The new owner of the Atlanta Hawks (pending NBA approval) faced the media with two surprising confessions: He’d never held a news conference before, and he was very nervous.
In fact, it took three tries just to get the obligatory Hawks cap on his head. He's not the typical high-powered, mega-wealthy kind of guy you might expect. He had something unexpected: humility.
To understand where that comes from, you have to understand where he came from.
Growing up, Alex Meruelo loved basketball. He was a starter for his California Catholic high school team. He loved the sport, but he was smart enough to know he wasn’t going to make a living at it. So when his dad offered for him to take over the family tuxedo business, you could say Meruelo’s basketball career came to a formal end.
This son of Cuban immigrants quickly found that although he was good at basketball, he was great at business. The empire he has created makes everything from pizzas to wind turbines. He got rich and got back to basketball. He will be the first Hispanic majority owner of an NBA team.
And I asked whether he knew, when he was negotiating the deal, that would be the headline.
"I’m not sure if you really think about it. It’s something that just happens. It happens," he said. "It’s something that, there’s no question that it’s a big responsibility. It’s something that at the same time, I’m very privileged. I’m honored. I want to make sure I do a good job.”
Media reports tell of his father leaving Cuba, setting up a new life in America. It's the American dream. So for Meruelo, emotions were likely to factor in.
"Emotion is a tremendous part of this deal. And I am trying to contain myself as much a possible because to explain it, how I feel or what I believe, is very hard to put into words right now. Very hard," he said. "It’s a dream come true, and Atlanta, I am so happy to be here. I’m happy to be part of this organization, and I am so committed to making sure we do the right thing, and I want to make sure that I own the respect. The loyalty of the Atlanta Hawks fans is something that is even more important to me.”
Does he feel he now has a sense of responsibility to the Hispanic community?
“Of course, when you put it like that, there is no question you have a sense of responsibility. I plan to make sure that I fulfill my sense of responsibility and to make sure that their voice is heard," he said. "It’s something that, again, I’m taken aback by, and I’m very proud of it, and I am very humbled.”
There was a moment during the first news conference when Meruelo seemed to get choked up. What had gotten to him?
"You want to see me cry, don’t you?" he quipped. "I’m extremely elated, and I am trying so hard to control my emotions, but I am sure you will see them on the court. You will see them in the games."
As a reporter, you can become jaded about interviewing important people. Sometimes, they use the interview as a way to advance their own agendas. This was not one of those times.
This was a kid whose mom and dad fled Castro and communism, a kid who loved a game but had to give it up to take on the family business. A kid who made it big and bought a team with hopes of making it great. I didn’t really want to make him cry. But it happened when I asked what his father would say.
“I’m sure he’s very proud of me," he simply said.
Each word was spoken haltingly, and his eyes were brimming with tears.
It was said in a way that made you realize, for Alex Meruelo, buying the Hawks was a big deal in more ways than one.