Sources: Sale of Hawks in jeopardy

Updated: October 27, 2011, 2:46 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

The sale of the Atlanta Hawks to California developer and pizza chain owner Alex Meruelo is in jeopardy, according to sources close to the situation.

Sources told ESPN.com on Wednesday that there are concerns at the league level and within the Hawks' current ownership group, headed by Michael Gearon Jr. and Bruce Levenson, about whether Meruelo indeed has the sufficient funds to purchase a majority stake in the franchise and operate an NBA team.

The NBA on Wednesday declined comment when asked about Meruelo and the Hawks' situation.

Said Meruelo in a statement: "I have more than ample resources to purchase and operate the Hawks in a first-class manner. I am committed to the purchase of the Atlanta Hawks. While I can't comment on the details of the approval process, I have and will do everything I can to bring the process to a positive conclusion."

One source briefed on the matter said that Gearon and Levenson have acknowledged in recent league meetings that they might have to own the team for at least one more year.

Meruelo's agreement to purchase a majority stake in the Hawks, as well as the operating rights to Philips Arena, was announced in early August. But approval from 75 percent of the NBA's Board of Governors, following a lengthy background check, is required to make the deal official.

When asked about the status of that review earlier this month, NBA spokesman Tim Frank told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "All I would say to this is that the review process is ongoing."

It was initially believed that the approval process was moving slowly because the NBA's resources have been largely devoted to ongoing negotiations with the NBA Players Association as part of a lockout that Wednesday reached its 117th day.

But sources indicate that the prospect of Meruelo's deal collapsing was mentioned Tuesday when the Board of Governors convened in New York to discuss revenue-sharing plans.

And the ongoing lockout did not prevent the NBA from announcing last week that the Board of Governors had unanimously approved the sale of the Philadelphia 76ers from from Comcast-Spectacor to a group led by private-equity billionaire Joshua Harris.

If the Hawks' sale is ultimately approved, Meruelo would become the first Hispanic majority owner of an NBA franchise, responsible for any financial losses while Gearon and Levenson retain minority stakes in the team.

The 48-year-old Meruelo heads the Meruelo Group, an investment firm based in Downey, Calif., which recently acquired the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, Nev., for a reported $42.45 million.

Meruelo also founded the La Pizza Loca chain, which has more 50 franchised and company-owned restaurants in Southern California, catering to the Latino community, according to the Meruelo Group website.

"When Alex made the announcement he was purchasing the team, pending NBA approval, he said he wants to be a part of this community," Meruelo Group spokesman Ruben Gonzalez told the Journal-Constitution earlier this month. "And so he is proving it, meeting with business leaders, community leaders and elected officials. He is making an effort to follow through and really be an excited and involved member of the Atlanta community."

The newspaper reported that Meruelo has had introductory meetings with Georgia governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed. The Hawks' current management has likewise included Meruelo in discussions on team matters since August, although there naturally hasn't been much to discuss since the lockout began July 1, one month before Meruelo's deal to buy the team was announced.

Born to Cuban immigrants in New York and raised in California, Meruelo was widely lauded for stepping in to buy the Hawks after years of ownership strife in Atlanta thanks to a drawn-out legal wrangle, in which Gearon and Levenson wrested control of the Atlanta Spirit group from former co-owner Steve Belkin.

Atlanta Spirit also recently sold the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers to a consortium that moved the team to Winnipeg.

Hawks Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, who helped present Meruelo to the audience at his introductory August news conference, called him "a true basketball fan."

"His record has shown in life that he's a winner and so we welcome his winning spirit here in Atlanta," Wilkins said.

Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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