Harrison Barnes hopes his brand takes flight -- just like Mike

Former Tar Heel embarks on branding venture as he enters NBA

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 30, 2012 

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NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 27: Draft prospect Harrison Barnes poses for a photo during the 2012 NBA Draft Media Availability and Portraits on June 27, 2012 at Westin Times Square hotel in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2012 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

JESSE D. GARRABRANT — NBAE/Getty

— Harrison Barnes didn’t have cable growing up, and his earliest memory of Michael Jordan was as an aging player at the end of his career with the Washington Wizards. Still, Barnes saw Jordan in his earlier, greatest years, and those memories have remained with him.

“I’ve got all the games in my house,” Barnes said recently, referring to a collection of old VHS tapes.

Perhaps that’s how it began, then – not just Barnes’ passion for basketball, but his understanding of how an athlete can transcend the game and create an individual “brand.” Jordan, of course, provided the ultimate example: He not only won six NBA titles but also became a shoe salesman, a company spokesman, a forever-gliding silhouette.

It came as little surprise when Barnes chose North Carolina, Jordan’s alma mater.

From the time he arrived at UNC, Barnes made it clear he wanted to win championships, sure, but also to create a brand for himself.

“It was important to him because he openly said some things about it,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “You know, I don’t know how many players think about those kinds of things. But I’ve said since day one that he’s very analytical, and a deep thinker.

“And so I would expect it to be in Harrison’s vocabulary and his thought process more than anybody else.”

Now Barnes has started a new journey. The Golden State Warriors selected him Thursday night with the seventh pick in the NBA draft, and he will enter a league known for marketing its stars better than any other in American professional sports. After focusing on his brand throughout college, though, it’s unclear what Barnes’ brand is.

Williams, who spent two seasons coaching Barnes and considerable time before that recruiting him, struggled to define it.

“I have no freaking idea what the [heck] it means,” he said, letting out a small laugh. “Let’s be honest. What is the brand of North Carolina basketball? … I mean, seriously. I don’t understand that terminology. You hear people talk about it. And I’m not being negative towards anybody or anything, but I don’t know what the North Carolina brand is. It’s one of these logos.”

Williams pointed behind him, to an interlocking blue “NC.”

If a brand is indeed a logo, Barnes already has one. It’s his initials, an “H” and a “B” standing side-by-side, with wings spreading off the “B” in homage to Barnes’ nickname, “The Black Falcon.”

Did ‘Falcon’ idea fly too soon?

Barnes said an artist friend from Iowa designed his logo. But on the day before the draft, Barnes didn’t want to say much else about his brand, or how his desire to create one originated. He seemed embarrassed by the thought of discussing such things.

“I said a lot of things when I was in college, some of them probably a little prematurely,” Barnes said. “So I think the best thing for me to do right now is just focus on the basketball court, focus on that and everything else will take care of itself.”

Barnes could have been referring to any number of things he said while at UNC, but most likely was referencing a story that ran in The Atlantic, a national magazine. In a story entitled “Moneyballer” in the April 2012 issue, Barnes spoke openly of his business side.

He spoke of his admiration for Kobe Bryant’s endorsement of Turkish Airlines, a decision that Barnes said proved Bryant’s business savvy and his ability to think “outside the box” about endorsements. Barnes spoke openly, too, about his desire to use basketball as a platform to raise his own commercial appeal.

“The longer you stay in college, the better a brand you build,” Barnes told the magazine.

Barnes’ outspokenness about such things drew its share of criticism from rival fans, and even teammates sometimes playfully teased him.

“We’d just call him ‘Black Falcon’ or whatever,” said Tyler Zeller, the former Tar Heels’ center who was selected 17th in the draft. “Nothing bad. But we’d have a good time with it.”

To some, though, Barnes’ brand talk seemed silly and premature. The criticism was easy to understand: Instead of allowing his brand – whatever it might be – to come naturally, Barnes seemed intent on manufacturing it.

James Michael McAdoo, the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward, arrived at UNC amid hype comparable to Barnes. Did McAdoo ever think about building his brand?

“No,” he said recently. “You’ll never hear that coming out of my mouth. That’s just not my style. I don’t know what brand [is]. I mean, I just play basketball. …

“If some team wants to sign me one day to play professionally, and if some shoe company wants to give me some money to wear their shoes, you know, I’ll do that. But I don’t really think about that stuff.”

Barnes’ college career provided a case study about whether an athlete can intentionally create a brand. Darin David, an account director with the Dallas-based Marketing Arm, said during a recent phone conversation that the process is “probably 90 percent organic.”

Marketing Arm specializes in brand management, and David, who described himself as a casual college basketball fan, said he was interested to see whether the attention Barnes paid to his brand will pay off now that he has reached the NBA.

“[Companies] are looking for somebody who’s going to break through the clutter and grab people’s attention,” David said. “If we’re talking about rookies, you’re looking for somebody that’s going to burst on the scene like a Blake Griffin.”

Lacking a Jordan-like moment

Barnes’ brand potential appears high. He is smooth but unrevealing behind cameras and microphones, saying enough to be engaging but hardly anything controversial or offensive. Barnes has indeed created a public persona of a clean-cut, intelligent spokesman. He projects well the image of a polished businessman.

What he lacks are the kind of identifiable moments that might have allowed him to transcend his sport in college. Jordan, for instance, became a household name at the end of his freshman season, when his late jump shot against Georgetown helped UNC win the 1982 national championship.

Barnes was a two-time first-team All-ACC selection, and he helped lead the Tar Heels to two consecutive NCAA tournament regional finals. But there was no national championship, no national player of the year honors.

In the harsh glare of the never-ending news cycle and amid the incessant chatter of social media, Barnes’ relative failures were magnified, especially during his poor two-game stretch during the Midwest regional. After UNC’s season ended against Kansas, Barnes spent nearly 20 minutes sitting in front of his locker, a towel over his head.

That represented an end, but now comes a new beginning.

After all the talk of his brand, there was barely a whisper Thursday. Not from Barnes, his mother or his agent, Jeff Wechsler, both of whom did not return calls seeking comment about Barnes’ brand-management strategy.

“A lot of things were said,” Barnes said. “But I just think the focus right now is just focusing on the basketball court and just trying to get better.”

Barnes said he hadn’t signed any endorsement deals. He was hoping soon to finalize a contract with a shoe company and, always aware of such things, he said a lot of an athlete’s marketability and brand depends on where he plays.

In that regard, Barnes said, he was happy to be headed to the San Francisco area, where the sixth-largest media market in the country could provide the kinds of opportunities he has long thought about.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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