Businessman set to break NBA barrier with Hawks purchase

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ATLANTA --- An emotional Alex Meruelo had to fight back tears as he talked about what it to means to be the NBA's first Hispanic team owner.

Alex Meruelo, the son of Cuban immigrants, became emotional when discussing his deal to buy a majority interest in the Hawks and become the league's first Hispanic owner.   W.A. Harewood/Associated Press
W.A. Harewood/Associated Press
Alex Meruelo, the son of Cuban immigrants, became emotional when discussing his deal to buy a majority interest in the Hawks and become the league's first Hispanic owner.

His voice cracked as he talked about having dreamed of this day.

"I think we all do as boys -- that I would one day play in the NBA," said Meruelo, a California developer and pizza chain owner.

Meruelo, the son of Cuban immigrants, vowed to do everything he can to bring a championship to Atlanta if his deal to become the majority owner of the Hawks is approved by the NBA.

He became emotional again when he slipped on a red Hawks cap.

"I wasn't quite fast enough, tall enough or quick enough, so those dreams didn't quite get me that far," he said. "But those dreams brought me the burning desire to be involved in the NBA. It's something I've always wanted my entire life to somehow be a part of the NBA."

Meruelo, 48, will have controlling interest of more than 50 percent of the Hawks, who will remain in Atlanta. The deal includes operating rights to Philips Arena.

Citing the NBA lockout, Meruelo would not discuss details of the agreement, including the purchase price.

He confirmed that members of the current ownership group, including majority owners Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon Jr., would retain minority shares "for a period of time." Levenson and Gearon did not attend the news conference.

Meruelo said "it's a privilege and I'm honored" to be the league's first Hispanic majority owner.

"I think it means a lot," he said. "Me being Hispanic, being first is really touching. I hope to do the right thing. I just want to make sure I make them proud."

He said he has been influenced by Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno, who is of Mexican descent and is the first Hispanic owner of a major sports team in the United States.

"There's no question, he's a role model," Meruelo said. "He's the first Major League Baseball owner. He's done a great job. My hat's off to Arte. I've never met him. I look forward to hopefully meeting him soon. I can just say he's done a great job with the Angels. I'm very proud of him. I only hope to do the same."

Meruelo was born in New York and raised in California. Asked whether he was a Knicks or Lakers fan, he said "I'm a Hawks fan, 1,000-percent Hawks fan."

"I can't promise you a championship tomorrow, but I can promise you that I will never give up," he said.

The Hawks have made the playoffs the past four seasons, including three consecutive second-round appearances.

Meruelo acknowledged that buying a team during a season-threatening lockout gave him cause for concern.

"You're always hesitant, right?" he said. "It's the unknown that makes you uncomfortable, but at the same time I just see a tremendous amount of opportunity and growth in this sport."

Hawks general manager Rick Sund said he was impressed by Meruelo's energy.

"I think his enthusiasm about winning and his focus about wanting to bring a championship here are all just great things and are very exciting for everybody here," Sund said. "He's just very, very genuine."

The current ownership group recently sold the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers to a group that moved the team to Winnipeg. Meruelo said he didn't discuss buying the Thrashers.

"My focus is with the basketball team, and that's with my heart and my soul and that's where I want to be," he said. "Just one focus. Basketball."

Hawks Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, who introduced Meruelo, called the new owner "a true basketball fan."

"His record has shown in life that he's a winner, and so we welcome his winning spirit here in Atlanta," Wilkins said.

Meruelo heads the Meruelo Group, a Downey, Calif.-based investment firm that recently acquired the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, Nev., for a reported $42.45 million.

He also founded La Pizza Loca, which has more than 50 franchised and company-owned restaurants in Southern California catering to the Latino community.

"I think the common theme is I look for opportunities," Meruelo said. "I'm very tied in to every business I'm involved with. I will do no different here."

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