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. The Selfish Meme

    A Cuban was fired from CNN because of John "the Snake".

    August 9, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sonrisa

    Mr. Meruelo is an inspiration. He made it, good for him! He's also good-looking!

    August 9, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Toro99

    What gets me about Cubans is that they are the only hispanics who overwhelminhgly vote Republican. One Cuban lady on my job hated Democrats so much she started calling them monkeys. This upset allot of people !

    August 9, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kimberly

      Mexicans only vote Republicans, they are so ignorant, in Las Vegas , during election time, you will see how Mexicans vote Republican.

      August 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dirk Waldon

      I feel the same way about 'CUBANS. I love and can tolerate ALL Hispanics except for that breed of (think that they're a blessing to America) YAHOOS. Recind that law that helps them become 'Touch the Soil, You're a Citizen Program.' They are not as grateful as the Mexican Americans whom are TRUE deservers of a fair chance for a piece of this pie. CUBANS sux!!!

      August 9, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • OoohYea

      What has that got to do with him buying the hawks? Is it just in your nature to stick politics into everything.

      August 9, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • BOB

      @kimberly you ma'am are retarded! Mexicans make up a huge portion of democratic Votes. Know your facts idiot, trust me mexicans are not intrested in republicans who DONT RULE IN THEIR FAVOR. I hate stupid people.

      August 9, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Coldwar153

      You people don't know what your are talking about. Only Americans can vote in U.S. elections. Or are you referring to Americans that can trace their roots back to Mexico or Cuba, or wherever their parents are from?? It doesn't matter to me, nor should it matter to anyone else where his parents are from! He is a successful American. Period. Good for him!

      August 9, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ace

      To answer the question why the majority of Cuban Americans vote republican; it goes back to the days of the Bay of Pigs and the Kennedy Administration. For those generation of Cubans; when they put together a plan to take back their country; then President Kennedy promised the Cuban Exiles that he would support an invasion of Cuba by providing them with military training; troops, and Air and Naval support. As history shows; after Kennedy's commitment to the Cuban Exiles; the former USSR gave Kennedy a choice; don't invade or interfere in Cuba; OR risk all out war with the USSR since Cuba was their ally! Once the Cuban Exiles invaded Cuba and were dependant on US support; Kennedy then pulled back all support and let the Cuban Exiles that fought get captured or killed. It was called the Bay of Pigs and it reinforced Castro's and Che's resolve. Sinse then; older generation Cubans have taken a great distrust over Democratic politicians and go Republican because of the Republican stance of a super strong military. Older generation Cubans; of course; pass down their ideas and beliefs to their children; but believe me; there are a huge number of Cuban American Born families that DO vote for Democrats! The younger generation born here; of course; have the benefit of understanding their heritage; but at the same time embrace both American and Cuban ideaologies. AS to whether people think Kennedy did the right thing is for history to decide. Since I was born in that era; I can tell you that it must of been a super tough call for Kennedy to pull back on the Bay of Pigs. Freedom for a people in a carribean island or World War III with nuclear holocaust! I can understand sympathize how the older generation Cubans could of taken Kennedy's actions as betrayal; but I can also understand and sympathize the extraordinary position Kennedy and world leaders were in at those times! Its s double blade sword; it sucks and there is nothing to like about it.

      August 9, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ace

      I have a type-O!!! I WASN"T born in that era! I typed to fast on that one! But to clarify; I was not born during that era! I'm a Cuban American born 16 years after the Bay of Pigs!

      August 9, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. djwazu

    Looks like a white guy to me! lol

    August 9, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • MIghty7

      MOst Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Argentinians, Uruguayans and Chileans are of European descend.

      August 9, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      There are two kinds of Hispanics... the white ones and the brown ones. The white ones discriminated the brown ones in Mexico and try to get rid of them by moving them to the United States... and call us racists if we don't accept the brown ones. You go to Mexico, and you pretty much find a lot of white ones who are pretty rich.

      August 9, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • MIghty7

      You mean....unlike....I don't know.....pretty much ANYWHERE IS THE UNITED STATES FOR THE LAST 250 years?

      Except in the Fairfax district of LA...I hear there are rich black people there.

      August 9, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • BOB

      Plain and simple MEXICANS and Cubans DONT GET ALONG!

      August 9, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      So you are saying that Hispanics are Mexicans...you are wrong buddy, Hispanics are from all over Central and South America. People like you are so damn ignorant, educate yourself first!

      August 9, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Mighty I wouldnt put Pto Rico in there. The rest yes. Specially Argentina. IN fact Argentina is more EUROPEAN than the USA!!

      August 10, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Kimberly

    if you ever lived in Miami, will know how racist the white Cubans are, they really do not care for dark skinned people. I agree, the white, rich Mexicans, are racists as well. It seems that they believe that light skin makes them superior to others.

    August 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      This is true.

