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. papakojo

    EHH??!! CNN is almost getting away with making this one up....he's not the first Hispanic owner in the NBA, MARK CUBAN is!!!! I bet readers here not being sports heads haven't caught it yet...wow

    August 9, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • papakojo

      sarcasm if you know..... can they qualify him as white Hispanic maybe?? does he tick visible minority on his applications??
      I think Mark Cuban has the name and a 'minortish' look to him....

      August 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  2. HelenHull102951

    It is bad enough we got mexicans. Now the cubans too? This country is going down in quality of people.

    August 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Papi Chulo(Cubanito liendo)

      Helen, maybe if you sampled some Cuban tube steak you would recant... lol

      Lets hook up and I'll show you what a true lover is all about(ED FREE).

      August 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      It went down when you got here Helen. Remember, there were hispanic people in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Arizona, and Nevada before they became states.

      August 9, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Papi Chulo(Cubanito liendo)

      Very true Frank, Unless Helen is Native Amercian, she needs to look in the mirror... lol

      August 9, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      SOme famous Cubans for you then you tell me. Andy Garcia, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Ciprian who is married to singer LeAnn Rimes. How about Daisy FUentes, Gloria Estefan. Same with Desie Arnaz , I LOVE LUCY, who married Lucy and was the reason the show became so famous. He did leave Cuba in the 40's Now tell me what is wrong with those White cubans?

      August 10, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tomas

    I am happy for this guy but lets not blow this out of proportion. Cubans are far more advanced as a society than much of Latin America. I am less than shocked at this man's success. I am sure he had a strong family that focused on education and believed in working hard. This man has more in common with middle class white kids whose grandparents are from Europe than he does with the growing Latino population in America. As soon as I saw this headline I knew he was either Cuban or Argentine. Let's stop pretending everyone from a Spanish speaking country stands for the same things.

    August 9, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • marc

      Let's stop pretending everyone from a Spanish speaking country stands for the same things you say....sure just as soon as it stop being done to people of other races.

      August 9, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Capitan Justicia

      Cubans are far more advanced than the rest of Latin America....driving vintage cars from the 1950's and making $10/hr?

      August 9, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • TonyMontana1

      In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.

      August 9, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Papi Chulo(Cubanito liendo)

      Nice TonyMontana1,... lol

      August 9, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • cruz

      cubans are white too, tomas

      August 9, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Angie

      I agree, I knew the person would be Cuban also just by reading the headlines. People reading this article need to understand these are Cubans that were exiled to the US, not Cubans living in the island nowadays. The strong sense of ethics, education and family values that we brought make us Cubans very different, we are considered to be the most successful immigration to the US due to the accomplishments made in this country.

      August 9, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Are u an idiot!! Far more advanced. What? Of the 120 latino Scientists working for NASA 88 of them are Puerto rican. Should they assume that they're more advanced. I've never heard such non sense in my life. One of the richest men in the world is Mexican. She Mexicans feel superior? You really need to relax. If you're Cuban, be proud but don't think your people better than any other latin person(s). What non sense!!

      August 9, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Puertoricana

      Angie–
      I think the majority of latinos who come to the U.S do so in the hopes of providing a better life and education for their families. To use such a broad statement that only Cubans have done this is ignorant. Where did you get your facts about the Cuban immigration being considered the most successful???? I have never heard nor would agree with that statement. Being humble is a part of this man's personality- maybe you should take some advice and be a little humble too.

      August 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      HE has more in common with those kds, since he grandparents also came from white Spain. Just like Andy Garcia or Cameron Diaz who are also Cuban.

      August 10, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Folks in proportion Cubans do much better in the USA than Pto Ricans or MExicans. That is a fact. The USA was closer to Cuban, pre Castro, than other nation in Latin America. Most Cubans who left in the late 50's or early 60's where pure white folks. Case in point, Andy Garcia, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Ciprian who is married to singer LeAnn Rimes. How about Daisy FUentes, Gloria Estefan. Same with Desie Arnaz , I LOVE LUCY, who married Lucy and was the reason the show became so famous. He did leave Cuba in the 40's
      ALso most MExicans in the USA are brown and native AMerican Indians. Same as folks from PEru, Ecuador, Guatemala. Argentinians are the most European folks outside of Europe. But they hardy left Argentina until a few yrs ago when their economic tank.

