The man who’s buying the Atlanta Hawks played basketball himself — at Don Bosco Technical Institute, a Catholic high school in Rosemead, Calif. Alex Meruelo became a starter for the Tigers as a junior, whereupon vocational opportunity intervened.
“My father gave me the chance to run my own business,” Meruelo said, speaking on a conference call with two AJC writers. “He had a bridal-and-tuxedo business. He leased the tuxedo part to me.”
That was it for his hoops career. (Couldn’t stay for practice when there were groomsmen to be measured.) Thirty-two years later, it’s no longer an either/or consideration. Alex Meruelo has made a bunch of money, having gone from renting out cummerbunds to building a chain of Southern California eateries — La Pizza Loca — to owning a TV station in Los Angeles to buying a hotel and casino in Reno. And now the entrepreneur is about to diversify into basketball.
“This is more than a dream for me,” Meruelo said. “It’s like when you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice?’ ”
Those four words — “Wouldn’t it be nice?” — were the title of the opening track on the greatest album (”Pet Sounds”) released by that California success story we know as the Beach Boys. Alex Meruelo has his own California story, and it’s downright harmonic, too. The son of Cuban immigrants, he stands to be the first Hispanic owner of an NBA franchise.
“I’m a person who doesn’t give up,” Meruelo said. “I want to bring a championship to the city of Atlanta.”
To date, Meruelo has had only a passing relationship with our town. (”I’ve been through the airport a couple of times,” he said.) Should the NBA approve this sale, that stands to change. His teenage children have checked out Atlanta houses via the Internet. He won’t abandon Los Angeles — the Meruelo Group is too rooted for that — but he and his family will commute.
We cannot know whether Meruelo will be an upgrade on the current ownership, but we can say this: He’s not apt to wind up suing himself. Although some of the men who comprise the many-headed Atlanta Spirit will remain as minority partners, Meruelo leaves no doubt as to the buck’s point of stoppage. “I will be in complete control of the team,” he said.
Beyond that, Meruelo can’t say much about his plans for the Hawks. The NBA doesn’t allow prospective owners to comment on personnel, and even if it did the lockout has imposed a league-wide silence. Throughout the half-hour conference call, Ruben Gonzalez, the Meruelo Group’s vice president for external affairs, would gently interrupt with reminders that a particular subject was “beyond the scope of our discussion.”
What did come through was Meruelo’s enthusiasm. He claims to love basketball without being a wonk: “I couldn’t name every single player on every single team.” He didn’t grow up a Hawks’ fan. (Born in New York, he followed the Knicks and the Jets and the Mets even after the family moved to California.) He goes to Dodgers and Angels games but prefers basketball. He has inquired — so discreetly as to have called no attention to himself — about buying other NBA teams.
Regarding the Hawks, he knows whispers of a Mystery Buyer have been circulating. The mystery at its end, Meruelo said: “I wasn’t trying to be coy. I just didn’t want my name to circulate until I had something certain.”
Here he said to his audience of two: “You guys know Atlanta and cover Atlanta. I wanted to talk to you. I owe you that respect.”
An owner who respects his constituency? That’s a concept this city should embrace. It has worked for Arthur Blank and his Falcons. Liberty Media, by way of conspicuous contrast, has made no effort to endear its Colorado-based self to the folks who actually buy Braves tickets. But you don’t turn one La Pizza Loca into a string of 50 by ignoring your customers, and the hope/guess is that Meruelo will connect with those who’ve soured on what has become, on the record, a pretty good NBA club.
“I’m 1,000 percent an Atlanta Hawks fan,” Meruelo said, and soon enough he figures to be leading them. And for those asking if he should be taken seriously … well, he wants this team badly enough to buy it when the league is locked out. Takes some guts, wouldn’t you say?
By Mark Bradley