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Shaun Powell

Alex Meruelo
Businessman Alex Meruelo takes over a franchise marred by inept owners and apathetic fans.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images

New owner's biggest task: Getting Atlanta to embrace Hawks

Posted Aug 9 2011 8:57AM

ATLANTA -- This is a city that hasn't shown it can support basketball spectacularly, and Alex Meruelo hasn't yet had the chance to prove he can be a spectacular basketball owner. A match made in hoop heaven, it seems.

So both the city and the new owner have the chance to do right with the Hawks, a team trying to capture the imagination and wallets of one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. The last decade or so, everything has swelled in Atlanta -- except passion for the Hawks, and the reasons usually given are multitude:

• It's a football town.

• Nobody who lives here was born here.

• Public transportation is mediocre at best.

• Management and ownership lately haave been lousy.

• The Hawks haven't won anything major in their lives.

• Did we mention it's a football town?

There is truth in much if not all of the above, and yet that still doesn't explain why the Jazz draw fans at home and the Hawks don't. And why the Clippers enjoy a faithful following and the Hawks don't. According to last season's data, the Jazz ranked seventh in home attendance and the Clippers were 14th. The Hawks? They finished 22nd, just a smidge ahead of the Bucks, Timberwolves and others.

Here's all you need to know about basketball in Atlanta: Dominique Wilkins in his prime couldn't sell out the house most nights.

This was a sobering reality as the Hawks sat on the market the last few years, unable to fetch a serious buyer until a 48-year-old New York-born businessman who's based in L.A. scratched up $300 million and declared the Hawks his "favorite team." If nothing else, a team that often struggles at the gate gained a new fan in the middle of a lockout. Can the Lakers make that claim?

Here's the big news, though: Because they're tied to Philips Arena by steel cables, Meruelo can't move the Hawks to Orange County or Seattle, even if he wanted to, which means for better or worse, the Hawks are stuck in Atlanta. And Atlanta with the Hawks. Therefore, like Poitier and Curtis in "The Defiant Ones," they might as well make it work, no?

It must start with Meruelo, obviously, who said as much as he could say, within the confines of the lockout, when introduced to the city Monday. He talked about having to earn the respect of the fan base, the media and the city. And he mentioned the word "champion" and "championship" more than we heard last summer in Miami.

"I'm committed to the city, to winning, to a championship team," he said, and those declarations went over well here in August, with no labor settlement in sight.

It takes two to succeed, however, and that's where the customers must pull their weight. To put it mildly, Philips Arena doesn't exactly rattle the visiting team. It's the opposite, actually. When the Knicks, Bulls or Lakers are in town, the allegiance shifts dramatically.

And on a Tuesday night in December or January against the Sacramento Kings, there are more echoes than fans in Philips Arena.

Part of the problem was the previous ownership group, the Atlanta Spirit, which never endeared itself to the fans. However, the Hawks' ticket prices are reasonable compared to other NBA teams. They've had a winning record for three straight seasons and have reached the East semifinals the last three years, too. So the product, while faulty, at least produced on the floor. It couldn't all be blamed on ownership.

"It's a town where people love their sports," said Meruelo, which is true to an extent. Even the Braves couldn't fetch massive crowds during their glory days until the postseason began.

Atlanta is a fickle town, filled with iffy fans who are staunchly loyal only when it comes to football, and only when such football teams are winning. The Hawks? Not only must the product be stellar, but ownership must be in tune with the fans. That's what Meruelo is up against.

(It would be interesting to see how Atlanta would turn out on those Tuesdays in January if the Hawks had a true superstar. Which they don't.)

"I want to have this (building) sold out every day," said Meruelo. And what owner doesn't? What fan doesn't?

Meruelo was constantly peppered with questions Monday about his willingness to spend big on the roster, and while he couldn't get into such specifics (lockout and all), winning isn't about spending big. It's about spending wisely. And Meruelo must have the right people in place to make the right decisions with his millions.

"I can't promise you a championship," he said. "I can promise you I'll never give up."

The New Guy In Town stated his case and made his pledge, and did so impressively.

Now: What say you, Hawks fans?

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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