      August 10, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Also does Cuban who left, even today, were very educated. THat gives folks the drive to be successful. Most Mexicans and some Pto Ricans dont have the same level of education or drive. Most Mexicans only do manial work, dishwashers, gardener etc and never learn English. Also they are Indians so most folks will never hire them due to their lack of schooling or their ignorance or the fact that they are not white. Even when you look at Mexicans Soap operas you only see the white Mexicans in there.

      August 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. patricia

    I am cubano y I love tacos y frijoles. Es muy bueno, si ?

    August 9, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Papi Chulo(Cubanito liendo)

    Don't hate my Mexican friends,..

    US Census Bureau. Facts about Cuban American:
    Cuban Americans have acquired an enormous amount of wealth and prosperity in an extremely short period of time; no other immigrant group has achieved this as quickly as the Cubans. Many immigrants have never achieved it at all, despite being in this country far longer than Cubans.

    Second-generation Cuban-Americans were more educated than even Anglo-Americans. More than 26.1% of second-generation Cuban-Americans had a bachelor's degree or better versus 20.6% of Anglos. Thus Cuban-Americans in 1997 were approximately 25% more likely to have a college degree than Anglos.

    Other Hispanic groups lag far behind. Only 18.1% of South Americans had a bachelor's or better. Puerto Ricans, despite being U.S. citizens by birth, recorded a disappointing 11%; Mexicans only 7%.

    In 1997, 55.1% of second-generation Cuban-Americans had an income greater than $30,000 versus 44.1% of Anglo- Americans. Thus Cuban-Americans are approximately 20% more likely to earn more than $30,000 than their Anglo-American counterparts. All other Hispanic groups lag far behind in average income.

    In 1997, 36.9% of second-generation Cuban-Americans had an income greater than $50,000 versus 18.1% of Anglo- Americans. Cuban-Americans were twice as likely to earn more than $50,000. Also, approximately 11% of Cuban-Americans had incomes greater than $100,000 versus 9% of Anglo-Americans, and less than 2% of other Hispanics.

    Cubans comprise less than 4% of the U.S. Hispanic population, Mexicans 65%, Puerto Ricans 10%, Central and South Americans 11%, and "others" 10%. Yet of the top 100 richest Hispanics in the U.S., more than 50% are of Cuban descent (ten times what it should be on a population basis), and 38% of Mexican descent. The rest is scattered among all other Hispanic groups.

    August 9, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • marc

      Yeah, it's easy to acquire those things when you have drug money backing you up.

      August 9, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Papi Chulo(Cubanito liendo)

      LMAO HATER !!!!

      Scarface was fictional you tool !

      August 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • marc

      I'm no hater...cubans do deal alot with drugs it's a fact go down to Miami and see it for yourself.

      August 9, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      With much respect (and no Hate) I question your using a US Census article from 2002 which also has this disclaimer all throughout the article.

      The difference between Cubans and
      Central and South Americans is not statistically
      significant. In addition, the difference
      between Cubans and other Hispanics is not
      statistically significant. There is also no significant
      difference between Central and
      South Americans and other Hispanics.

      August 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hello , there!!

      and the whites Cubas are the most racist in the USA. I see that everyday on the Spanish tv talk shows, where usually the bottle blonds in Miami , hate everything dark and or Indian. they are really racists. One time a young Cuban girl who is stadying to be a doctor in New York, stated that she will have a hard time taking care of blacks or Indians .

      August 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nice , not really

      whites Cubas are the most racist in the USA. I see that everyday on the Spanish tv talk shows, where usually the bottle blonds in Miami , hate everything dark and or Indian. they are really racists. One time a young Cuban girl who is stadying to be a doctor in New York, stated that she will have a hard time taking care of blacks or Indians .

      August 9, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Val

      My two cents: Cuba was a different place before Castro. People who had money lost it, and those are mainly the ones who ended up coming here and passing on their values of education and hard work to their kids to continue their legacy. Those who didn't have money or weren't educated to begin with, however, didn't have as much of an incentive to leave. Therefore, the Cuban-Americans you speak of, Papi Chulo, are pretty much equivalent to Anglo-Americans who are educated and successful because the only Cuban-Americans that are here are those, and the children of those, who used to be successful in Cuba. If you brought over the rest of the island, I'm sure the rankings would be much different.
      In contrast, Mexican immigrants, for example, are usually impoverished and uneducated when they come here. Educated and successful Mexicans tend to stay in Mexico. So basically, the cream of the crop of Cubans are the ones that are in America, along with the less fortunate and less educated Mexicans. You can't really compare Cubans to the rest of the Hispanic populations in terms of successes.

