, would Montana State consider putting him on scholarship for the following three years?

Shaw says he tried to talk Harrison out of it, then asked him to sleep on it. When Harrison phoned back the next morning, Shaw took the proposal to head coach Mick Durham.

“It was like selling a date with Beyoncé to a single guy,” Shaw said.

When Harrison arrived that fall in the Bozeman, Mont., airport and saw moose heads on the wall, he wondered what he was getting into. What most mattered, though, was that Montana State offered a degree that would keep Harrison on track for medical school.

It worked out for all concerned. In the last 70 years, Montana State’s men’s basketball program has achieved four 20-win seasons, two of which occurred during Harrison’s tenure. It’s no wonder that in 2015 he was inducted into the Bobcat Hall of Fame.

Nico Harrison, new Mavericks general manager, is a member of the Montana State Hall of Fame.
Nico Harrison, new Mavericks general manager, is a member of the Montana State Hall of Fame.

“He’s always been a guy who had success written all over him,” Shaw said. “It was just a matter of which direction he took the car.”

After graduation Harrison took a gap year, figuring he would apply to medical schools and play overseas while awaiting responses.

His one-year detour morphed into seven. His first playing stint was with a Belgian team in the college town of Leuven. He played two seasons for the Tokyo-based Hitachi Honsha Rising Sun. He briefly played in the Continental Basketball Association.

His final season was in Lebanon, playing for a team based in Beirut. Downtown still was battle-scarred from the 15-year Lebanese Civil War.

“The people were amazing,” he said. “You had Muslims and you had Christians and they didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Coming from the U.S. you can’t understand the conflict, but you can appreciate it because you can see how your teammates feel.”

On September 11, 2001, Harrison awoke to horrific scenes playing out in the United States. He was 28.

“My body was breaking down,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ It just fast-forwarded my decision.”

He caught one of the last flights out of the Middle East, to Amsterdam, his pro playing career over.

To the corporate world

Nico Harrison of Nike takes in pregame between the LA Clippers and the Golden State Warriors on October 24, 2019, at the Chase Center in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nico Harrison of Nike takes in pregame between the LA Clippers and the Golden State Warriors on October 24, 2019, at the Chase Center in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images)(Jim Poorten / NBAE via Getty Images)

He returned to Oregon and worked for a year in pharmaceutical sales, “just to buy myself time to get back into school,” when a friend at Nike informed him of an NBA field rep opening.

“I was like, ‘That’s a job?’ Dumb luck, I applied and got it.”

The date was April 2, 2002. The job was Dallas-based. Harrison lived on Montfort Drive, near the Dallas North Tollway. His office was in the Galleria.

His territory, the Southwest Region, encompassed eight NBA teams and, more specifically, Nike-affiliated players and potential Nike signees. Harrison’s job largely was about relationship-building and talent evaluation.

Among the early players Harrison represented were current Mavericks vice president of basketball operations and assistant GM Michael Finley, Spurs star Tim Duncan and rising Indiana star Jermaine O’Neal.

Actually, O’Neal and Harrison already were acquaintances. Harrison’s cousin, Deddrick Faison, was business manager to O’Neal, drafted by Portland in 1996 at age 17.

In 1997, O’Neal and Harrison faced one another in a Portland charity game, during which Harrison bravely attempted to block one of 6-11 O’Neal’s dunks.

“Nico won’t admit to this, but he was super-athletic,” O’Neal said. “I mean, he could really fly. He tried to jump with me and he was up so high, I looked at him like ‘What you doin’ up here?’

“Then I disposed of him at the basket.”

O’Neal in 2002 earned the first of his six All-Star berths. In a sense, his and Harrison’s careers blossomed together. O’Neal became one of the rare big men to land shoe commercials.

During his periodic contract negotiations with Nike, O’Neal marveled at how seamlessly Harrison separated friendship and business.

“He gave what was earned,” O’Neal said. “I think that’s what made Nico successful and what everybody respects about him.

“What the average spectator doesn’t understand is in the business of professional sports it’s hard to trust people. What he was able to do was peel back that armor and get to know players and have them know him. He gave me a vision and believed in me.”

