Alex Meruelo's dream: NBA ownership
The Atlanta Hawks' new owner faces great opportunity and responsibility in the NBA
When the reports that Alex Meruelo was purchasing the Atlanta Hawks hit the newswires on Aug. 7 last summer, a reader named Steve Brown posted this comment under a story about the prospective owner in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "My boycott is over."
Brown's comment was typical. Atlanta fans are clearly dissatisfied with the current ownership of the Hawks, and many likely will embrace the transaction for two reasons: 1) Meruelo said with sincerity in the interview that he wants "to bring a championship to the city of Atlanta;" and 2) Meruelo is part of a new, pioneering era of ownership in professional sports.
In case you missed it: Meruelo is about to become the first Hispanic majority team owner in the history of the NBA. And the only thing missing on the back end of his comment about wanting to "bring a championship to Atlanta" that could have sold Atlanta fans further on him might be the tag line made infamous by Malcolm X: "By any means necessary."
In a 2004 BusinessWeek cover story headlined "Hispanic Nation," Brian Grow wrote: "It boils down to this: How much will Hispanics change America, and how much will America change them?"
Meruelo is stuck right in the center of that question. He is a man of immense pride who, over the years, has found a way to break through the ol' boys network that often roadblocks non-whites; and he broke through without selling his soul or turning his back on those who afforded him the opportunities to represent his culture and heritage in places where people like him were rarely seen or expected to reach.
Although his purchase of the Hawks is in-principle-only at this time (he's yet to be approved by the NBA Board of Governors, and the current lockout has his ownership confirmation on hold), it is known that with his ownership will come the operating rights to Philips Arena, where the Hawks play.
"Over the last five years," Meruelo wrote in an email exchange with ESPN.com, "I looked closely at purchasing several teams that were on the market. But I found the right fit with the Atlanta Hawks. An excellent team with a storied history and a community I am excited to join."
With great responsibility comes great power.
"The impact of Mr. Meruelo's ownership of the Atlanta Hawks can be significant for the Hispanic community and the perception of Hispanics as business leaders both in and outside of the sports world," said Glenn Llopis, author of "The Six Reasons Why Hispanic Leadership Will Save America's Corporations."
Meruelo knows that the $1.2 trillion purchasing power Hispanics are estimated to have in America in 2012 can feel a little hollow without representative ownership in the Big Three of American sports.
It's sort of like the belief that a city isn't considered "major" or "official" in the U.S. unless it has big league professional sports teams.
In that 2004 BusinessWeek story, Andrew Erlich, the founder of Erlich Transcultural Consultants Inc., said, "America has to learn to live with diversity."
If only it were that simple.
Barry Jones and Derrick Buckles represent the world Meruelo is about to walk into.
Two African-American men who bleed everything Peachtree St., Blvd, Ave., Lane, Circle, Walk and Drive. The city to them is more than Future and Roscoe Dash mixtapes, and Gladys Knight's Chicken & Waffles. They are longtime fans, entrenched. Original ATLiens.
As Jones and Buckles left the Georgia Dome after the Falcons-Eagles game on Sept. 18 -- a 35-31 Atlanta win over Philadelphia that, as Jones said, "puts that whole Michael Vick thing behind us" -- their concerns about Atlanta sports shifted to basketball.
"Most of the people in Atlanta don't know much about him," Jones said over the phone that night. "He didn't make his money here; he made his money in Cali. All we know is that he had enough money to buy the Hawks. And that might have an adverse effect on his ownership. Even with him being a minority."
His point is that unless Meruelo moves to Atlanta and invests more than his money in the team, the city might not be willing to open its arms to him, at least at first. Talk to people in Atlanta and they will tell you stories about how Falcons owner Arthur Blank and former Braves owner Ted Turner endeared themselves to the people and the city. How they learned the nuances of Atlanta's culture and helped shape a culture of sports in a town that used to share its NBA team with New Orleans. (Back in the early '80s the Atlanta Hawks played some of their home games in the New Orleans Superdome.)
