In his public introduction, Alex Meruelo used that word again, used it four times. That word: Respect. As in, “I want to earn the respect and loyalty of the Atlanta community.”
Then, significantly, he said this: “It’s not something that’s given. I’m not entitled to it.”
Sometimes a guy buys a team and figures the fans come with it. Alex Meruelo seems to grasp that the job only begins when the sale closes. He can’t just say, “These are the Hawks, and we expect you to come watch them.” He has to give folks a reason to spend money on his product.
That, as we know, has been an ongoing disconnect. The Hawks have become a pretty good team — three consecutive winning seasons, three consecutive Round 1 series victories — that our city hasn’t fully embraced. There was a time in the late ’80s when NBA basketball was the hottest ticket in town, but that was before John Schuerholz arrived from Kansas City to reconfigure the Braves.
Meruelo’s mission is to do as Schuerholz did with the local baseball club — assure his constituency that competence is no longer a foreign concept. Meruelo loves basketball but is in no way a basketball insider, which might seem a detriment. (It might also mean he’ll let the professionals in his front office do what they’re paid to do, about which more later.) This much, however, is undeniable: Alex Meruelo is a professional at business, and business is about selling.
Asked after his news conference if, in his entrepreneurial experience, customers respond to knowing there’s one person — a person who cares what they think — in charge, Meruelo said: “In general terms, yes. Otherwise the message can get diluted and convoluted.”
The Atlanta Spirit had many voices, some of whom occasionally agreed. By the time the group rid itself of the dissident Steve Belkin, the damage was done. The brand had been besmirched, the Spirit group cast not as a well-meaning group of moneyed sports fans but as a band of tin-eared klutzes.
In the history of Acts To Follow, the Atlanta Spirit is among the best. (Or worst, depending on your slant.) Even before we knew Arthur Blank would be a skillful steward of a football franchise, we knew he couldn’t be less adroit than the locally lampooned Smiths. Assuming the Hawk get around to playing again — in breaking news, the NBA is locked out — Meruelo should enjoy a blissful honeymoon.
Soon enough, though, he’ll have to put his money and expertise where his mouth is. He’ll have to decide who should stay and who shouldn’t, and that’s no easy call. The Hawks are a winning team that regressed from 53 victories to 44 under new coach Larry Drew. The Core Four — Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Al Horford — has reached a point of diminishing returns. Should the Core be disassembled? (Yes, I’d recommend.) And is general manager Rick Sund the man to build a better core?
Maybe not. Since taking over from Billy Knight in June 2008, Sund has been an able caretaker. But nothing in his long NBA pedigree suggests he’s daring enough to act in the visionary manner that moving from pretty good to great will require. Sund is a good man to have in any front office; he might not be the best to lead the new Hawks’ front office.
Meruelo might well decide that continuity is required, but human nature — in his briefing, an obviously nervous and at times a nearly tearful Meruelo said, “I’m human” — is for a new owner to do some fixing-upping. The Hawks could stand some. My guess is that the new owner will see it that way, too.
“I can’t promise you a championship,” Meruelo said. “I can promise you I’ll never give up.”
A tiny and perhaps apt example: Meruelo wanted a basketball goal installed on the side of his California home. His neighbors were less enthused. (If you think NBA bylaws are inflexible, try working around neighborhood covenants.) “I had to fight tooth and nail,” Meruelo said, but he got his hoop.
Owing to the lockout, Meruelo faces more issues than most first-time franchise buyers. He might not see his first Hawks game until 2012, if then. But this jaded Hawks-watcher has to admit: I like what I’ve heard. I’d say the new man has a real chance. I’d say he’s a man worthy of respect.
By Mark Bradley