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. Lameo

    Hispanic? Looks like a white dude to me. But I forgot that speaking spanish is an ethnic group.

    August 10, 2011 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
    • James Taylor

      MOst Hispanics are white. YOu also got black, indian, asian and jewish hispanics. Just like Americans!! Gosh, where did you got to school? OOPS THE USA which has one of the worse education in the world.

      August 10, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. sure

    sure..i could get rich too if i work under the table for about 20 years and put away in savings what would have gone to paying taxes

    August 10, 2011 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
  3. Mario A Perez

    I was born in Cuba, proud to be American Citizen; my first rule is always to follow up the lesson of the 32nd President of our great nation: "We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions-bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality. Whoever seeks to set one nationality against another, seeks to degrade all nationalities. Whoever seeks to set one race against another seeks to enslave all races"
    Good for all the people that became American Citizen and make their life sample of work and dignity.

    August 10, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
  4. ralk

    They will now be called the Atlanta taco's.

    August 10, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Papi Chulo(Cubanito liendo)

      You mean Atlanta Mojitos? You're so ignorant, I bet you're married to your sister pilgrim?

      August 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jamie C. Baker

    It's pretty pathetic that a simple article about a man who found a way to fulfill a childhood dream gets turned into an ugly racial debate once you scroll a bit part the article. I'm guessing if this was in reference to a white man who rose from poverty and became majority owner, there would be no racial debate, just "WHY is this news, CNN!???" comments from the less than intelligent folk out there. This story is a nice combination of sports reporting and human interest. The fact that so many people turned it into a platform to insult various races makes me sad for the future of this country, but it does make me proud to be multiracial and an all around successful person who rises above such ignorance.

    August 10, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  6. KnowsBetter

    I love how some people think that every Hispanic comes from Mexico..didn't pay attention in school, did ya??? Your ignorance is showing!

    August 10, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob F

      Yea and this Hispanic owner looks more Caucasian than I do and I'm mostly Irish...

      August 10, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie


      August 10, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. mike

    Another racially divisive article by CNN.

    August 10, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Michael

    Its a great accomplishment, but its been my experience from living in South Florida for many years that most Cubans don't consider themselves minorities and that's why most vote for and support the Republican Party. They take the view that other hispanics, especially Mexicans are beneath them and i've even had some tell me they were white. Trying to get Cuban Americans to come out in great numbers to support migrant worker rights events particularly mushroom farmers is really like pulling teeth, they only care about their own cause!

    August 10, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam Munoz

      No Cuban would ever say such things. Interesting characters, yes; brotherly backstabbers, no.

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

      the large majority of hispanics in latin america and the US are WHITE. the rest are mesitzos. then the like 3% are like mexican and black

      August 10, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jose R Foradada

      My Oh My!. What wormhole transported you from the dinosaurs prehistoric time and spewed you out in todays reality. Obviosly you know nothing about Cubans or are incapable of learning anything ( the latter more likely with a dinosaur brain ) Cubans are a multidiverse people white black indian oriental and from every religios bakground in the world. We are also present in every corner of the world and share our culture with everyone that is receptive to it. We have broad and diverse political perspectives and like any other people since we are multiethnic have good and bad people. what you percieve of us could not be further from the truth but perhaps that is due to your own personal limitations. Do yourself a favor if it is within your capability and educate yoursel a little more about people since you are now stuck in a new time and within a totally different species. However there might be hope for you ; perhaps a Cuban might come up with genetic modification and alter you pea sized brain and perceptual skill to be a bit more advanced.
      From a proud and succesful Cuban American. Proud of our heritage and a brother to all the different Hispanics in this country that strive to and succed. By the way I am a proud God loving and respecting conservative republican and would love to see your reaction, although I can predict it to the T; If the republicans win the elction and Marco Rubio is the V.P. on the tickect. Have a wonderful life when you find one.

      August 26, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Plexie

    What's a His[panic?

    August 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Asda

      The term Hispanic is used incorrectly in this article, as a Hispanic is a person that identifies themselves with the European heritage
      from Spain,

      August 10, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Plexie

    What's a Hispanic?

    August 10, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  11. michael warren

    is mark cuban cuban?

    August 10, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy Kaid

      No Mark Cuban is not Cuban, he's of Russian descent. His grandparents came to the US from Russia and his last name was changed from Chabenisky to Cuban.

      April 26, 2012 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  12. Plexie

    Typical stupid, pandering article. Real Madrid is one of the highest valued sports franchises in the world, it worth a lot more than these Atlanta Hawks, and it is owned by Hispanics! Stop the presses, yawn.

    August 10, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oh, you. :\

      Relevance? Real Madrid is not an NBA team. This article is about the first Hispanic NBA owner.

      August 11, 2011 at 10:30 am | Report abuse |
  13. Plexie

    OK, a rich person buying a distressed property, and this is news worthy because?

    August 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Katerina

    You need to understand that Latins are a mix of different races, where even in the same household you may find a blond and a brunette. The important message here is that ´si se puede!´ (yes we can!). Whatever your race or nationality is Latinos need to stick together like siblings. I feel very proud of the accomplishments of any Latino, big or bigger. Congratulations! Felicitaciones y esperamos escucharte en un canal latino pronto!

    August 10, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      Technically he is not a Latino, racially he may be 100% Caucasion. Who cares?

      August 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  15. trinidad

    when anytime a good thing happens, no matter what race or good thing comes out of it. you all cry and wine. why is that. it only tells me one thing. get over it???????

    August 11, 2011 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
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