A year into his Nike tenure, Harrison was promoted to a national marketing position, enabling him to not only work closely with the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and, yes, Kidd, but also forge relationships at the college, high school and AAU levels.

O’Neal says he has high respect for Harrison’s Mavericks predecessor, Donnie Nelson, whom O’Neal considers to be the foremost assessor of European talent.

But O’Neal, whose four-year-old, Irving-based Drive Nation Sports has helped develop R.J. Hampton, Tyrese Maxey, Jahmi’us Ramsey and Cade Cunningham, among 70-plus Division I athletes, says Harrison brings a perspective that few, if any, other NBA teams possess.

“The main difference is Nico has more footprints on the ground,” O’Neal said. “Nike does such a great job on the grassroots side, so once these kids get through college and go pro, it’s understanding who they are. Either they are best in class, or they’re not.

“Getting a young, energized mind-set of someone who understands this era of players, I think is going to be beneficial for the Mavs.”

Professional leap of faith

Dallas Mavericks GM Nico Harrison (left) chats with Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at American Airlines Center in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)
Dallas Mavericks GM Nico Harrison (left) chats with Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at American Airlines Center in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

It was no accident when Harrison and Kidd were hired on the same day. They have been close for nearly two decades.

Harrison’s favorite Kidd story is from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where Kidd helped lead the Redeem Team to the gold medal.

“A group of us were in a car, getting ready to go eat,” Harrison recalled. “Everybody’s like, ‘Where’s Jason?’ I volunteer to go get him. He comes out through a different entrance.

“Then they left me.”

Harrison’s Nike travels enabled him to meet his future wife, Darlise, at the time a New York-based producer for ABC News and BET’s 106 & Park show.

They met when Darlise produced a feature about one of Harrison’s star clients, Alonzo Mourning.

Nico rose to Nike’s vice president of North America basketball operations while building a faith-centered family after the births of Nia (now 13) and Noelle (11). Christie says Darlise refers to herself as the family’s point guard.

The Harrison family — Nico, Nia, Noelle and Darlise — poses for a portrait.
The Harrison family — Nico, Nia, Noelle and Darlise — poses for a portrait.

“I wouldn’t have been in my position at Nike without her, and I wouldn’t be in this job without her,” Harrison said. “She’s held down the house, allowing me to focus on the career but also be engaged and involved in the family.

“You can be involved in both, but someone has to set the table for you so that when you’re there, you can make a day feel like three days or an afternoon feel like two afternoons.”

His close friend, Bryant, preceded him into fatherhood. Like the Harrisons, the Bryants had all girls, in their case four. Bryant was proud and passionate about being a Girl Dad, feelings Harrison soon would come to share.

“It’s exactly what you need,” Harrison said. “Being a Girl Dad is the best.”

When Nia was born, Christie rushed to the hospital to meet her new granddaughter. At some point after arriving, she slipped off her shoes.

“Mother,” Nico said, “you have a hole in your sock.”

Christie and Nico’s siblings tease him about his meticulousness, to which he shrugs.

“When it’s instilled in you,” he said, “you don’t think it’s anything different.”

When Steve died, Nico and Brandon were by his side.

Steve long had retired from the aluminum factory. Long enough to see Joe become an engineer for Burlington-Northern; Shivaun a clinical cancer researcher; Elizabeth become a Walmart associate in New York; Brandon work sales for Pitney Bowes and play in a heavy metal band that once opened for Motley Crue.

Christie, 74, remarried and travels the world as an AKC dog judge.

Nico didn’t become a doctor, but he’s made the world his wroughting room, melded and shaped by people and experiences and diverse perspectives.

“You think one way where you’re from,” he said. “And then you go to West Point and you meet people from all over and they have different thoughts than you do.

“And then you go to Montana State and see people that, honestly, I’m probably the first Black person they met. Everywhere you go you’re educating people, but you’re also getting educated on how they think.”

This is who Nico Harrison is and what he brings to the Mavericks. He’s a pretty sharp dresser, too.

Find more Mavericks coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

In This Story

Brad Townsend, Mavericks beat reporter. Brad covers the Dallas Mavericks and the NBA. He has been a Dallas Morning News sports reporter since 1993. Prior to that he worked at The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Light.

btownsend@dallasnews.com /brad.townsend.311 @townbrad
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