Redemption through basketball
Dan Grunfeld talks about his family’s move from Romania to the NBA
Ernie Grunfeld may be the only known player in American professional sports to come out of the ashes of the Holocaust.
His son, Dan Grunfeld, who lived in Franklin Lakes from 1984 to 1989, has written a poignant and inspiring book about his father, an NBA athlete and child of Holocaust survivors whose families were decimated by the Nazis.
Dan Grunfeld, 38, the author of “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy and an Unprecedented American Dream,” will speak at noon on Sunday at the Kaufman Center for Jewish Living at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff. (See below.)
Ernie Grunfeld played for the New York Knicks from 1977 to 1986; later, from 1989 to 1992, he was the team’s general manager.
Dan Grunfeld’s paternal grandmother, Lily Grunfeld, now 97, was born in rural Romania and moved to Budapest. She was saved twice by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. The first time was when he issued false citizenship documents to Jews in Hungary. The second time was when he convinced Nazi guards not to gun down the 80,000 Jews left in the Budapest ghetto at the end of the war.
“My grandma was hiding in a burnt-out building, crammed into a small attic space with her fellow prisoners,” Dan Grunfeld said. She lost both parents and five of her nine siblings in the Holocaust. Dan Grunfeld’s grandfather, Alex, who died in 1986, was in a forced labor camp in Hungary. His parents were murdered in Auschwitz.
The Grunfelds, who met and married in postwar Romania, spent two decades under communism there before obtaining permission to leave for Israel in 1964. Instead, they immigrated to America. Ernie was 9 years old then.
“They couldn’t say what they believed; they couldn’t possess anything, so it was a very hard life,” Dan Grunfeld said.
Ernie Grunfeld and his parents started from nothing in Queens. Ernie was taunted for not knowing English. The family faced personal loss, the death of one of three chidren, a teenaged son from leukemia, within a year of arriving.
“It’s not something my dad really talked about much, that pain and the tragedy of his older brother is so raw for him,” Dan Grunfeld said. “I have a generation of separation from all that tragedy and trauma so I can look back on it.”
The Grunfelds worked seven days a week in unskilled jobs, saving all they could before opening a fabric store in the Bronx.
Their son didn’t touch a basketball until he was 9 years old. He got acculturated to his new country on the rough-and-tumble basketball courts of New York City, Dan Grunfeld said.
Ernie Grunfeld made good in the urban sport, first as an Olympic gold medalist in 1976 and then as an NBA player with the Knicks, the Kansas City Kings, and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Dan Grunfeld said his father “watched his grandparents and applied their values of hard work, determination and willpower as a basketball player. He was really determined and incredibly tenacious. I think he learned that from my grandparents.”
Ernie Grunfeld “found the game of basketball and a dozen years later he was standing on top of the Olympics podium as a gold medalist of the United States,” his son said. “So that shows you that anything is possible and that’s really an American dream story.”
Ernie Grunfeld moved on from professional basketball to a 30-year career as an NBA executive. The 67-year-old lives in metropolitan Washington, D.C., where he was the former president of the Washington Wizards.
Dan Grunfeld, like his father a basketball standout with an eight-season professional career in Europe, is an accomplished writer for publications as diverse as Sports Illustrated and the Jerusalem Post. He is married, has two sons, and lives in McLean, Va., where he works in venture capital.
“I always had a sense of the profound impact that basketball had on my family and both my grandparents,” he said of why he wrote the book. “I thought my family story could inspire people the way it always has inspired me. And so, as I got older, it really became my dream to tell the story.”
The public reaction to his book has been overwhelmingly positive, Mr. Grunfeld said.
“I’m so grateful for that. I think the story has really touched people, inspired people. It’s my family’s version of a universal story, which is overcoming adversity and not giving up.”
Who: Dan Grunfeld
What: Will talk about his book, “By the Grace of the Game”
Where: At the Kaufman Center at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff
When: On Sunday, December 11, at noon
How much: Tickets are $18 for non-members and free for members and students under 18 For more information: Call 201-891-4466 or email [email protected]