      August 9, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      VOILA KImberly welcome to the real world. Racism happens all over!
      Don t you know that the WHite SPaniards were the ones who brought the black slaves into AMerica after killing too many "weak" indians.
      ALl of those White Cubans who live in MIami have European SPanish blood in them.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Pedro

    Mi burrito es mucho grabde ! Mucho grande ! y es bueno 🙂

    August 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mike Mc

    This is rediculous. Cubans are not minorities. If an Italian, French, Spanish, Portugese, Romanian or Romansche speaking Swiss individual immigrates to the United States, they will not be considered a "minority." Just another caucasian immigrant whose children will be viewed as just another one of those pesky racist white people. Yet, if your ancestry happens to be from a Spanish speaking island (not Spain of course) then you are an oppressed minority. Even if Cubans happen to be 65% Caucasian/European

    August 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • PC2

      Trust me, most Cubans would agree with you on this and think it's ridiculous that they're considered an oppressed minority. The joke here has always been that "you're just another white kid until you leave Miami" for college, where everyone will ask you about tacos.

      August 9, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • fasdfa

      hmmm, Cubans are not 65% caucasians, maybe the cubans from miami are and that is because they were the ones with means to leave Cuba when castro took over. In the Caribbean Cuba had one of the largest slave populations, and they intermixed. Cuban are a mixed race, like the rest of the caribbean. They may want to be Caucasian, but just because you want to, does not make it so.

      August 9, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kim harrington

    This is a fantastic story and it deserves all the attention that it has garnered. I lived in Atlanta for 6 years and was a season ticket holder during the, let's just say "difficult" times. I appreciate individuals that have made their way in life through hard work and dedication. You can either be a great example or a horrible warning. Mr. Meruelo is a great example!

    August 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. love Cubans

    lets face it Cubans and South American men are the best lovers (not so much the Mexicans), they will show you what heavens is.

    August 9, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • IPityU

      w h o ring around much lately?

      August 9, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dirk Waldon

      Those down breded (mixture of a little Euorpean; African; and Western American Indian) 'Jokers wouldn't know a good lover if they were to trip over him on the bus station floor. I'm just saying!

      August 10, 2011 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      "what heavens is." Wow, anyone arguing that Cubans are intelligent just suffered a setback.

      August 10, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Randy

    Free taco night now at Atlanta games!!!!

    August 9, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pitbull

      What about burritos?

      August 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      LOve to see how dumb the USA is. What does a person from Cuba has to do with tacos or burritos?

      NOBODY in Cuba eat those fat things.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Kim Harrington

    I don't normally respond to other posts, especially when they are so negative and generalize people. Hard work is not the enemy of enthusiasm. I was in the United States Marine Corps for 6 years, served my country and I'm proud to be a part of this "still" vibrant and great nation. Whether I agree or disagree with anyone's politics has absolutely nothing to do with carrying yourself with dignity and respect. You only get one shot at life. Don't be part of the persistent, ignorant racism that is passed down from one generation to the next.

    August 9, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Rebecca

    who cares! We just lost 30 Americans' in Afganastan. Our country is at war with how many countries?? Our economy is in shambles, our government stinks, and on and on...

    August 9, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • NoVictims

      Here's the truth: The United States government is voted in by "We the people..." If the "government" stinks, it's because "we" chose it through voting. Whatever is wrong with our congress and how it's doing's it's job, it OUR fault. We are to blame. That's what a so-called "free democracy" is. It might be helpful to know how the country you live in works before you espouse an opinion about it. If we want things to change, then, we vote in a congress that will NOT be divided, but, do what the majority asks of it. Currently, "We the people..." hired a bunch of paid corporate shills determined to play politics with the American people's money, jobs, education and future. This is what folks wanted, for some illogical reason. Congratulations. You got your wish, rather, what you voted for...a living hell. Wonder why so many mass recalls of politicians is happening. Buyers remorse?

      August 9, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. colazo1948

    I wish people would stop calling us "hispanics" there is no such a name, that was a generic term applied to us long time ago why?... I don't have any idea.
    You see; Germans come from Germany,Italians from Italy, Brazilians from Brazil and so on and so on, can somebody tell me where Hispanics come from?...Hispania? there is no such a country or continent in this planet that I know of.

    August 9, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • MIghty7

      Tell me about it: I happen to be from Spain but have the unfortunate luck of having the three most common Mexican name and last names. A TOTAL nightmare, mostly because most of the yokels out there cannot tell the difference between a Mexican, a Puerto Rican or a Chilean. To make matters worst.....in person I look Armenian. Go figure.

      August 9, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Robita

    A lot of the people who fled Cuba had money. Isn't that what the revolution there was about? So, yes, the Cubans here are very conservative, because they have MONEY. It's not a rags to riches story, and he dosn't represent the majority of hispanics so who cares.

    August 9, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Actually many of those Cubans left everything behind. Some had banks accts in the USA but most didnt. What they have in common is that they were White and highly educated and motivated. NO your ignorant homedepot worker who is a brown mexican indian.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  15. tomas

    My burro is muco grande for kimberly and all your sisters,eat lt, stuff it in you mouths

    August 9, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
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