      August 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • here in miami

      Papi Chulo. I don't deny the Success of Cubans, especially in Miami. But your numbers are skewed... how can you compare Cubans vs. South Americans as a whole?... Compare Country by counrty and you will see a difference. While Cubans are the highest in property ownership and voter representation in Miami, they do not hold the majority of College degrees, and highest paying jobs in america per capita. I do agree that as a whole that the Cubans have truly outshined Puerto ricans & Mexicans, but south americans have per captia have outshined those from Mexico, central america and the Caribbean. Remeber people from Venezuela & Ecuador that are coming now are the (oil industry) rich class that is far wealthier than the best of the Cubans that came in the 60's.

      August 9, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fidel

      My dear Cuban friends, I am very proud of your success as a Mexican national, The Cuban Revolution was planned and executed in Mexico, Fidel made a lot of mistake, but he did something that no Latin American Country has done , that is to educate all Cubans, Cubans living in Cuba are as highly educated as the ones living in America, that come from the Batista regime, most of them very wealthy, and highly educated, and of course white Spaniards, the mulatto and black Cubans were supporting Fidel Castro, I am proud of Cubans to me they are an example, I am Mexican from Mexico and I have the same level of education as a Cuban born in America, and I am also white, and I come from an upper middle class in Mexico, so my life is closer to the Cubans experience than many of the Mexicans that emigrate illegally and that their kids do not want to even complete High School , so my fellow Mexican American, you know what is the secret of the Cuban miracle, EDUCATION, and please do not play the minority victim race card

      August 10, 2011 at 3:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Dirk Waldon

      Hell! Stepping off of the boat you were given a free run of the place without nailing one board. The crap needs to stop to ALL those ungratefuls from the South Island. Castro WAS correct and he should be replaced by another just like him (though not communist).

      August 10, 2011 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      What's a Hispanic anyhow?

      August 10, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Toro99

    "Cubans are far more advanced as a society than much of Latin America."

    So you think that mixing the indegeneous blood with European blood had something to do with the behavior of Latin Americans ?

    August 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      THe problem is that most of those native american indians are treated the same way as they were when the White Spaniards conquered the world. THat is the reason those indian hispanic folks got to homedepot each morning. ZERO education and zero knowledge of the English language. ALl they care is to get a cleaning or construction job, get pay at the end and life goes on. Yrs later their children will do the same type of work and every now and then one or two will shine and make it to college and into the pro world.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mack

    @ YoMama:
    I have known many Cubans who fled Castro's regime to live in the USA.
    After reading your post, I tried to think of one (1) who did not support himself with hard work, usually in a field requiring considerable education.
    The Cubans I know contribute meaningfully to the USA.
    I agree with you that many regulations concerning social programs provide a disincentive to work at all. This should be changed.
    However, I knew a legal (student) immigrant from Spain who often lived on nothing but bulk-bought rice for months at a time.

    August 9, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Toro99

    "Papi Chulo(Cubanito liendo)

    Don't hate my Mexican friends,..

    US Census Bureau. Facts about Cuban American:
    Cuban Americans have acquired an enormous amount of wealth and prosperity in an extremely short period of time; no other immigrant group has achieved this as quickly as the Cubans. Many immigrants have never achieved it at all, despite being in this country far longer than Cubans."
    =============================================================

    Yes but you got to remember that the wealthy Cubans that are here came mostly from the Elite Upper-Classes in Cuba who were either kicked out by Castro, or were forced to move after the Revolution. This gave them a serious advantage over their Latino brethren.

    August 9, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • cruz

      toro99
      what is the difference between "kicked out" and "forced out"? you should be reading books about cuba before you spout of things you haven't any knowledge about like only the rich were able to flee.
      fidel castro is one of the richest gangsters in the world
      felicidades mr. meruelo!

      August 9, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  9. marc

    He will probably change the english word on their jersey to spanish, like the Miami Heat do some times. Their jersey says EL Heat at some of their games it's just so sad.

