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. Bry

    never herd of a Cuban on welfare.... and the women are really hot!

    August 10, 2011 at 1:21 am | Report abuse |
  2. MyOpinionMatters

    Those stocky short wetbacks will be making more money than you hahaha

    August 10, 2011 at 1:35 am | Report abuse |
  3. MyOpinionMatters

    yeahh!! I love to see my people take a piece out of the American pie! Now lets take over hockey! haha

    August 10, 2011 at 1:42 am | Report abuse |
  4. Fidel

    The new Mexican Immigration the equivalent of the Cubans of Miami

    Now the rich, white Mexicans are bringing their money from Mexico to Texas, California, Miami, soon you will see how many border citizens will become the new Miamis, because the new breed of Mexican emigrants are very educated and wealthy escaping the Narco war, they do not get a free visa as the Cubans, they just pay 500, 000 dollars for visa
    and they do not play the minority card, their kids are highly educated and most of them speak fluent English this is the same kind of people that emigrated to Miami from Cuba, the rich, white European , highly educated just wait one generation an a Mexican from Monterrey, Mexico City or Guadalajara will own too a NBA team

    August 10, 2011 at 3:24 am | Report abuse |
  5. MaxBasco

    We're fortunate to have a Cuban-American rising above and against all odds. We're proud to have Mayors in Miami, Mayor in CA, CEOs in Coca-Cola and GE, best car designer in Ford Motor Co., professors in Yale, MD in hospitals...and yes laborers and janitors too. After all we cannot all be professionals and CEOs. Americans should emulate the hard working ethics of most immigrants, whether Hispanics or else, and should stop showing their ignorance and hatred. Most are simply xenophobic...oopss...too big a word for 99% of Americans. Hispanics, like many other immigrants, have help to build this nation more than what Americans know. Names like Luis Alvarez, inventor of the 'radar' and key person for the atomic bomb -at project Manahatan at the Alamos, and whose work led to the 'MRI" invention, and much more, does not show in American history books. Ashamed of you educators..! Names like Jose Girado, creator of Walt Disney parks and non other than Walter Disney after his adoption by an American, Anthony Quinn or Antonio Quinteros, Andy Garcia, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Lee Trevino, Rita Hayward or Margarita Montoya, Mexican American and many more not mentioned here have contribute to this nation we call ours. We have fought and died in every war, like other minorities, Afro-Americans, Asiamericans..and still get the hate....of many American's unwarranted....I sincerely hope Americans never become a minority in their own country...and get the same treatment from 'minorities' in the near future..after all we're only 40 million now..and we'll be...50% of the American population in only 50 more much for American hatred....i'm glad most Hispanics....aren't like these Americans.....!

    August 10, 2011 at 4:22 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      MaxBasco you are confused. You want acceptance, but then slam Americans (opps-too big a word for 99% of Americans – Really?). I presume you mean "white" Americans since you laud (do you know what that word means?)other minority groups. So you are basically a hypocrite and bigot yourself. Prejudice is not limited to any group my friend.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Josh

      AMERICA IS NOT, NOR HAS EVER BEEN, WHITE. This country has always been a collection of people from all over the world. This is what makes this country great. The problem is that WHITE AMERICANS have always considered themselves better and more privliged than others. Most white Americans still don't understand or are willing to accept the damages and affects of their bigoted actions. This country has practiced slavery for over 400 years. And when slavery finaly became outlawed, it wasn't by unanomous consent by any means

      August 10, 2011 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Dennis C. Pence

      Cuban American, Hispanic American, Asian American, African American – there in lies the problem. My ancestors were from Monrovia, but do I get called a Monrovian American, do Germans get called German-American, do Italians get called Italian American or Irish get called Irish American? No, and that is the issue. You want to be "equal" but "separate" and be recognized as a "quote" – Minority. Too bad most "Hispanics" aren't like Americans – they should be – but they want special recognition. I wish they would drop all of the monority status' and simply call everyone Americans – but you would probably never stand for that. As I said – you want the benefits of coming to a country that allows you to prosper and now you want to displace the people that founded the country and next thing you know, you will want to call it Mexico-America. Maybe then the Caucasians will move to Mexico and displace your people that you align your self with.

      August 10, 2011 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Lou

      My response is for Dennis C. Pence – Before expressing an opinion, please read up on the subject; no minority asked for special recognitions, our government is the one that began the labeling of people as Hispanics, Asian American, African Americans, etc. To begin with, the word Hispanic is a made-up label; the correct adjetive is Latin Americans, surprise!!! yes, we are as much Americans as you are. Yes, we want the benefits of coming to a country that allows you to prosper but your obtuse thinking only sees hispanics as being from Mexico, we come from over 20 different countries and have made significant contributions to this country without leaching off the government. Take Mr. Meruelo's example, cubans represent less than 4% of hispanics in the U.s. and look at their track record, I am sure they are more successful than any Monrovian ever did since the first one set foot in this country.

