Alex Meruelo: From pizza parlors to owning the Atlanta Hawks

Alex Meruelo. (Photo courtesy of the Meruelo Group.)

Alex Meruelo. (Photo courtesy of the Meruelo Group.)

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

204 comments Add your comment

ColumbiaDawg

August 7th, 2011
10:06 am

Gstateben

August 7th, 2011
10:07 am

Finally! It is like the Hawks fans can smile again.

Thank you Alex!

Tomgotech

August 7th, 2011
10:09 am

What a great way to start the day. The only downside is that the village idiots that make up ASG still own a minority stake.

Benjamin

August 7th, 2011
10:11 am

Good to see his mix of both honesty and enthusiasm, but at the end of the day, owners are judged by the fans of their teams on one thing: what has he done to help the organization win?

Best of luck to him.

bill

August 7th, 2011
10:11 am

It’s a good day to be a Hawks fan!

jeffrey d

August 7th, 2011
10:12 am

Thanks Mark…welcome back!

NCBravesFan

August 7th, 2011
10:12 am

Heading into this process, my first preference was a local owner – but after reading this I guess ultimately a hands-on, visionary type owner is best. I’ve always thought ATL could be one of the great NBA cities, but the franchise needs a leader to transform the organizational culture.

Let’s hope Alex Meruelo is that personality.

bigdave

August 7th, 2011
10:12 am

guess Al Horford isnt going anywhere..

but hopefully this guy can put the right people in the right places to take this franchise to championship heights..

ColumbiaDawg

August 7th, 2011
10:14 am

Anything is better than the what the previous ownership was.

Kanarstead

August 7th, 2011
10:16 am

HAWKS MOVING TO ANAHEIM!!!!

JoeJohnsonsuxsBAD

August 7th, 2011
10:19 am

I understand he is majority owner (51% or more) but it sucks that in supporting my hometown Hawks team Bruce Levinson and Micheal Garron Jr and the other 756 clowns who formed the disaster called “ATL Spirt LLC” is going to get a portion of my money…..I hope this new buyer Meruelo can round up and do a complete buyout. You know the jock sniffer Garron jr. is still going to be on the courtside and in the locker room. I am somewhat happier but still have hatered for the worest ownership group in pro sports history!

the truth...

August 7th, 2011
10:20 am

Hey… He is of Cuban descent…. perhaps he could hire Fredi and get his hands off of the Braves….

Sure would be great to get a kick-a&& manager like Kurt Gibson wouldn’t it !

Thrashers Season Ticket Holder

August 7th, 2011
10:22 am

Does this mean that Atlanta Spirit Group will soon be roasting in Hell with Adolf Hitler?

Frankly, I hope the entire NBA goes out of business and joins ASG & Ol’ Adolf.

atlspxavenue

August 7th, 2011
10:22 am

Great News Mark – Welcome south Alex. Hope the NBA gets their act together soon.

Baldheaded Thrasher Fan

August 7th, 2011
10:25 am

Wish he would be the sole owner as I posted previously, I’ll never go to a Philips event if anyone tied to the ASG can get a nickel,

Kanarstead

August 7th, 2011
10:25 am

He will be the second Cuban to own an NBA.

Hate the Spirit Group

August 7th, 2011
10:26 am

Welcome Alex! I’m encouraged by this news as a Hawks fan. Now if you can get rid of the ASG…expecially Rutherford Seydel we’ll be better for it!
Have you considered bringing to Atlanta another Hockey team? just kidding…sorta.

South ga boy in the atl

August 7th, 2011
10:27 am

As of now, I like it. Finally, a person where Hawks fans can place a “the buck stops here” sign in front of. He seems to be an out of the box type thinker. He started with a pizza chain, but he was willing to branch out to media, hotel/casino, a bank, and now a pro sports team. No grass grows under this man’s feet. Can you say “our own Mark Cuban” who happens to be Cuban American. Welcome to the Atl Alex. We’ve been waiting on ya !!

Baldheaded Thrasher Fan

August 7th, 2011
10:28 am

I’ll never go to an event at Philips as long as the ASG can get a nickel of my money!

StottsEra

August 7th, 2011
10:29 am

how do you know that is his facebook page? on the same page it says he went to Mater Dei High School

slydog

August 7th, 2011
10:30 am

Perfect all the way around. A minority owner, one who can bring another element of the fan base out to the games and increase support in others. A single, buck stops here owner, who actually runs businesses that are tailored to suit the needs of the customers, not some oil or technology magnate (not that those two are bad businesses). For him to buy an Atlanta team, when almost all of his ties are in California, says he really wants this team (ownership rights to Phillips Arena notwithstanding). And yes, get ready for La Pizza Loca chains near you.

bob can spell

August 7th, 2011
10:31 am

Hey JoeJphnsonsuxBAD, your spelling is atrocious. First, it’s Gearon, not Garron. Second, what are “hatered” and “worest?’

Thrashers Season Ticket Holder

August 7th, 2011
10:31 am

Yeah, I can see it already:

The Los Angeles HAWKS of Anaheim

………

Maybe some of Atlanta’s criminal element will follow the Hawks to Orange County.

Dawgdad (The Original)

August 7th, 2011
10:33 am

Who cares about anything NBA, I am excited that he may bring us a good pizza joint.

Mark Bradley

August 7th, 2011
10:33 am

Kudos, Columbia Dawg.

