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. Canadian Genius

    Say hello to my little friend!

    August 9, 2011 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
    • johnnyO

      hell-o my little friend

      August 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • MIghty7

      I have no interest on saluting your penis.

      August 9, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mack

    Anybody who had enough sense and power to flee Cuba when Castro came in did a wonderful thing for himself and his descendants.
    Communism is horrible.

    August 9, 2011 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  3. gfg

    CNN: KEEP THE HATE ALIVE FOR PROFIT

    August 9, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Monsters INC/Taliban/CNN Puppet Show

    Rawrrrr! Bad Castro! Grrrrrr..

    August 9, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Cesar

    Why would anyone flee beautiful communist Cuba?

    August 9, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • johnnyO

      forgive Cuba, I want to visit.. its a awesome place for vacation.... its on my bucket list

      August 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Khaigne

    I only wish the best for this gentleperson,this is truly what America is all about.

    August 9, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • NotPoliticallyCorrect

      Agreed. America is about foreigners coming here and taking over our companies. Oh yeah, and outsourcing also.

      August 9, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex

      The opportunity has always been here for everyone; and no one took it. Leave it to a few LEGAL immigrants to come , see the opportunity, and take it... Where's everyone else? Either working for a union or complaining about "they took it from us"...lol..

      August 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      NotPoliticallyCorrect-YOUR companies??? What company have YOU founded, pray tell? AWWW, did some imaginary Speedy Gonzalez buy out your imaginary cheese factory, in your imaginary world as an entrepreneurial captain of industry? Poor baby!!!

      August 10, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. nickp

    When approved, Alex Meruelo will be just the 4th majority owner in Hawks franchise history,

    August 9, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. kevin

    Meruelo. That sounds like a mexican name. Is he a mexican or cuban? They need to make sure he is over here legally.

    August 9, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • RVH

      Are you kidding? The last name is Spanish in its origin and any American with ancestry in any Latin American country could have this name. Where did your ancestors come from? A land without books is my guess.

      August 9, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ohbama

      you'd better work hard. stop hardly working. US credit rating got downgraded because of too many people like you. work hard. stop hardly working.

      August 9, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Qeddqesurdug

    "Agreed. America is about foreigners coming here and taking over our companies. Oh yeah, and outsourcing also."

    Can't tell if joke, or just really stupid.

    August 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex

      Blame it on yourselves for asking for too much... If I can eliminate 100 positions in my facility in the US , that I paid $18 – $22 an hour and the workers didn't want less $, and I can get it done in China for $3 / hour..you just lost your job, vs a cut in pay, lol....

      August 9, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. R

    Handle your business. Congratulations

    August 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Dave from GA

    Very nice to see this. Hope he will help make Hawks a big difference. We will see. BTW I am the Hawks fan. Go Hawks!

    August 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Hotpants

    Your mom goes to college.

    August 9, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Playjojo

      Wow, what a zinger! Right between, um... You got me right between...I mean that hurts...Thanks for the compliment.

      August 9, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • your mom

      Tee hee.

      August 9, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. natalie

    This is just horrible. More hispanics stealing our jobs. He needs to be sent back to cuba before he causes even more trouble. This is s sad day in america.

    August 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • LCJR

      oh, because you were just about to buy the Hawks, right?
      Maybe instead of sitting around being racist, you can learn from this guy, work harder, and make something of yourself one day. And no, I'm not Hispanic.

      August 9, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex

      What have you done for yourself? I bet you've been here longer than he has.....The opportunity was there... why didn't you or any of your "brothers" and "sisters" take the opportunity and buy the franchise vs just working at the snack stand during games?

      August 9, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ohbama

      natalie, work hard. stop hardly working. US credit rating got downgraded because of too many people like you. work hard. stop hardly working.

      August 9, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • lobo

      you so stupid

      August 9, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      Natalie, like a lot of people in this country, you are one heck of a dreamer; problem is, it seems like you are the type who howls and whines whenever you wake up, woohooWAAAAAAH, WAAAAHH!

      August 10, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. noocp

    As a member of the noocp i think this is racism. Here a cuban is trying to be the boss of up black peoples.

    August 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Got'em

      You're an idiot noocp! Shut up!

      August 9, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • alex

      At least he doesn't have them picking cotton; they are being utilized for playing sports... more jobs... I congratulate the new owner, great work

      August 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ohbama

      work hard. stop hardly working. US credit rating got downgraded because of too many people like you. work hard. stop hardly working.

      August 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  15. sigh...

    After reading all of these comments, I think Thich Quang Duc had the right idea.

    August 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Interesting

      @sigh...: Admittedly I had to Google the name, but I know the picture from many years ago. It's a truly horrific set of photos. I see a lot of similarities between martyrs from different religions. Jesus was tortured, emasculated, humiliated, and then nailed to a cross.. William Wallace was not a religious leader, but met a similar fate. This Duc guy was fighting oppression by setting himself on fire. Now I don't want to crawl inside the minds of men who do these things, but they all have the same agenda and that is to fight back against tyranny by sacrificing themselves. Human sacrifice essentially. Duc had copycats he inspired too. My own personal feelings are that anyone is free to believe what they want provided it does not hinder the lives or souls of other people. The underlying theme here is aimed at a dictator. Lucifer no doubt thought God was an oppressive dictator with silly rules, so he was cast down here. I believe the burning monk symbolizes him choosing h_e_l_l over God's rules. I'm sure God's rules are quite reasonable.. No lying, cheating, stealing, killing, hurting others etc.. Obviously as we see going on here in this world there is lots of hypocrisy among leaders and religious establishments which is meant to make our creator look mean, callous, foolish and hypocritical. If one person rejects the government leaders then they are led into religions where the establishment is just as bad. Just my opinion, but I've been wrong before obviously.

      August 9, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • sigh...

      Pretty deep stuff. But all I meant was that reading some of these moronic comments makes me want to set myself ablaze.

      August 10, 2011 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
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