NBA - California businessman becomes Hawks' new owner

ATLANTA Tue Aug 9, 2011 3:23am IST

Alex Meruelo, founder of the Meruelo Group speaks to the media after it was announced the group had reached an agreement on the majority stake ownership of the Atlanta Hawks in Atlanta, Georgia, August 8, 2011. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

Alex Meruelo, founder of the Meruelo Group speaks to the media after it was announced the group had reached an agreement on the majority stake ownership of the Atlanta Hawks in Atlanta, Georgia, August 8, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Tami Chappell

ATLANTA (Reuters) - The new owner of the Atlanta Hawks said on Monday he would do all he could to bring an NBA championship to a city that has made the playoffs the last four years but never clinched the title.

Alex Meruelo reached a sale agreement for a majority ownership stake in the Hawks and the Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta that hosts the team. The deal is subject to approval by the NBA Board of Governors, and financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

"My focus is one focus: to bring a championship back to Atlanta. My focus is on the basketball team, my heart and my soul and that's where I want to be," Meruelo told his first news conference at the Philips Arena.

Meruelo, a Cuban-American who made a fortune with the La Pizza Loca fast food chain in southern California, choked up as he described his pride at being the first Hispanic owner of a basketball franchise.

Meruelo described himself as a "1000 percent Hawks fan" but gave no details of how he would address the team's management, staffing or players -- issues critical to Hawks fans.

In particular, he said nothing about Joe Johnson, the team's highest paid player who has been criticized for a failure of leadership as the team has four times reached the playoffs only to fall short before the Eastern Conference final.

The Chicago Bulls defeated the Hawks in six games in this year's conference playoffs second round in May.

NBA rules prevented Meruelo from giving details of his own financial input and a lockout caused by a labor dispute between owners and players also constrained his comments, Hawks officials said.

"The first responsibility is that I earn the respect, the loyalty and the love of the Atlanta community," said Meruelo, who appeared nervous.

"I will not ... ever give up trying to win a championship for this city ... I can't promise you a championship tomorrow, but I can promise you that I will never give up," he said.

The Hawks are rated among the better teams in the NBA's Eastern Conference, though they trail the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics, who have each won multiple championships.

Last year, the Miami Heat also streaked past the Hawks with the acquisition of stars Chris Bosh and LeBron James who joined Dwayne Wade to form arguably the league's most celebrated threesome.

The Heat reached the NBA finals only to fall in June to the Dallas Mavericks.

The Meruelo Group bought the Hawks from the Atlanta Spirit, a group of executives who also owned the Atlanta Thrashers ice hockey team until they sold it in May.

(Editing by Rex Gowar; to query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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