August 9th, 2011
11:39 AM ET

Path to a dream: From a family that fled Castro to first Hispanic NBA owner

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.

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Filed under: Basketball • Sports
soundoff (283 Responses)
  1. trinidad

    what is the age you people are responding to this ad. Really.get a life.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
  2. ElGatoGrande

    And here we go!Instead of all of us Hispanics celebrate the accomplishments of one of us,we start arguing who's better among things is clear ;we all came here looking for a better life and we are the ones holding us back.Just look at this comments ,all it takes is one racist comment from an idiot and we fall for it! We are smarter that that...our culture is over 450 years old,twice that of US and only behind Europe...let's start showing what we really are and not what the haters think of us...en la union esta la fuerza!!!!

    August 11, 2011 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Vashon

      I was born here and so was my dad. My father's family has lived in the "United States" for over 1500 years, and yes, we are of Mexican descent, but more overarching we are Native Americans.

      August 11, 2011 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
  3. Ray

    To Rob who writes:

    "Yea and this Hispanic owner looks more Caucasian than I do and I'm mostly Irish..."

    Uh, that's because he is Caucasian. Caucasian and Hispanic are not mutually exclusive. Fair skinned, blue-eyed Alex Meruelo like many Cubans is obviously of pure Spanish ancestry. Spain is a European country with a wide range of phenotypes from the mostly dark-haired, brown eyed Andalusians to the fair [often blue eyed, blond] Iberocelts of Asturias and Galicia. Surprise! Yes, there are Celts in Spain! And they even play the bagpipe which they call a gaita.

    In any case, the news of Alex Meruelo buying a basketball team is news because CNN decided to turn it into news! However, they are being deceptive. They are pandering to Hispanics who if taken as a whole without factoring in Cubans would be much worst off than they already are. The fact is that Cuban Americans are not your typical Hispanics and have succeeded where other Hispanics have not. As an example, of the top 100 Hispanics in the USA that make over $100,000,000 a year, the majority are Cubans even though Cubans only make 4% of the Hispanic community.

    If Mr. Meruelo's success were considered against the backdrop of other Cuban Americans, it would not be considered outstanding, because there have been many successful Cubans before him such as the late Roberto Goizueta who was the CEO of Coca-cola, or the former CEO of Kelloggs who was also a Cuban-American, etc... Used against the backdrop of Hispanics, it becomes news because there is a very high poverty level among Hispanics. Thus, this story is misleading.

    August 12, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Ray

    It's unbelievable how an inspiring story is used by some people on this board as an opportunity to attack this man who has done nothing wrong. The total opposite, he is a very positive role-model to anyone: a living Horacio Alger story. He is the very essence of the American dream. The prejudiced stupidity on this board is just mind-boggling. Cubans are not Mexican [not that there is anything negative about being Mexican, its just that not all Hispanics are the same. Despite commonalities, Hispanics are often different racially and culturally], and, YES, there are white Hispanics. If a Hispanic person's ancestors are Europeans then that person is white as in the case of this fair-skinned, blue eyed Cuban-American businessman. There is a very simple explanation as to why he has a 100% looking European physiognomy, because that is what he is: a European-Cuban. No different than any American whose ancestors came from Europe, but who was born in the USA.

    August 13, 2011 at 5:36 am | Report abuse |
    • AmazingG

      Ray: Right on. You couldn't have said it better but don't expect any understandng. It is AMAZING how almost impossible it is to educate those that thrive on their ignorance. I would say this gentleman is to be commended for his accomplishments and for his show of humility regardless of his heritage. The fact that someone has worked hard and has accomplished, inspite of challeged beginnings, is the main point of this story. And yes, people of hispanic origins come in many tones, from very fair to very black..just like Americans and others and so what? As a matter of fact, a little known fact is that until a few years ago, there were no blacks in Chile, yet Chile is a 'hispanic' country. Thank you, Ray, for making an attempt to enlighten the ignorants.

      August 15, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
  5. KPC

    Don't let his tears fool you. This guy is a true jerk. He recently purchased the KWHY TV station from Comcast/NBC/Universal and is already not honoring the contract to pay the sales people their quarterly commission. He has changed it to annual. He thinks he is an incredible business man when he walks all over anybody he can just to earn a $.

    August 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
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