Hawks’ Meruelo wants to earn our respect, and he’s on track

See this picture? I'm tired of seeing this picture. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

See this picture? Me, I'm darn tired of seeing this picture. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

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

124 comments Add your comment

steve

August 8th, 2011
4:02 pm

J.J.M.

August 8th, 2011
4:02 pm

J.J.M.

August 8th, 2011
4:02 pm

damn steve! lol

SmyrnaMan

August 8th, 2011
4:04 pm

just because he overpaid doesnt mean we are supposed to respect him

J.J.M.

August 8th, 2011
4:04 pm

im already liking this Meruelo guy so far

steve

August 8th, 2011
4:09 pm

It will be a serious challenge for this guy to be any worse than ASG. Let’s not understate the value of a hispanic owner, as well – he’ll appeal to a wider audience. Hopefully he is humble enough to understand that the folks in ATL are a unique group of sports fans, and he’s not afraid to step out on a limb to get people to Philips. ($2 beer nights???? I can dream…)

Don Waddell

August 8th, 2011
4:15 pm

Alex, My resume is on the way. If you need a Yes Man – I’m it. I have experience walking the empty seats at The Bulb. I also have the ability to bend over and take it like a man. Call Me…

Hawks Fan

August 8th, 2011
4:21 pm

It can’t get any worse, and having someone who at least seems interested in owning and running a franchise is a welcome sign of relief from the AS group that couldn’t send an email to one another without another lawsuit being filed.

mountain_jim

August 8th, 2011
4:25 pm

Hope he FIRES SUND!

wxwax

August 8th, 2011
4:28 pm

Can’t wait to see what Meruelo does.

I’m less concerned that he be instantly successful.

What I hope is that he shows signs of being a good owner. Common-sense, in touch with the fans, making good basketball decisions, willingness to spend when it’s right.

If he has those qualities, the wins will come in time.

Blazerdawg

August 8th, 2011
4:28 pm

Great article/insight MB. Cannot wait for Mr. Meruelo to get started. I feel like we are getting an expansion franchise and a fresh start with the Hawks.

What an Idiot

August 8th, 2011
4:29 pm

Smyrna Man are you stupid or what? Didn’t the man just said he wants to “EARN” the Respect? So is it necessary to post what you wrote DumbA%$

Yeahsure

August 8th, 2011
4:31 pm

SmyrnaMan,

Did you not read the Title or the first paragraph?

Westurd

August 8th, 2011
4:32 pm

Could we have asked for more? I know he hasn’t done anything, but at least you got to like his business pedigree. Its a better look then 7 bumbling idiots

BirdDirty

August 8th, 2011
4:32 pm

The Hawks, as a team on the court, have been pretty good given the ownership group and inept decision making of the gm and coaches (trading J Crawford and not playing J Teague). Meruelo is stuck with JJ, so deal with it. I would package Al (trade value) and Marvin (no value) for a center and go from there.

Sid

August 8th, 2011
4:32 pm

Thank you for buying our Atlanta franchise Mr.Meruelo, please excuse us if right now we are fickle, apprehensive, and disenchanted. Your words give us much hope, we look forward to see if you can back it up. Best of L.U.C.K. Labor Under Correct Knowledge

cpsman_atlanta

August 8th, 2011
4:33 pm

Earn our respect? Tell the Thrashers fans what he plans to do to fix THAT situation, because some of us still don’t want to spend a dime at Philips Arena until the truth comes out about what ASG did to screw us…

coloradobulldog

August 8th, 2011
4:33 pm

First act should be to give Sund his walking papers or another role in the organization. Hire a good GM and give him the keys. Not sure how to reshape this team since we are strapped with Joe Johnson’s contract but give someone who knows basketball a chance.

cpsman_atlanta

August 8th, 2011
4:36 pm

Earn our respect? OK, tell us exactly what happened behind the scenes with the evil empire, known as ASG, with regards to our Thrashers, which had a lot more respect in the community than the Hawks did, and explain what you plan on doing to assist in getting a hockey team back here to replace the Thrahsers. I understand that you don’t want a NHL team, and I’m OK with that. But you’ve got 82 dates to fill right now; how do you plan on filling those dates if there’s no NHL this year, and the NBA is on strike?

Lord Stanley

August 8th, 2011
4:39 pm

Would love to see him by a NHL team to help fill out the Arena. :) I wonder if that question was asked.

