Nico Harrison remembers the first time he set foot in Bozeman.
“I came (to Montana State University) sight unseen,” said Harrison, whose athletic layups and charismatic smile made him a crowd favorite for the 1993-96 men’s Bobcat basketball team.
“There were like moose on the walls in the airport and I thought ‘What have I got myself into?’ But, coming here turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.”
Harrison recalled his MSU beginnings while in Bozeman Friday to be inducted in the Bobcat Hall of Fame. The road through Bozeman eventually led Harrison, a CoSIDA Academic All-America who hailed from Tigard, Ore., to a high-flying career with Nike. In May, Harrison was named the vice president of North America basketball operations for the multinational corporation. Part of his job is recruiting and retaining some of basketball’s elite, such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. In fact, it was Harrison’s friendship with Bryant and advice in the last 13 years of his career that also inspired Harrison’s rise in Nike.
But being a top executive at one of the world’s most recognizable brands wasn’t where Harrison thought he’d be when he arrived in Bozeman in 1992 after his freshman year at West Point.
“I thought I was going to be a doctor,” said Harrison, who was a biology student while at MSU and recipient of an MSU Excellence Award in recognition of his achievement in the classroom.
On the court, Harrison was also a leader, according to Bill Lamberty, MSU’s assistant athletic director for media. Harrison was MSU’s last three-time, first team All Big Sky selection in basketball as well as MSU’s last CoSIDA Academic All-American in basketball. In only three years, he scored more than 1,000 points.
“He was widely known as the best defensive player in the league,” Lamberty said.
As a senior, Harrison led the Bobcats to a berth in the NCAA basketball tournament, where the Cats were eliminated by Syracuse. The team was filled with legendary players – Craig Hatler, Quadre Lollis, Danny Sprinkle and Danny Sullivan, Nate Holmstadt, Mike Elliott and Adam Leachman. But central to the team’s success was the athleticism and work ethic of Harrison.
“I always say that I got my work ethic from my father, who only missed one day in 30 years at his job at an aluminum mill in Spokane,” Harrison said. “My mom, from her, I got the love everybody in me.”
Harrison said it was the support of the people in Bozeman that he particularly remembers from his time at MSU. He said Barb Tonn, Barb Tuss, the Sobrepena family (still all in Bozeman) were like families away from home. “They were always there for me.”
And his faculty mentor, profesor Ernie Vyse, now retired from the biology department, remains important to him.
Harrison said when he graduated from MSU with a degree in biology, he had the opportunity to play basketball in Belgium. So, he decided to put off medical school while he pursued his passion. After more than seven years playing in Europe he returned to the U.S., set his eyes on graduate school and took a job as a pharmaceutical sales representative.
“Then somebody told me that Nike was looking for an NBA rep and I applied. I got the job on April 2, 2002,” Harrison said.
He was sent to the Southwest U.S. as a marketing rep, which meant interacting with some of the hottest NBA teams and players of the era, including the San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili. A year later, Harrison was assigned as the marketing liaison of one of Nike’s biggest stars, Kobe Bryant, whose reputation had sustained a hard hit.
“(Bryant’s) Q score had fallen through the floor,” Harrison said of the term used to measure the familiarity and appeal of a brand or celebrity. “We had a lot of work to do.”
How does one rebuild a damaged brand?
“It all starts in the community,” Harrison said. “That’s the most important thing (for an athlete).”
During the process, Harrison and Bryant became fast friends, and often Harrison can be seen in the background of Bryant’s paparazzi photographs. As Bryant’s stock rose, so did Harrison’s career with Nike. As a marketing manager for the firm he connected with top stars in professional, college and even high school basketball. He still does that today and also conducts camps, makes public appearances and gives motivational speeches. He is frequently shadowed by students interested in a career in sports and business.
“I help kids who love basketball to reach their goals,” Harrison said. “It IS the best job in the world.”
In the meantime, Harrison has had a couple of kids of his own. He met his wife, Darlise, when she was a television producer for ABC News and the “106 & Park” show on BET when she produced a feature about Alonzo Mourning. They were friends at first, Harrison explains, but when they both found themselves single at the same time the friendship developed into romance. The two are parents to daughters: Nia, 8, and Noelle, 6. The entire family, along with Dan Barendse, Harrison’s high school coach, and Greg Taylor, Harrison’s roommate at MSU, all came to Bozeman to watch Harrison’s induction into the Bobcat Hall of Fame.
Building personal relationships that can last for two decades is one of the skills essential to business success, Harrison said.
“The number one thing (to be successful) is hard work,” he said. “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 he’s honored to be able to work for a company that has a diverse leadership base. Several of its vice presidents are African American as is Nike Brand’s president, Trevor Edwards.
“It’s super cool,” Harrison said. “I tell my kids that one day they can be president – of a country or a company, and they know absolutely that they can.”
And, Harrison says, he often tells the young players he works with about his time at MSU, and its importance in his life and career.
“I say that when I was 16 or 17 playing basketball, I didn’t imagine MSU and its role in my life. But when it was all said and done, I can’t imagine that there was a better experience for me,” he said.
“For some kids, sitting on the bench in a big name school is not a good fit. Sometimes it’s better to go to a place where you can stand out on the court and in the classroom. At least, that’s the way it was for me.”
Bill Lamberty, 994-5133, firstname.lastname@example.org