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Moneyballer Harrison Barnes Building his Brand on Facebook

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Harrison Barnes was super-smart and business savvy even in high school.

He sees the NBA as business:

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.”


“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.”

Two years later, he's still working his brand:

Harrison Barnes is an unpaid Facebook extern?!

Dressed smartly in a dark pullover and tan chinos, a black backpack slung over his shoulder as he strolls across the social networking giant's sprawling micro-society of a corporate campus on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Harrison Barnes looks almost like any other 20-something Facebook employee.

Then you remember a few things that set Barnes apart: he's 6'8", he was the seventh overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, he plays for the Golden State Warriors and he's one of the NBA's young stars.

The 22-year-old Barnes has had a packed summer. He went to Brazil to take in the World Cup. He spent a week in Las Vegas as part of USA Basketball's national-team training camp. Grinding workouts, meanwhile, are a constant.

But sandwiched between workouts this week, Barnes has added another item to his summer list: making the 40-minute drive from Oakland, where he lives, to Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters like any other Silicon Valley grunt.

Facebook calls him an "extern," not an intern. Barnes isn't getting paid, and he's not taking a hungry college student's spot. But he's meeting, working with and shadowing Facebook employees this week, giving — and receiving — knowledge in the process. His presence in Menlo Park is twofold.

First, as one of pro sports' more active and savvy Facebook users, he's there to learn even more about the platform. Second, he's there to provide Facebook's development teams with feedback it can't get from anyone but the high-profile athletes and celebrities who use their products, particularly the recently-launched Mentions app.

Athletes like Barnes are a valuable asset as the company looks to continue building momentum in the sports world.While Barnes is the first to take part in this particular externship program, it's one Facebook reps say the company hopes to continue with other athletes in the future.

"Being in the NBA and able to connect with fans through social experiences is great," Barnes says, sprawled over an undersized chair in a brightly lit meeting room where he's about to conduct a Q&A with fans on Facebook. (He'll reveal a taste for Biggie over Tupac, say the Raptors are his favoriteNBA 2K team and pledge to try Filipino food before the season starts, among other nuggets.)

"But then to come here and connect with the people who make these tools and learn how to use them more effectively and also talk about how they can be enhanced is even better," he adds.

Facebook plans to put his feedback to good use. Allison Swope, product manager for the Mentions app, says Barnes' ideas and insights as a high-profile user this week have been so good she can't share them — her team actually plans to develop a couple into new features on the platform.

Facebook would be hard-pressed to find a better fit than Barnes to pilot what it hopes will be an ongoing series of mini-residencies with major athletes. The Warriors are among the NBA's most digitally savvy teams and Barnes himself stands out among the Warriors players.

In recent months he's held numerous Q-and-A sessions with fans, put on creative contests, showed off meeting a comedy legend, posted a heart-warming video from a fan and helped one Make-A-Wish kid's dream come true. Barnes' tech and marketing savvy goes back years, though; he committed in 2010 to play college ball at North Carolina via a televised Skype call.

Facebook, meanwhile, wants to build on some growing momentum in the sports space. The recent World Cup, for example, was its most talked-about event of all time. And when American soccer legend Landon Donovan announced his retirement this Thursday, he did so on Facebook.

Put Barnes social savvy and Facebook's rising sports profile together and you get an unpaid millionaire extern in tan chinos who's probably the tallest person on Facebook's campus this week — and most certainly the only one who can reverse-dunk like this:

Barnes, for his part, looks to be enjoying the taste of a life much different from his own. His Facebook posts this week note the perks of working at a place full of free on-campus eateries. On Tuesday, he used his fans to crowd-source questions before meeting with a Facebook engineering team.