Hate the Spirit Group

August 7th, 2011
10:35 am

Thrashers Season Ticket Holder…You’re right…as soon as the bonds on Phillips is paid back to the city in a number of years, we’ll be facing the prospect of losing the hawks to LA…very possible.

Mark Bradley

August 7th, 2011
10:40 am

Asked about the possibility of moving the Hawks, Alex Meruelo said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Thrashers Season Ticket Holder

August 7th, 2011
10:41 am

Take those losers Geraon & Levenson to Anaheim, too.

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Dang It!

I dropped my bag of DORITOS.

Herschel Talker

August 7th, 2011
10:43 am

MB:

Where have you been hiding out?

HT

Grandmaster JeJe

August 7th, 2011
10:44 am

So glad to see the ASG gone

But does this guy have enough money?

He isn’t a billionaire. We need money infused into this team. We need to go into the luxury tax.

So we now have an owner and head coach who live in Cali?

FIRE SUND

FIRE LD

Grandmaster JeJe

August 7th, 2011
10:45 am

DOES ANYONE KNOW THIS GUY’S NET WORTH? IS HE GOING TO SPEND MONEY?

Thrashers Season Ticket Holder

August 7th, 2011
10:46 am

Gearon.. Geraon… Gareaon… Greaesfon…. Gummi Bear….

Who the WINNIPEG cares how it is spelled or typed?

I hate that clown.

Mark Bradley

August 7th, 2011
10:47 am

I asked Mr. Meruelo if he would be willing to spend whatever it took to make the Hawks a champion. That was one of the questions his assistant said he couldn’t answer due to NBA protocol. (You’re not supposed to talk about what you plan to do with a club until you actually have the club.)

5150 UOAD

August 7th, 2011
10:47 am

I guess Georgia’s new law on Illegals didn’t stop a Hispanic Man from wanting to do business in Georgia after all. Maybe he can get Real Gambling and a Casinos here in Atlanta too. We don’t need anymore Pizza Joints, but Winning basketball and Gambling would be great.

Thrashers Season Ticket Holder

August 7th, 2011
10:49 am

Mmmmm….

My dropped DORITOS look like little pizza slices.

Mmmmm….

Grandmaster JeJe

August 7th, 2011
10:50 am

IS IT POSSIBLE EVERY POSTER HERE COULD CHIP IN $5 TO COMPRISE THE ASG MINORITY STAKE IN THE TEAM?. THAT’S ABOUT HOW MUCH THE ASG IS WORTH

[...] With the news that the Atlanta Hawks have been sold to a non-local, California businessman Alex Meruelo, Atlanta fans might worry about losing another team to relocation, much as they lost the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg. But Meruelo told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he wants to bring an NBA championship to Atlanta. [...]

steve brown

August 7th, 2011
10:52 am

My boycott is over.

Dr. Warren

August 7th, 2011
10:52 am

Not to sound unimpressed by 50 pizza locations, because that revenue stream is probably nothing to sneeze at, but we’re not likely talking about another Arthur Blank or Ted Turner when it comes to financial wherewithal. Let’s hope this guy has deep enough pockets to build us a championship team. I wonder.

atlspxavenue

August 7th, 2011
10:53 am

LOL @5150 UOAD good combination. Will the Board of Governor’s worry that his casino is betting on the games?

Thrashers Season Ticket Holder

August 7th, 2011
10:53 am

Mark,

Are you not going to comment about John Smoltz’s property in Wyoming being foreclosed on and headed to auction?

We know how much you and he like to lovingly tease one another.

blazerdawg

August 7th, 2011
10:55 am

Welcome to Atlanta, Mr. Meruelo! Hope the pizza improves at Philips along with the Hawks. The Omni had great pizza in the 70’s.

Dennis G. Berdanis

August 7th, 2011
10:56 am

The soap opera is over. Welcome aboard Alex! Now let’s go win a championship together!

South ga boy in the atl

August 7th, 2011
10:56 am

Mark, did u get any glimpse on what he thought of how the Hawks have been run recently and how he would do things differently (I know he can’t talk about specifics but I mean in general)

Grandmaster JeJe

August 7th, 2011
10:56 am

We just gotta get rid of Sund now.

We know all free agents despise ASG (Smoove didn’t seem too pleased with how they handled his situation 3 years ago).

Now we gotta get rid of Sund. He Sucks. Shaq said Sund was “bullsh!tting” in reference to our “pursuit” of him last summer

5150 UOAD

August 7th, 2011
10:57 am

Thrashers Season Ticket Holder

That is not really Smoltz’s fault. I would quit paying for the property too. The Developer has screwed all the property owners in that deal.

South ga boy in the atl

August 7th, 2011
11:03 am

Dr Warren Did u miss the casino/hotel, the bank, and the tv station. This doesn’t sound like any frank McCord situation. Secondly, the Braves (per Forbes magazine) are worth twice as much as the Hawks and the Falcons are worth three times as much. And third, he’s not even buying 100% of the Hawks. 60% of the hawks probably will cost him 200 million max whereas it would take 1billion to be all of the Falcons

steve brown

August 7th, 2011
11:04 am

El halcón vuela alto!

Grandmaster JeJe

August 7th, 2011
11:06 am

ryan

August 7th, 2011
11:07 am

Hawks are not aloud to move this not like the Thrashers situation they are not moving to LA don’t worry Hawks fans.