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. Jerry

    How idiotic can some "posters" be!? What does this have to do with partisan politics? Go Alex, go!!! And of course, when it comes time to make your political decisions, go with what your bright mind dictates. And most of all, try and ignore some of the "moronic" comments you are bound to hear.

    We need more Latinos who will always remember where they came from, and am hopeful that you will inspire other Spanish speakers to follow in your foot steps.

    August 9, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. zeldo

    stop with the first this the first that.
    we are sick and tired of this crap.
    what about italians, jews, russians, polish, irish, czecoslavokians, russians, greeks, israelis and others.
    we dont wish to hear this crap anymore.

    August 9, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. David

    Ok people seriously, why did this turn into a racial 'mexicans-vs-cubans' or 'cubans vote republican' issue?

    Talk about the owner's humility as opposed to every other owner's flamboyance.
    Talk about how this shows the increase in Latino population.
    Talk about how beautiful it is to see a Latino rising through the ranks and doing something POSITIVE in a highly visible position in a top American sport.

    Grow up.

    August 9, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Darin

      I thought Mark Cuban was hispanic. I could be wrong, but if so, then this guy is not the first hispanic owner of an NBA team.

      August 9, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marco

      James,
      There is no such thing as a "native american Latinos." Native American are just Native Americans. Nothing Latino about Native Americans. What the hell are you talking about white and brown Latinos? Just a ridiculous comment. Comments like this is why we have racism. Someone is not good enough because they don't fall inside your standards of what's Latino or white or whatever. Latino is white/Caucasian by the way.

      August 9, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marco

      Mark Cuban is from a jewish family in Pennsylvania. He is Russian. Cuban was shortened from the last name Chabenisky.

      August 9, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • correction

      Marc Cuban is Jewish.

      August 9, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • imuststandup

      Thanks, David, for inserting some common sense into these comments. Some of you people are hateful, HATEFUL people. 🙁

      August 9, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • jacob

      Try visiting CoolCent. com

      August 9, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Mark Cuban maybe Jewish but 500 yrs ago his ancestry were living in Spain until they all got kick out cuz they were JEwish and were not white enough. FUnny huh?

      August 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Marco you are totally right. I meant to say native american Indian. And yes Latinos=Latin are actually the real SPANISH, ITALIAN, FRENCH, PORTUGUESE AND ROMANIANS!

      August 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Young Legend

    http://meruelogroup.com/

    Way to namecheck "the empire that he has created", CNN.

    August 9, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
  5. James Taylor

    Most of those who fled Cuba in those days were the White Latinos. FOlks like Andy Garcia, Cameron Diaz etc They work hard for it. Ironically also in Atlanta, until he passed away a few yrs ago, the president of Coca Cola was also a white Cuban.

    Even country singer Lean Rimes married handsome cuban actor Eddie Cibrian

    August 9, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      What is a white Latino?

      August 10, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
  6. AffiliatedByNature

    what a tripp, this guy went to Cal State Long Beach

    August 9, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. rh

    Maybe his dream is not to be first pegged as a Hispanic.

    And honestly, 100% Spanish heritage people who happen to live somewhere other than Spain are Spanish, not Hispanic. Hispanic or Latino denotes a mixture of Spanish and non-Spanish blood, or non-Spanish descent 100% but speaking Spanish. The guy is white, face it.

    August 9, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • IPityU

      Latinos and Hispanics is a reference to ETHNICITY not RACE.
      Hispanics are blonde blue eyed (i.e. Cristina Saralegui). Fair skin and dark hair (i.e. Shakira). Dark hair and dark skin (i.e. George Lopez). Black skin african texture hair (i.e. Samy Sosa).

      Educate yourself on the difference between race and ethnicity, or at least don't let your ignorance show!

      August 9, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Charlie

      RH is correct! The term hispanic is something that is abused in America for poitical gain. There is no such thing as a unified 'hispanic" culture. As a whtie (Italian/French) male from Argentina, I am a white male; not hispanic. The new owner of the Hawks is also caucasian.

      August 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Also Cameron Diaz, Daisy Fuentes, Cristina Aguilera and Eddi Ciprian.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      IPItyU You may wish to go research that.

      August 10, 2011 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |
  8. the_dude

    Marc Cuban is from cuba. You got this wrong cnn.

    August 9, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marco

      Mark Cuban is from a jewish family in Pennsylvania. He is Russian. Cuban was shortened from the last name Chabenisky.

      August 9, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Bill Clinton

    Has anybody checked this guy's immigration status?

    August 9, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marco

      Are any of you familiar with immigration and Cuba? If you make it to US shores you get citizenship. Simple. That's the law regards to Cuba. Doesn't mean we won't try to stop you. That is why there were/is crudely made rafts leaving Cuba for the US.

      August 9, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Ron Paul

    Has anybody checked this guy's immigration papers?

    August 9, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jame

      Yeah he's a citizen. It was redundant to check, but i did, for you. yes he is a US citizen. And he was never an immigrant... he was born to immigrant par..... oh wait that's right, skin color/race determines how "american" a person is to someone like you. To answer your question and tell you what you want to hear, he's an illegal alien who crossed the border from mexico illegally.

