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Hawks to be sold, will remain in Atlanta

Posted Aug 7 2011 10:41AM - Updated Aug 8 2011 10:25AM

ATLANTA (AP) -- Alex Meruelo and the Atlanta Hawks are poised to make NBA history.

The Hawks have scheduled a news conference for Monday to announce the team and Philips Arena are being sold to Meruelo. The son of Cuban immigrants is a California developer and pizza chain owner. He is expected to become the NBA's first Hispanic majority owner.

"I am a lifelong basketball fan, a student of the NBA game, and this is a dream come true for me," Meruelo said in a statement Monday announcing the sale agreement. "I am committed to winning and look forward to engaging with our wonderful fans, our dedicated season ticket holders, our committed corporate partners and this passionate community. I believe that both the Hawks and Philips Arena have unlimited potential for the future. I am honored to be a part of that future"

The deal is subject to the approval of the NBA.

Meruelo, who will have controlling interest of more than 50 percent of the Hawks, will attend Monday's news conference. The team will remain in Atlanta.

The Hawks ownership group, led by Michael Gearon Jr. and Bruce Levenson, also recently sold the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers to a group that moved the team to Winnipeg. The Thrashers' deal was for a reported $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee to be split by the rest of the owners.

Meruelo was born in New York and raised in California. He heads the Meruelo Group, a Downey, Calif.-based investment firm. The firm recently acquired the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, Nev., for a reported $42.45 million.

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

Details of the Hawks' sale, including the purchase price, have not been disclosed. It is not known if any members of the current ownership group will retain minority shares.

The sale of the Hawks is the latest in a series of dramatic moves by the ownership group, less than a year after Gearon and Levenson bought Boston-based Steve Belkin's 30-percent share of the teams.

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 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.

The dispute led to a long legal battle that ended when Levenson and Gearon announced on Dec. 22, 2010, they had purchased Belkin's 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 if the team was sold. The elder Gearon also is part of the ownership team.

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.

"The perception is we don't spend money," Gearon Jr. said recently about the Hawks. "Yet you look at our roster and the core assets, we've kept all of them."


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