Hawks owners selling team, reports say

Updated: August 7, 2011, 7:13 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena will be sold to California developer and pizza chain owner Alex Meruelo, but the NBA team will remain in Atlanta, a person familiar with the deal said Sunday.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because no official announcement has been made. The deal, subject to the approval of the NBA, is to be announced on Monday.

Meruelo confirmed the deal to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying "I'm a person who doesn't give up. I want to bring a championship to the city of Atlanta."

Hawks Alex Meruelo, who will have controlling interest of more than 50 percent, founded La Pizza Loca, which has more than 50 franchised and company-owned restaurants in Southern California.

The Hawks ownership group, led by Michael Gearon Jr. and Bruce Levenson, also recently sold the NHL Atlanta Thrashers to a group that has moved the team to Winnipeg. The Thrashers deal was for a reported $170 million.

Meruelo would become the first Hispanic owner of an NBA team, according to the Journal-Constitution. He will have controlling interest of more than 50 percent of the Hawks. He founded La Pizza Loca, which has more than 50 franchised and company-owned restaurants in Southern California.

Meruelo also heads The Meruelo Group, a Downey, Calif.-based investment firm, which recently acquired the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, Nev., for a reported $42.45 million.

A tearful Gearon said at the news conference to announce the sale of the Thrashers on May 31 that the owners failed in attempts to find someone to keep the hockey team in Atlanta. Gearon said no local buyer emerged with a serious offer for the Thrashers.

The ownership group, called the Atlanta Spirit, also had to look outside of Atlanta to find a buyer for the Hawks. This time, there was no threat of moving the team.

The group bought the Hawks, Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena, where the teams play, in 2004. There was almost immediate dissension among the owners.

The ownership split began in 2005 over Boston-based co-owner Steve Belkin's objection to the Hawks' trade of Boris Diaw, two first-round draft picks and a $4.9 million trade exception to the Phoenix Suns for guard Joe Johnson in 2005.

The dispute led to a long legal battle that ended when Levenson and Gearon announced on Dec. 22, 2010, they had bought out Belkin's 30-percent share.

Gearon, the son of former Hawks executive Michael Gearon Sr., grew up with the team and has said he would like to retain a minority share of the ownership if the team was sold. Those details were not available on Sunday.

The Hawks have made the playoffs the past four seasons, including three straight second-round appearances.

While the owners were criticized for failing to keep the Thrashers' stars, including Ilya Kovalchuk, in Atlanta, the group was aggressive in re-signing Hawks stars Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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