Sound sliek we may have a winner as a owner.

Yeahsure

August 8th, 2011
4:39 pm

Welcome Mr. Meruelo. Now go fire Sund and Drew. Find Joe, threaten him, and make him restructure his contract. Then pick up Howard up on your private jet, drug him, and and make sure he doesn’t leave Atlanta until he signs a contract.

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) [...]

Don Waddell Is an Ahole

August 8th, 2011
4:42 pm

Can we trade the Hawks to Winnipeg and bring back the Thrashers?

Yeahsure

August 8th, 2011
4:42 pm

I love how the ex-Thrashers fans linger here and post hockey related comments about a guy who was never involved in Hockey or the Thrashers. It’s somewhat depressing what ASG has done to these lost souls

Lord Stanley

August 8th, 2011
4:43 pm

I like that idea, well even give them a case of peaches to go along with the hawks

BirdDirty

August 8th, 2011
4:43 pm

Joe, Josh, Teague, and Dwight Howard. Pretty good new core.

Lord Stanley

August 8th, 2011
4:45 pm

As far as the hawks go, just fire Sund and make Phil Jackson the gm.

Eagle_Chria

August 8th, 2011
4:45 pm

As soon as he can flip Phillips Arena for a $1 profit, the Hawks will be on the first train smoking to Las Vegas or San Diego or somewhere other than here. We are going to loose our NBA team. That’s a fact.

Columbus

August 8th, 2011
4:51 pm

Job one: As soon as the right coach is available, hire him.
Sund may or may not be OK. He had limited leeway and money. But administration changes are coming. Big ones. The coaching change is a must. Stick with Drew though until the right one is available. Dont just get one to get one. We need Phil Jackson! or Jeff Van Gundy!

Big Daddy

August 8th, 2011
4:57 pm

What Mr. Meruelo brings is hope. What he has acquired is a winning franchise. Expectations are that he will make it better. His resume indicates that he has a winning background that improves what he gets involved in. I am very much looking forward to see what he does with this team, the management and Phllips Arena. Like you said Mark, he is a professional.

LetPhilipsRot

August 8th, 2011
5:06 pm

Yeah, respect. Right. I would have respected ASG had they sold to a new owner who kept the Thrashesr AND Hawks. But no. How can we trust this guy? We can’t trust ASG after they way the handled the Thrashers sales. Whos to say this guy wont pick up and move this team to CA in a few years? We can’t trust ASG, how can we trust who does business with ASG? There is something very fishy about how all of this went down. Any new owner should have been REQUIRED to buy and keep BOTH teams here instead of trashing Atlanta’s reputation.

david

August 8th, 2011
5:09 pm

It sounds what the ASG said when they bought the team. A few years later he will say he is losing money and needs a new arena out of the city limits or he has to move the team to Seattle or Anaheim.

Tennis Rodman

August 8th, 2011
5:10 pm

Send the Hawks over to China in payment of our debt. Only problem is that they are worth about .01 cent.

AP fans

August 8th, 2011
5:13 pm

An AP fan is someone who makes an Annual Pilgrimmage to Philips for a Hawks game then they get on the blogs and spout nonsense – we throttled the Magic in the first round and lost to the Bulls because we were without our starting point guard – no other playoff teams were without their starting pg – and for those who criticize Sund’s signings realize that we are paying Zaza and Marvin peanuts, Hinrich’s contract is expiring, Josh, although immature, is our most exciting player and Joe is an under appreciated perennial all star

Tennis Rodman

August 8th, 2011
5:13 pm

Tell the new guy…the ASG ruined any goodwill they had years ago. It is going to take a lot to get this turned around.

gnomeboy

August 8th, 2011
5:15 pm

Sorry, I don’t care if he is the voice of the hawks, as long as two sorry boneheads from ASG are still involved, not one penny from me will be going to the HAWKS nor PHILIPS ARENA;

RIP THRASHERS KILLED BY ASG

Tony from the Bronx

August 8th, 2011
5:15 pm

Looking forward to hoops! It’s up to the people of Atlanta whether they want a basketball team or not. Transients need to stop biting the hand that feeds them and embrace the city and the teams that come with it…don’t just show up for your boyhood team and root against the Hawks. Show up for all Hawks games and root for the Hawks except when they play your boyhood team…then just shut your mouth and silently root for them.

