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Hawks' new owner desperate to land a title

Meruelo's buyout of franchise and the Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta subject to approval by board of governors

Gulf News

Atlanta: 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 "1,000 per cent 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 criticised for a failure of leadership as the team has four times reached the playoffs only to fall short before the Eastern Conference final.

Playoff failures

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 labour 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, but trail the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics, who have each won multiple championships.

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

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