    August 9, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Keisha

    I am glad to hear a good story about someone who was able to acquire the American dream of ownership. I just really wish we have an honest conversation without generalizations based on race and ethnic background. It's so sickening.

    August 9, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Me

    Latinos are hard working people. It does not matter the country where we are from. We are a group that believe in family values and try hard to do our best in everything we do. Let's be the force we need to be. We need to be united in 2012.

    August 9, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      And you r children have a near 50% H.S. dropout rate, but hey, they have Latino gangs to unite them.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
  12. frances

    hispanic? born in cuba?
    really?

    August 9, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Miss Sunshine

    Cuba is poor and a disgrace and actually Mexico is much more advanced and economically stable than Cuba...Its just that Cubans get automatic citizenship when they get here(step on land) and everyone else has to pay alot of money and and work a whole lot to get the money to pay for their "way to citizenship". Carlos Slim (RICHEST MAN IN THE WORLD...IS A MEXICAN). I have to say Mexicans are the hardest workers and the friendliest of the bunch, and I teach at a community college and they are and sound a lot smarter than the Cubans I've dealt with.

    August 9, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Papi Chulo(Cubanito liendo)

      Miss Sunshine, please pass the green stuff that your Mexican friends passed along to you. Did you know that Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the world (3rd world countries)? Actually, it's higher than Mexico’s. Go Figure.. lol

      August 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cman

      Hi Miss Sunshine, I'm Mexican-American. I was born in Mexico. I served ten years in the military. Served two tours in the middle east during the first Gulf War. I have a Bachelor Degree, and a very good job. I agree with you that one of the main reasons that Cubans are so much better off than other Hispanics living in the U.S. is because they do get a free meal ticket from the U.S. government when they come to this country, and the rest of us have to wait many years and pay thousands of dollars in fees to get our citizenship and right to work legally.

      But, I do not believe that any one ethnic group is smarter than another. I believe that the reason there are so many successful Cubans in this country is because only the rich could afford to escape Cuba when Castro took over. Therefore, back in the 60s, a large number of wealthy Cubans immigrated to this country at the same time and many of them became even ricker when they came here.

      August 9, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Papi Chulo(Cubanito liendo)

      CMAN, I understand what you're saying, but the fact is.. We took advantage of this so called "free ride" and better ourselves, instead of sapping the system like majority of other Spanish speaking nationalities (Mexicans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, etc..).

      August 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Miss sunshine I am not cuban but your are so wrong. Cubans that come here are very educated. Some with 2 for 4 college and post graduates degrees. They have the drive and motivation and the tools. Why settle as a dishwasher or a construction worker when you have a solid university degree. When you are already a doctor or a professor. Most of those Mexicans only have a 3rd or 4th elem school degree. Also the fact that they are brown native american indians doesnt help. Sorry but that is how our world view those dark indians Hispanics. Same as black hispanics. Hey is the same how folks in the USA treat blacks.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      Wow, cut off funding for junior colleges. Average Mexican earns ~$300 /month and yet a Mexican is one of the richest people in the world. That is a direct reflection on a country that has FAILED to provide its own people with economic opportunities. Mexico is ~200 years old, USA~ 235, yet ~ 20% of Mexican people are in the USA, not necessarily because they want to, but Mexico has failed them.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Cman

    Is possible that the percentage of successful Cuban-Americans is higher than most other ethnic groups because the only Cubans that could afford to escape from Cuba when Castro took over were those that had money?

    August 9, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • cruz

      ignorant and misinformed reply. not all cubans fled castor's dystopia were rich. my family was not rich, they rented their house, and they fled because they were not communists. castro is a despot and anyone who doesn't' believe it is plain ignorant.

      August 9, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jeffers

    It doesn't matter if this guy was Black or Asian or whatever ethnic background... HE'S RICH. Are we really going to believe that everyone doesn't speak green? I could give $50 million to a hobo on the street and they could be approved in minutes to purchase anything his/her heart desired. Seriously? We're going to try to say this Cuban guy is breaking the racial boundaries because of his authentic Cuban background? who gives a crap? The guy is loaded; seriously look at his website... the Meruelo Group (Food & Gaming, Real Estate, Venture Capital, Construction, Television, etc). In the end, money is all that matters on a capitalistic society NOT racial backgrounds.

    August 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
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