Alex Meruelo speaks during a news conference about his acquisition of the… (W.A. Harewood / Associated…)
The kid wasn't particularly big or quick, but he loved basketball and practiced hard enough to be good at it. That fall, he planned on starting for his high school team.
Until his dad pulled him aside to talk about the future.
"I don't think you have the potential to be an NBA player," his father said. "There's another opportunity you should look at."
The family owned a bridal shop at Third Street and Broadway in Los Angeles and rented the tuxedo department to an outsider who was struggling to pay the bills. Maybe the son could take over.
"This is an opportunity to really make something of yourself," he recalled his dad saying.
Though just 16, Alex Meruelo had years of experience in the store, manning the cash register on weekends. That's how it went for the child of Cuban immigrants who had fought their way up from nothing, who preached the gospel of work.
Meruelo thought it over and decided his dad was right.
"I quit basketball," he says. "It was very hard."
One more thing — his parents had been charging $700 a month for the tuxedo department. For their son, they raised the rent to $750.
Thirty-two years later, Meruelo stands before the cameras in a suit and tie, trying to stay calm as he is introduced to a group of reporters in Atlanta. He doesn't like news conferences. The bright lights make him uneasy, and his emotions soon take over.
"I never lost the burning desire to be part of the NBA," he says, eyes glinting with tears.
The 48-year-old entrepreneur has reached an agreement to buy the Atlanta Hawks in a deal that would make him the first Latino owner in league history.
It might seem odd to spend a reported $300 million for a team and rights to its arena when labor negotiations threaten to cancel the coming season. The timing adds to an air of mystery surrounding this Southern California millionaire who for three decades has avoided attention.
Meruelo made his fortune buying in down markets and taking chances, amassing a chain of pizzerias and a network of real estate holdings, a television station and a casino.
"He's opportunistic," says Bert Ellis, owner of KDOC-TV, who has bid against him in broadcast deals. Ellis calls Meruelo "very sharp, aggressive and shrewd."
The Hawks represent his biggest gamble yet, a team that has fared well on court but is struggling financially.
"You're taking a calculated risk," Meruelo says. "You never know the outcome until it happens."
Sitting back in his Downey office, his collar unbuttoned after a long day, he grins. The delight on his face looks nothing if not boyish.
Family legend has it that Homero and Belinda Meruelo fled Cuba in 1961, two accountants who came to Miami, their only possession a box of cigars they sold for $50.
There were no good jobs in Florida, so they moved to New York to find better work. Alex, the second of three sons, was born there. Cold winters eventually drove the Meruelos to Los Angeles, where they saved enough to buy a clothing shop in Glendale.
"That store failed," Alex Meruelo says. "I remember them being very upset."
Saving up for a second try, they found a better location downtown. They prospered, earning enough to acquire rental properties and open Belinda's Bridal. Watching all of this, Meruelo learned the value of determination and taking risks.
"We're all going to make mistakes," he says. "Get back up and try harder."
Reviving the tuxedo department at Belinda's proved simple enough. It had been badly managed, so he needed only to show up every day, stay on top of his accounts and make sure the customers his parents sent over from the bridal department were well cared for. Within months, revenues rose sharply. "A 16-year-old kid making $5,000 a month," he says.
Not that money completely eased the pain of leaving basketball. Years later, the former point guard dragged a friend to watch his alma mater, Rosemead's Don Bosco Tech, play on a rainy night.
"This was his life, his history, and he wanted to see it again," says Pat Murphy, president of Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, where Meruelo's three children attend. "You know he wanted that starting varsity job."
It was shortly after high school, while attending Cal State Long Beach, that Meruelo got another business opportunity. Again, his parents came to him, saying that a pizzeria in one of their buildings had failed. They sold him the property for $25,000.
The restaurant was in Huntington Park, in a Latino neighborhood, so he added chorizo and jalapeno to the list of toppings, hired Latino workers and delivered to streets where others refused to venture.
"There was no reason why Hispanics wouldn't eat pizza," he says. "I thought I could make it work."
By the 1990s, La Pizza Loca was generating $15 million in sales. It grew from a single restaurant to a regional chain with more than 50 locations.
Late last fall, a bankruptcy court put the Claim Jumper restaurant chain up for auction.