How brand-management theory persuaded a college star to put off the NBA

In the fall of 2009, Harrison Barnes was the best high-school basketball player in America. But the 17-year-old from Ames, Iowa, was more than just a hoops phenom. An honor student with a 3.6 GPA who, when he wasn’t honing his jump shot, would practice Bach and Chopin on his saxophone, Barnes was something of a renaissance man. So the college-basketball powerhouses trying to recruit him tailored their pitches accordingly. On Barnes’s visit to Duke, he met with the dean of the law school; at UCLA, he had lunch with the chancellor; at Stanford, he was entertained by none other than Condoleezza Rice. Yet it was Barnes’s trip to the University of North Carolina that left the biggest impression. There, he was granted an audience with the school’s most famous basketball alum, Michael Jordan. Several weeks later, Barnes announced he was taking his talents to Chapel Hill.

Was it merely a case of a teenage boy being swayed by his basketball idol? Not exactly. As Barnes has made clear, he reveres Jordan for more than just his hoops talent. “People see Michael Jordan as a great basketball player,” he told me earlier this year, “but he’s a great businessman, too.”

Barnes, now a sophomore at UNC, has lived up to the hype, both on and off the court. A 6-foot-8 small forward with a silky jumper and a knack for hitting game-winning shots, he’s also widely touted as college basketball’s most cerebral star since Bill Bradley. But where Bradley devoted his analytical abilities to hoops and academics, Barnes has added a third area of interest: the business of basketball. Barnes’s business acumen is what brought him to UNC—and accounts for the fact that he’s still there.

After his freshman season, Barnes would have been a certain top-five pick in the NBA draft. But he decided to pass up the league and return to college. Part of his rationale for doing so was the prospect of an NBA lockout. He also genuinely likes school. But a big reason he came back to UNC was that he believes remaining in college for at least one more year will eventually increase his endorsement potential. “The longer you stay in college,” Barnes explained, “the better a brand you build.”

We were meeting in the press center just outside the UNC locker room, beneath photos of past Carolina stars who went on to the NBA: Antawn Jamison, Rasheed Wallace, Ty Lawson. (Indeed, as if to affirm Barnes’s choice of school, a recent Wall Street Journal study found that since 1985, former Tar Heels have earned more money in the NBA than basketball alumni from any other college.) Barnes had arrived in a suit and tie—not the kind of flashy outfit commonly seen on NBA draft night, but a simple, conservative dark suit and gold tie. That morning, he’d attended three classes at UNC’s highly regarded Kenan-Flagler Business School (including his favorite, Entrepreneurship), and he looked more like a college student interviewing for a job at an accounting firm than a soon-to-be-multimillionaire sports star. His manner was similarly restrained, one might even say businesslike. He sat bolt upright in his chair and paused carefully before each answer.

“The NBA is a business,” Barnes told me, elaborating that players are akin to pieces of inventory that, if they don’t produce, get replaced by other pieces that do. “But on the brighter side,” he added, “you do gain a lot of capital, and you have a platform from which you have avenues to do just about anything you want to do.” Indeed, Barnes seems amazed that more basketball players don’t take advantage of those avenues. “I think if anybody has an opportunity to play professional basketball,” he said, “to not transcend that into off-the-court endeavors is really a waste.”

The players Barnes most admires are the ones who have achieved just that transcendence. “Look at all the things Kobe has endorsed,” he said of the star Lakers guard. “I remember people in Los Angeles were so upset that there was a billboard of him endorsing Turkish Airlines, but that’s kind of thinking outside the box.” The Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash is another role model for Barnes because, in addition to endorsing Vitaminwater, he shoots and produces the commercials he does for the drink. And then of course there’s Jordan, who, although he’s been retired from the sport for nearly a decade, has achieved not only basketball but business immortality. “Michael Jordan was able to branch out and go into endeavors that have a more sustained effect,” Barnes said. “That’s why his product is still able to sell, like the Concords”—the Jordan Brand shoes that consumers rioted (sometimes literally) to buy this past Christmas.

Barnes is quite attuned to managing his own brand. Although he founded a Bible-study group in high school and paid particularly close attention when he met Barack Obama before a game aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier earlier this season, he’s reluctant to discuss either experience. “Anytime you want to get into religious or political views,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “that can instantly polarize people.” (In this he seems also to be following in the footsteps of Jordan, who, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse Harvey Gantt in a Senate race against Jesse Helms two decades ago, reportedly answered, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”)

Of course, there’s one thing that would strengthen Barnes’s brand almost immeasurably. All season, North Carolina has been among the favorites to win the NCAA tournament. And Barnes recognizes that making it to the Final Four in New Orleans this year, and seizing a national championship, would have profound historical resonance. That’s because back in 1982, a UNC freshman named Michael Jordan led his team to the national title—also in New Orleans. “There’s no better exposure and no better way of getting the hype machine going than UNC returning back to New Orleans, 30 years after Michael Jordan, of all people, won it there,” Barnes told me. For the first and only time, he dropped his cautious analysis and let his excitement show. “It would be an unbelievable stage,” he said, breaking into a wide smile. “And if we end up winning a national championship there? The media might just explode.” And so, ultimately, would Barnes’s bank account.

After the interview, it occurred to me that I was another brick in Barnes’s brand-building exercise. And what is that brand? “In high school, I was the kid from Iowa, who no one knew about and who used to work hard,” he’d told me. “Now, in college, I’m more the business guy who plays basketball.”