      August 9, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • RP

      Psssssssssssssssttt, Jame, fyi I'm not really Ron Paul. That was SATIRE:

      Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement.[1] Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon.

      August 9, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      No time yet, still researching Obama's.

      August 10, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ArtMan

    After suffering through the fiasco that was the Atlanta Spirit group, Alex Meruelo brings hope to Hawks fans.

    I hope he begins by getting a new GM and coach.

    August 9, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  12. nostradamus

    If there is an absolutely manipulated and distorted subject in the modern history of the United States, is about Cuba – US relation and the facts that taken to Fidel Castro and his "revolucionarios to depose the corrupt and criminal pro-American government of Batista. Cuban "exiles" that started fleeing off Cuba even before the revolution, didn't come "nudes" to the United States, as they used to say. This is bull. It's well known that many of the first Cuban "refugees" spoiled and looitered the Cuban National Bank, bringing millions stolen dollars to Miami Banks. Besides, no other foreign community have received more Immigration benefits and preferential treatment in the US, that Cubans. Perhaps you ignore, in the 60's, the CIA created a payroll of Cubans and the Agency obtained for free, for many of them, expensive franchises like dealers Ford, GMC, Chrysler, Brand Furnitures, etc, plus the State Department created also a multimillonaire fundation benefiting exclusively to Cubans so they could apply for loans (no interest charge) to open any kind of business.....Cubans were not stupids. They invested millions and millions of dollars (of mine and your taxes) in the Construction business and even they funded Banks with that money...... Never, ever, in the history of the United States, another alien have received more cash benefits and more Immigration privileges, that Cubans.....So, stop saying the blatant lie, that Cubans are rich and powerful, because they worked hard....It's not a lie or a bad joke, that Miami in the 70's and 80's was considered the capital of the drugs in the United States....Such fame was thanks to Cubans.

    August 9, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan

      You know what Nostradamus, you're right. Cubans don't work hard, and never faced adversity. They just came over here to cheat the government out of money and screw over all those hard-working Americans. So my great-uncle who was imprisoned for being a political dissenter, and my grandmother who came to this country and worked for years as a seamstress to put food on the table, and my father who came here as an infant and got through college without any government help, and my aunt who flew away from the only home she had ever known, by herself, to live with strangers, and who put herself through law school, well I guess they were all lying. Oh, and news flash: Miami was a huge center for drugs because it's one of the US's largest ports and gets a huge amount of trade from other parts of Latin America where those drugs are manufactured. It had nothing to do with Cuban immigrants. Have you ever been to Miami? Do you know Cubans personally? Maybe you should stop speaking in broad generalizations about a people you know nothing about. Who are you to belittle our struggles? I don't go around commenting on articles about Jewish businessmen and saying "Oh, the Holocaust wasn't so bad, Jews are ruining everything!"

      Please, keep your prejudiced and misinformed comments to yourself. Your ignorance is showing.

      August 9, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • LATIN LOVER

      CORRECT!!! And the Cubans come to the USA yelling..."freedom", but that is crap. They have fled the Island because of the privileges given to them by immigration. While Mexicans are killed at the border....the Cubans are welcomed with a USA passport and a welfare check!!!

      August 9, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. AC

    Yep, he's a smart businessman, his pal the mayor of los angeles got him a sweetheart deal for a big chunk of land in the produce section of los angeles. That property is valued at millions. Smart businessman he is!

    August 9, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ralk

    TYhey should be called the Atlanta taco's now.

    August 9, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Cubans dont eat tacos. YOu are pretty ignorant.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Rene Delgado

    What year is this? Oh yes, 2011...for a moment there, I thought it was 1911. It is remarkable that in this day and age ignorance is still so rampant! I am Cuban by birth and American by choice. I came to the US in 1968 when I was very young with my parents. My parents were not wealthy. Actually, we were low to middle class. When we arrived, my mother worked many menial jobs and so did my father. Like them, the generations that came in the 60s did take the jobs that were considered below the standards of many Americans who lived here at that time. My godmother worked picking tomatoes in Homestead and as a hotel maid. Her two kids, who came young, went to school, worked and built successful lives here. I excelled in school and was fortunate to get a scholarship. Today, I have an MBA and have earned a good living for my family. I, like many Americans, worked hard, focused and achieved the American dream.
    We are hard workers and have an entrepreneurial spirit!

    Americans of Cuban heritage love the US and appreciate and are grateful for its peoples' generosity, acceptance and help. We are optimistic and KNOW that America symbolizes humanity, ingenuity, creativity, resourcefulness, ambition, and everything which makes us great and successful.

    Thankfully, Cuban Americans are not discouraged by hateful criticism. On the contrary, we come together and become one and move forward as a community. This is what has made us successful. If you wish to learn more about who we are and what we have contributed to America, please do the research and post responsibly, with the truth and without the hate!

    Thank you for your time and blessings to you and yours!

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