A Family’s Journey from the Holocaust to the NBA

From a Washington Post story by Scott Allen headlined “Ernie Grunfeld’s son details his family’s journey from the Holocaust to the NBA in new book”:

During his junior year at Stanford, Dan Grunfeld wrote a 20-page family history for one of his American Studies classes, and it focused in part on his father, Ernie, the only NBA player whose parents survived the Holocaust. Grunfeld’s professor told him it was an amazing story, and while the leading scorer on the Cardinal’s 2004-05 men’s basketball team was more focused at the time on following in his dad’s footsteps and making it to the NBA, the positive feedback stuck.

“That was almost like the light flickering,” the 37-year-old Grunfeld, who works in venture capital, said. “When you’re young, you don’t realize the scope of it, but I knew then that there was a relatable, universal story here.”

After a nine-year playing career in Germany, Spain and Israel, Grunfeld retired in 2014 and enrolled in business school at Stanford, where he found time to revisit the story he knew he wanted to tell. In November, “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream,” an emotional undertaking that’s part family history and part memoir, part tragedy and part source of hope, was published.

“There’s some difficult themes and there’s darkness in this story, but there’s a lot more light,” Grunfeld said. “It’s inspirational. It’s hopeful. When I was growing up, I dreamed big because I saw what my family overcame.”

In December 2003, six months after the Washington Wizards hired Ernie Grunfeld as their president of basketball operations, a position he held for 16 years, a Washington Post profile of the former New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks executive declared that “his 48-year journey has the makings of a best-selling novel or a made-for-television movie.” The story references Grunfeld’s arrival in the United States from Hungary in 1964 without speaking a word of English, his rise to stardom at the University of Tennessee and earning a spot on the gold medal-winning 1976 U.S. Olympic team before a nine-year NBA playing career, but the book goes deeper, describing parts of Grunfeld’s improbable journey he hasn’t openly discussed before.

“He experienced a lot of loss,” said Dan Grunfeld….“The game has been so meaningful to our family, but it’s not something that he talks about publicly much. My grandmother tells more stories about her experience.”

Grunfeld’s 96-year-old grandmother, Lily, whom he calls Anyu and talks to daily, is the driving force of the book. Born in Romania near the Hungarian border, she lost her parents and five siblings in the Holocaust, during which she survived by hiding in an attic in the Budapest ghetto until it was liberated. Grunfeld has always been close with his father’s mother, and the stories she shared over homemade Hungarian dishes… helped inspire the project.

By the time Grunfeld started his freshman year at Stanford, his grandmother had moved from New York to the Bay Area. She attended every one of his home games, and Grunfeld lived with her during the summers, including after he tore the ACL in his right knee a month before the 2005 NCAA tournament. While she never explicitly told Dan to write a book, she implored him to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive, so that the atrocities of the Nazis would never be repeated. Grunfeld has written about the Holocaust and his grandmother before, including during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, when he described turning to her for hope.

“This is our version of this story, but there were 6 million people who were killed in the Holocaust, and if we don’t tell their stories, no one will,” Grunfeld said. “The generation of survivors is getting older.”

While pursuing his MBA at Stanford, Grunfeld took an undergraduate creative nonfiction class and began to think more seriously about how he wanted to present his family’s history. He interviewed his father and grandmother over the course of more than a year, and while he occasionally alluded to working on something to preserve and memorialize his family’s past, he purposely avoided telling them that he was in the early stages of writing a book.

“We just had honest conversations about their experiences, and I knew that not having any labels or expectations on those conversations helped them be even deeper and more meaningful,” Grunfeld said. “I wasn’t concealing anything from them, but at the same time I needed to create that space.”

For a book that describes so much unthinkable loss, “By the Grace of the Game” manages to leave the reader smiling quite a bit. The chapter about Ernie losing his older brother is followed by one of the more amusing and memorable anecdotes in the book, pertaining to a dinner Dan had with Indiana Pacers executive Larry Bird, one of his childhood heroes….That’s no accident.

“Life is joy and pain,” said Dan, who is married with a son named Solomon, after Dan’s late great-grandfather. “It’s tragedy and triumph. I had learned that from my grandmother and my dad, and I wanted to reflect that truth in the book. There are amazing moments, and there are sad and painful moments, and my family certainly has experienced both. I made a lot of intentional decisions to tell a full, rich story that conveys the human experience.”

Scott Allen has written about the Capitals, Nationals, Washington Football Team, Wizards and more for The Washington Post’s D.C. Sports Bog since 2014.


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