-Transient embracing ATL

Mark Bradley

August 8th, 2011
5:18 pm

Kudos, Steve. I apologize for the lag in their delivery.

James on Pharr Rd

August 8th, 2011
5:20 pm

Waiting on the bigger bombshell-that Najeh Davenpoop is actually Alex Meruelo posing as a Hawk enthusiast….

James on Pharr Rd

August 8th, 2011
5:21 pm

Or news that Rick Sund has been replaced by Superior Blogman

shannon

August 8th, 2011
5:22 pm

Thank you Tony from the Bronx… Im a native atlien and i hate when i see people move here and root against the home team.. Nothing wrong with supporting the city you came from but show some love to the city you now reside too… Just sayin….

James on Pharr Rd

August 8th, 2011
5:24 pm

And Joe Johnson will announce his retirement from professional basketball after sustaining an irreversible injury in China

Ted M

August 8th, 2011
5:38 pm

Alex Meruelo earns my respect when he fires Rick Sund.

I think he earns right off the bat.

Atlanta Spirit Sucks

August 8th, 2011
5:42 pm

If Meruelo makes Gearon Jr. and Levenson walk around mid-court wearing diapers and sucking a pacifier, he will earn our respect.

edward

August 8th, 2011
5:58 pm

Joe Johnson is a joke in the playoffs. We got the best 6th man out there to rest him so he can be amazing in the playoffs and he still stunk up the joint!! Teague was the man against Chicago and he should be kept at all costs. Hinrich can go. J.Smith either needs to work the inside more or the coaches need to move him around cause seeing him anchored behind the line drives me insane. I love when Zaza goes in cause he goes after anyone. What we really need is a true big man for center. 6′7″ and up and about 260lbs. That’s the one piece they are really lacking. Then move Horford back to his natural position. FIND THE NEXT SHAQ!!!!

5manattackmachine

August 8th, 2011
5:59 pm

Welcome aboard Alex! It’s gonna be fun. As you know, Hawks are close.
Here we go!

KevinM

August 8th, 2011
6:13 pm

coloradobulldog

August 8th, 2011
4:33 pm
First act should be to give Sund his walking papers or another role in the organization. Hire a good GM and give him the keys. Not sure how to reshape this team since we are strapped with Joe Johnson’s contract but give someone who knows basketball a chance.

I 2nd this! Hire a leader, not a babysitter. What we have now is a guy on his last NBA job.

A splash needs to be made and not another chance for the ‘core-4′ to come up short once again.

I can’t possibly hope for Sund and Drew to be gone at the same time, but if there is no basketball this year, let their contracts expire and change the locks.

blazerdawg

August 8th, 2011
6:19 pm

Tony – wow – as a native, I really appreciate your sentiment.

Never understood why so many of the transplants up in Roswell, Woodstock and Duluth were so unhappy with our town and our teams. I have traveled for many years and spent time in many major US cities and still find Atlanta, NYC, Boston, SF, SD, Dallas, Miami and Denver to be the very best. Atlanta has some issues, but not many than are much different than other cities, and we have a beautiful geography, awesome people – and for sports really good venues and now decent teams.

Thanks for getting behind your new hometown.

"Chef" Tim Dix

August 8th, 2011
6:34 pm

Sund was never anything more than the League Office GM DeJoure (did I spell that right?) guy to save a market that the League cannot do without when ASG needed a GM and asked.

The NBA ain’t pizza but it isn’t rocket science either.

Hungry market with a no movement incentive, decisions have to be made.

I say, he bought a good team at the bottom. Good biz.

Just saying

August 8th, 2011
6:37 pm

Thrasher lovers!!!! (Marcel) Quit trying to saddle our new man with a two headed monster!!!! The same ownership of Hawks and Hockey never worked and it won’t work. Go find some place to grieve or step forward to buy a Hockey team or recruit Tom Glavine’s money. (He has plenty from his Braves and Mets days. Deep pockets/ deep hocky interest.) Let our man, Alex, earn our respect! Give him the opportunity and applaud his efforts. Let him be focused on one sports team. It seems to me like he has a bunch of business sense. To be as diverse as he is, he surely allows professionals to do their thing. The Hawks will be his passionate hobby. At this time owning the Hawks is probably a greater risk than his Reno casino! Just saying…..give the man a chance!