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. banasy

    Like you've ever had a shot at owning the Atlanta Hawks, Natalie.

    Congratulations, Alex Meruelo.
    May you enjoy every success.

    August 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Khaigne

    Did IQS just suddenly drop out of sight for the nonce? This is a prime example of what hard work, family and diligence can do in just one generation. That 's the kind of neighbor I'd like to have. Truly American.

    August 9, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  3. gung hoe

    And just yesterday there was a article about older people teaching our people racism in the blogs before mine racism was sure shining through but with that said everybody that was condeming him for being not being a american and taking their jobsI would like you to keep posting and condeming him if your are american indian otherwise your no better than he is

    August 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  4. alex

    Get your facts straight before you post something... It's the Mexicans, not the Cubans that ride like that... Unless you have a source for your info that you can post a link to.

    August 9, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ruben Fonseca

      Alex, who are you referring to? Hotpants or Patricia. By the tell Marc he way out of line with his remark.

      August 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  5. YoMama

    Why do cubans get a free pass to enter the United States without no problems. Thousands enter the United States every year and they take more than they contribute. As soon as they get here they apply for food stamps and they are given to them within 48 hours and keep in mind at this point they have not paid 1 cent in taxes. It is not fair to the people of Florida. A 25 year old American in Florida making more than $900 a month does not qualify for food stamps even though they have paid into the system. This is not fair and unjust.

    August 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Papi Chulo(Cubanito liendo)

      Do your homework man, Cubans work for what they get, we don't accept hand outs.

      August 9, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Here in Miami

      Actually Cubans do qualify and get SSI as soon as they get into the USA. They have an unfair advantage versus other immigrant hispanics. However, that being siad the Cubans have not squandered their opportunity and have been quite succesful.

      August 9, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam Munoz

      Any of you thinking all Cuban's are CEO's that never use or need government assistance need to go visit Hialeah in Miami.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      Good question. We know the nonsensical answer, but as the Obama's sue the individual states trying to deal withe the invasion from Mexico, rest assured, they are catching up.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Pedro

    OLE i say. OLE !

    August 9, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Thrasher fan

    Wish he loved hockey too (we will miss the Thrashers)!

    August 9, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  8. jacob

    Wish you luck. visit –> coolcent. com

    August 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Khaigne

    "CAINT A WHITE LOOKIN CUBAN MAN HAVE A SUITCASE!!?? DAMNNNN !!And an NBA team? How white do you have to be to be an American?

    August 9, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      He is not white looking. He is plain caucasian.

      August 10, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Justa

    Sure, alex, and I would love to see the employers who out source pay heavy taxes. Makes sense, doesn't it? After all, you wouldn't mind paying more taxes, being that you're saving so much on wages and bennies, right? Or are you just another ass hole fat cat that lines their own pockets while the rest of America goes down the tubes?
    Do you really think ANYONE (even yourself, you self-indulgent doofus) can survive on $3. an hour? Really?
    More and more workers are taking cuts in pay, but more and more employers are just like you; may you go out of business and reap what you have sown, you un-american bozo!

    August 9, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  11. RanWell

    Good for him! I am happy that we are going to have one person to blame or give credit to for hawks accomplishments. the previous owners ran the team into the ground and made horrible decisions. I hope he does well because i would love for the city of Atlanta to win one or at least be serious continders.

    August 9, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  12. cubanamerican

    not all hispanics are mexican and the surname Meruelo has origins from Spain. You missed the whole point of the story, that regardless of being a minority, this is an example of how to accomplish a dream and that regardless of where you are from you can do it...stop saying ignorant things that make the rest of hispanics look stupid. hispanics are not about eating tacos and burritos but smart, hardworking, inspirational and caring people and we need to stop putting ourselves down.

    August 9, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Yes but he is no a minority. REally. He is a white Hispanic. Is like saying cuban Cameron Diaz is also a minority LOL

      August 10, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam Munoz

      You are confusing race and ethnicity. All Cubans regardless of their color are minorities. On your census form it specifically says White (Non-Hispanic) in recognition of this.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      What about enchiladas?

      August 10, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Pedro

    Im from mexico and love tacos ! OLE ! Tacos really are pretty bueno.

    August 9, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Khaigne

    Somebody did well. Is that so wrong??

    August 9, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Juan

    Mark Cuban is a great owner!

    August 9, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
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