ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks will not be sold to California developer and pizza chain owner Alex Meruelo.
In fact, the NBA team is no longer on the market.
The Hawks' ownership group, headed by Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon Jr., said Friday that the agreement for Meruelo to buy the team had been mutually terminated by both sides. Just last week, there were reports the NBA was delaying approval of sale because of concerns about Meruelo's finances, though he insisted he had enough money to purchase the team and run it in a first-class manner.
Meruelo, the son of Cuban immigrants, was poised to become the NBA's first Hispanic team owner and acquire operating rights to Philips Arena, with Levenson and Gearon remaining in a minority role.
Instead, the group known as Atlanta Spirit will remain in charge of the team it has owned since 2004, when it acquired the Hawks and the NHL Thrashers from Time Warner. The group stepped in after a proposed deal with Dallas businessman David McDavid fell through.
"The Atlanta Hawks are no longer for sale," Levenson said in a statement issued by the Hawks. "We're excited to remain as owners of the Hawks and are committed to building on our string of four straight playoff appearances."
The owners came under heavy criticism in Atlanta after they quickly worked out a deal to sell the Thrashers to a group in Winnipeg for a reported $170 million. The team moved to the Canadian city and is now known as the Jets.
The Hawks said there would be no additional comment on why the purchase agreement announced in August had been terminated, citing a confidentiality clause. Neither Levenson nor Gearon immediately responded to e-mails.
Meruelo issued a statement indicating that the ongoing labor dispute between the owners and the players, which delayed this week's scheduled start of the regular season, helped scuttle the deal.
"I want to thank the Atlanta community who welcomed me with open arms. I am humbled and blessed by their warmth and hospitality," Meruelo said. "Basketball is my passion, but professional basketball is a business. Although all parties negotiated in good faith, we were not able to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement on some key issues given the current uncertainty surrounding the labor issue. As a result, we mutually decided to terminate the deal effective immediately."
Meruelo hasn't given up on becoming the NBA's first Hispanic owner. But it won't be with the Hawks.
"I have great respect for the owners of the Hawks and the league and remain committed to fulfilling my dream of owning an NBA team," he said in the statement. "I look forward to that opportunity in the future."
At a news conference in early August, shortly after the deal was announced, an emotional Meruelo put on a red Hawks cap and fought back tears as he talked about the significance of becoming the NBA's first Hispanic team owner.
"It means a lot," the 48-year-old said. "Me being Hispanic, being first is really touching. I hope to do the right thing. I just want to make sure I make them proud."
Growing up, he wanted to be a player.
"I wasn't quite fast enough, tall enough or quick enough, so those dreams didn't quite get me that far," Meruelo said. "But those dreams brought me the burning desire to be involved in the NBA. It's something I've always wanted my entire life to somehow be a part of the NBA."
Meruelo never considered buying the Thrashers before they moved to Winnipeg, and he acknowledged that purchasing an NBA team during the lockout was a concern.
"You're always hesitant, right?" Meruelo said. "It's the unknown that makes you uncomfortable, but at the same time I just see a tremendous amount of opportunity and growth in this sport."
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 company website.
"It's really a dual thing, the opportunity and the love of the sport that brought me so close to this," he said. "I would say I'm a very hands-on individual. I'm very tied in to every business I'm involved with. I will do no different here."