      August 10, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Terri

      You can prideful without being disrespectful. You don't have to show your ignorance by grandstanding your intelligence.

      August 10, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lou

      Unfortunately, sometimes you have to give the same taste of the medicine you've been taking for a long time in the hopes that people will understand and accept others the way they are.

      August 10, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim F.

      50 years from now, I'll be long gone.
      By that time, Mexicans will have toroughly trashed this country. Have fun with all your illegals. Now, go eat your taco and shut-up.

      August 10, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      Hey dufus, I am not Hispanic nor American born, but I do work hard and do not feel the need to be talked down to by someone such as yourself, some has has trouble with basic English language skills.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      Respect begets respect, Terri; and conversely, petty contempt is it's own reward.

      August 11, 2011 at 8:54 am | Report abuse |
  6. Vamanoslessgo

    ORA LE PUES .. good to hear a VATO bought the Atlanta Hawks .. now FIRE every over paid NBA player in there and get some cheap workers from HOME DEPOT ... should have your $$ and all your investment back in 10 games... ORA LE !!

    August 10, 2011 at 6:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      Your comment betrays a singular ignorance of New World geopolitics, culture and national origin. I wonder what else you might be ignorant about...

      August 10, 2011 at 7:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      Very dumb you are. Cubans don't say Orale. That is a mexican spanish word. Pendejo que eres

      August 10, 2011 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
  7. Jorge

    Short, stocky Hispanic NBA stars may be really hard to find, but ignorant, bigoted jerks are a dime a dozen.

    August 10, 2011 at 7:47 am | Report abuse |
  8. shaksilva

    What a great Story!!! So happy to read something positive...why do ignoramous' (comments) want to try ruining everything?
    Congratulations Alex I hope you are very successful!!!!

    August 10, 2011 at 7:57 am | Report abuse |
  9. Hawks Fan

    Hawks' previous owners, The Atlanta Spirit Group, is a group of white owners that will go down as the worst group of owners in Atlanta sports history. So what's up with all the comments about race. Immigrants are not the same as illegal immigrants. Why can't people understand this.

    August 10, 2011 at 8:19 am | Report abuse |
  10. JamesT297

    Wow, the bar has really been lowered when is the aspiration of an hispanic to own an NBA team. For crying our loud, Michael Jordan owns an NBA team. Mark Cuban owns an NBA team. Need I say more. There is no bigger waste of capital and energy than owning a major league professional sports franchise – the NBA being "Exhibit A".

    August 10, 2011 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  11. Jorge

    I've wracked my brain wondering how it is that this, the most priviledged nation in the world has fallen so far behind in education, the arts and innovation with respect to the rest of the world community over the last three decades. Reading many of the comments on this article, I suffered a disquieting epiphany to that effect. There are far too many Americans who would rather listen to old George Wallace speeches or watch the next j@ck@$$ sequel than read a book. The lights are on but theres NOBODY HOME.

    August 10, 2011 at 9:22 am | Report abuse |
  12. fritz65

    Does it really matter what his ethnicity is? If it was a black guy or a white guy, I doubt there'd be any fanfare. I'm happy for him and believe in cultural diversity, but making this a headline could be seen as a step backwards (unless it's to show the younger crowd "dreams can happen").

    August 10, 2011 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
  13. Paula Greenleaf

    Work with lazy Mexicans at Starbucks Corporate office, Cubans are smarter and work almost as well as the Irish and other European-Americans.

    August 10, 2011 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      Mexicans have just as much european blood as cubans, troll.

      August 10, 2011 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Paula but this guy is a white cuban guy. Hispanic can be of any race. Think from the dominican republic black Samy Sosa or the many black cubans too.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Larry

    This Hispanic owner has to do better than the Atlanta Spirit idiots. One thing though that he did not address is the issue of Illegals. You should be able to acieve any level in this country you desire, but you have to be a legal citizen. It would have been nice to hear this man denounce illegals and their drain on the USA. As a previous opinion stated. We should as citizens be called Americans, not African-American,or Mexican-American, or German-American, or etc.

    August 10, 2011 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
  15. Diego

    I am Mexican-American and not lazy and majority of Mexicans are hardworking. They helped build Atlanta for the Olympics, new subdivisions, Turner Field, Highways ,Georgia Dome etc... We should applaud this Cubans success but not attack others. Mexicans have great success stories as well, Arte Moreno (Anaheim Angels owner) Carlos $lim,Carlos Santana,Adrian Gonzalez,Salma Hayek,George Lopez just a few that come to mind. Cubans,Mexicans and all Hispanics have made a big contribution to the American lifestyle/society, No sean Odiosos!(don't hate)

    August 10, 2011 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      Diego I agree with you. But most Mexicans, sadly, are not educated like Cubans or have the drive and motivation. And most Cubans are white so maybe that is why it has been also easier for them. BEsides the fact that the USA do help them when they get on dry USA land.

      August 10, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
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