L.A. businessman buying majority stake in Hawks

Los Angeles businessman Alex Meruelo has reached an agreement to buy a majority ownership stake in the Atlanta Hawks, he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive weekend interview.

The Hawks, who will remain in Atlanta, are planning to announce the sale Monday.

Meruelo said he and the Hawks' current owner, the Atlanta Spirit Group, have a signed agreement that also includes the operating rights to Philips Arena. The deal is subject to the approval of the NBA Board of Governors –- a complicated process that could take months.

Meruelo, 48, is the founder and chairman of The Meruelo Group, a holding company that owns businesses ranging from pizza restaurants and construction firms to a casino and a TV station.

If the Hawks deal is approved and closes, Meruelo -– a New York-born, California-raised son of Cuban immigrants -- said he would become the first Hispanic primary owner of an NBA franchise.

Meruelo (pronounced mur-rell-o) said some members of the Spirit group will maintain minority ownership positions but that he will own more than 50 percent and control ownership decisions. He would not be more specific about the size of his stake and would not divulge the price he has agreed to pay for it.

But he said, "I will be in complete control of the team."

The team's current ownership group declined to discuss the sale agreement Sunday. Bruce Levenson, the lead owner in the negotiations with Meruelo, said in an email to the AJC:  "This is Alex's time, and as such I won't be commenting."

Although his primary residence and business will remain in Southern California, Meruelo said he plans to spend a lot of time in Atlanta and to buy a home here.

"If you look at my previous ... business ventures, I'm very hands-on, and this will be no different," he said.

Asked if there is any scenario in which he would seek to move the Hawks out of Atlanta, Meruelo said: "Absolutely no. None."

He also said: "I want to bring a championship to the city of Atlanta."

Owning an NBA team, he said, "has been a dream of mine and a passion, and you'll definitely see that as I become, hopefully, the owner in a short period of time."

The Atlanta Spirit Group – initially led by Steve Belkin of Boston, Levenson and Ed Peskowitz of Washington and Michael Gearon Jr. of Atlanta –- bought the Hawks, Thrashers and Philips Arena rights from Time Warner in 2004. The group soon became mired in a bitter internal fight that pitted Belkin against his partners. A five-year legal battle finally ended in December when the estranged Belkin was bought out by his partners.

The Spirit this summer sold the Thrashers to a Canadian group that moved the team to Winnipeg.

Although the Spirit also had been actively seeking a buyer or investors for the Hawks for more than a year, the efforts were accelerated after the Thrashers transaction was completed.

Meruelo said he was never interested in buying the Thrashers.

Meruelo's business holdings have evolved from a single pizza restaurant, La Pizza Loca, that he opened in Los Angeles in 1985, when he was 21 years old. That lone pizzeria grew to a chain of 50 outlets throughout Southern California.

The Meruelo Group then began diversifying widely -– into residential and commercial real-estate development in the late 1980s and into infrastructure and utility construction and engineering in the late 1990s.

In 2003 Meruelo co-founded a bank, and in 2009 he acquired a company that manufactures and distributes Asian food items.

The Meruelo Group's two acquisitions so far this year: a hotel-casino and a TV station.

Meruelo acquired the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino -- a 2,000-room hotel and 100,000-square-foot casino in Reno, Nevada –- and KWHY-TV, a Spanish-language station in Los Angeles.

Meruelo would not be the first NBA owner with a casino in his portfolio. The Maloof family, which owns the Sacramento Kings, built The Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas and remains a part-owner of it.

Although the NBA has not yet considered whether to approve Meruelo's purchase of the Hawks, the process would not have reached this point without the league giving the current owners an OK to pursue negotiations with him.

Meruelo said he quietly looked into buying several other NBA teams in recent years. He expressed interest in the Hawks early this year but said he briefly "bowed out" when the Spirit entered an exclusive negotiating period with outgoing San Diego Padres owner John Moores in the spring.

"I had said, ‘This is what I'm willing to do. If you can do better, I understand,'" Meruelo said.

After the negotiations with Moores built little momentum, the exclusivity was ended by mutual agreement on May 20, reopening the process to Meruelo and other bidders.

"I guess, to my luck, it didn't work out with the individual they had an exclusivity with," Meruelo said. "And we got back in communications and hammered out a deal."

He agreed to the deal despite a labor dispute that has the NBA in a lockout and the 2011-12 season in doubt. Per instructions from the NBA, he would not comment on the lockout or any plans he might have for the Hawks if approved as owner.

Meruelo's parents arrived in the United States from Cuba in 1961, settling initially in Miami before moving to New York and, when he was around 3 years old, Southern California. He is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach.

"It is important to me," Meruelo said of becoming, if approved, the NBA's first Hispanic owner. "I'm very proud of my heritage. It's nice to be able to do something that is different and is not in the ordinary. I'm very blessed. I'm very lucky."