"If a black radio station called Arthur Blank's office and asked for him to call in for an interview, Arthur Blank wouldn't call he'd show up!" Buckles said, explaining how an owner became one with the fans in Atlanta and what the fans there are accustomed to and expect from their teams' owners.
"The question is, How is he going to approach the people he's not connected to? How is Alex Meruelo going to make that connection to the South?" Jones followed. "There will be a growth period to get to know him. But without knowing him at this point, there's concern if he's going to try to turn the Hawks into the Dirty South Lakers."
One of the other questions outside of Atlanta concerning Meruelo's bid to purchase the Hawks is this: How did he jump to the head of the line when he hasn't had any involvement in organized basketball?
Real answer: He had the paper. Aka, the money. One of Meruelo's earlier attempts at joining the NBA came when he tried to purchase the Bobcats but lost out to Michael Jordan.
When that fell through, he did what most astute, determined businessmen do when they're in acquisition mode: He didn't panic; he didn't divert from his plan. He stayed his course.
In California, Meruelo watched the moves Arturo Moreno made in order to buy the Angels, and Meruelo used those moves as his blueprint into the game. He learned that the most important variable in purchasing a professional sports franchise is capital. How much you have and how much you have access to.
Meruelo has much. An estimated net worth of around $14.5 billion, according to some reports. From the La Pizza Loca chain spread across Southern California to the Grand Sierra resort and casino in Reno to KWHY television station in L.A., Meruelo's portfolio is granite; he has money.
And as my grandmother used to say: "Having money may not be the greatest thing in the world, but it sure as hell beats what comes in second place."
The answers to many of the reservations about Meruelo's mission were found in a conference call with two Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters.
"You guys know Atlanta and cover Atlanta," he told them. "I wanted to talk to you. I owe you the respect."
So Meruelo "gets" it. Or at least, he seems to.
When ESPN.com asked if his ethnicity has done more to help or hurt him reach the level of success he's enjoyed in business, the beauty of his unapologetic pride leaked through every word of his answer.
"I am proud to be a Cuban-American and a Hispanic," he said. "I am proud because my family and my parents instilled that pride in me. A pride to be the best you can be, a pride to meet and exceed my potential. I believe this drive is hallmark for my family's immigrant experience, my experience as a first-generation American. I believe this part of my upbringing has helped me to succeed, just like the success stories of so many others of immigrants that make this country great."
Meruelo also seems to have an understanding that being Hispanic and owning an NBA franchise in Atlanta will not be the same experience that being of Hispanic descent and owning a team in, say, Los Angeles or Miami or San Antonio -- where the Latino fan base is stronger -- might be.
The mountain Meruelo has decided to climb is steeper. Not only is he trying to bring the nation's 40th largest city its first NBA championship, he's also trying to be a paladin for the second largest ethnic group in the United States.
"As immigrants, we don't see cultural differences as barriers," Llopis said. "We believe that cultural differences create tremendous opportunity, especially in business. I strongly believe that Mr. Meruelo's immigrant perspective will make a tremendous impact in the NBA. Remember, Hispanics represent a new mainstream voice. We are looking for authentic leadership, role models and an identity that is accepted at the highest levels of business. For too many years, Hispanics have experienced an identity crisis within the business community. This is why Hispanics tend to assimilate and sacrifice the competitive edge that their cultural roots give them.
"In sum, Mr. Meruelo has the opportunity to be one of the most influential owners in professional sports and the role model the Hispanic community has long desired."
Meruelo once called owning an NBA team both a "dream" and a "passion." And a Hispanic owner of an NBA team is a dream and passion that many Hispanics never thought they'd see.
Knowing -- deep down in their souls -- that in America, sometimes all it takes is one to ignite a movement.
"I believe as the first Hispanic owner of an NBA franchise, I will have a deep responsibility to all those who have come before me breaking down different barriers so that I can break this one," Meruelo said in an email. "I owe a debt to them and to the generation to come to be a role model they all can be proud of so that any Hispanic kid in this country can see me and know with hard work, sacrifice and dedication, they too can make their dreams come true."
And the only thing missing on the back end of that comment that could sell you further on his ability to make this dream real might be the tag line made infamous by Che Guevara: "Until victory always."
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.
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