Romanian Jewish immigrant Ernie Grunfeld’s significance in American sports history goes beyond his performance on the basketball court: The former New York Knicks star is the only son of Holocaust survivors known to play in the National Basketball Association — or any other major American sports league. Now his son, Dan Grunfeld, is reflecting on a remarkable family story in a new book, “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream.”
“There’s darkness in the story, but much more light,” Dan Grunfeld told The Times of Israel in a phone interview. “It’s a happy, hopeful story of basketball, perseverance, inspiration. Yes, I discovered tears, but I discovered a lot of love and laughs.”
Grunfeld — himself a former pro basketball player in Israel, Europe and the United States, and the tournament MVP for the gold-medal-winning Team USA in the 2009 Maccabiah Games — sat down to interview his father as part of research for the book.
Ernie Grunfeld had never picked up a basketball in Romania, but after his family relocated to New York City, he learned the game so well that he won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA in 1976, and became a standout for the hometown Knicks, wearing number 18 — a number that in Judaism is symbolic of life.
After his playing days ended, the elder Grunfeld worked as an executive for three NBA teams — the Knicks, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Washington Wizards. One of his top players on the Bucks, the now-retired Ray Allen, wrote the foreword to the book. Allen was recently named one of the top 75 players in NBA history.
“As amazing a basketball player [as he was], he’s an even better human being,” Dan Grunfeld said of Allen.
Allen used to take a guest to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum whenever he was playing an NBA game in Washington. He was later named to the board of the museum during the Obama administration.
Asked to contribute to the book, “he did not hesitate,” Grunfeld said. “It’s such a testament. He’s a global icon on and off the basketball court.”
A tragic past
For the book, Grunfeld also interviewed his now-96-year-old grandmother Lily Grunfeld, who was born along the Romanian border with Hungary. He calls her “Anyu” — Hungarian for “mother.”
“My grandmother, in the book, is an inspiration to me,” Grunfeld said. “I hope people reading the book will be inspired as well. If my grandmother could overcome what she overcame, there’s hope for us all.”
Now a husband and father with another baby on the way, Grunfeld raves about the Hungarian dishes that Anyu continues to make, including his favorite, rántott hús — or breaded chicken. She’s teaching his wife, Sam.
“My wife likes to make many of the dishes,” Grunfeld said — although sometimes there’s a challenge: “My grandmother doesn’t cook with recipes. My wife tries to quantify — ‘is it two teaspoons?’”
When he and Anyu visit the Holocaust Museum, the first place they go is the corner honoring Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Through his actions to protect Jews while stationed in Hungary, Wallenberg saved Anyu’s life twice as she evaded the Nazis in the Budapest ghetto.
“He’s always been the ultimate symbol of heroism in my family,” Grunfeld said. “He risked his life, and ultimately lost his life at the end. I would not be here today without his intervention.”
And, he said, “my grandmother still talks about him to this day.”
Anyu lost much of her immediate family in the Holocaust — her parents and four of her nine siblings. One sibling who survived was her sister, who endured an evaluation by Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz. Anyu’s future husband — Grunfeld’s late grandfather, whom he calls “Apu” (Hungarian for “father”) — lost his parents, a stepparent and both of his sisters.
Grunfeld’s grandparents had to rebuild their lives multiple times, first in postwar Romania, then in the US after communism compelled them to escape Eastern Europe. They were aided improbably by Jewish-American comedian Buddy Hackett. The grateful family ended up going to a show he did in Las Vegas to thank him.
A latent gift
Anyu and Apu raised their two sons, Lutzi and Ernie, in New York. Ernie did not speak any English at first and was bullied, but Lutzi was a source of support for his younger brother. Then, tragically, the immigrant family lost Lutzi to leukemia.
Dan Grunfeld spoke about the loss of the uncle he never met, who died when his father was 10 years old. Anyu was there by his side at the hospital and called Apu, who was working as a house painter in Connecticut. Although he arrived remarkably quickly, he did not get there in time to say goodbye to his son.
Several weeks before he died, Lutzi told Anyu how much he wanted his brother to become famous in the US.
“Maybe his brother understood that Dad had a gift he hadn’t yet discovered,” Grunfeld writes in the book. “That’s what I like to think, at least.”
Lutzi’s hope came true.
“My dad discovered basketball on the playgrounds of New York City,” Grunfeld said. “He became an Olympian and a very well-known college basketball legend.”
At the University of Tennessee, Ernie Grunfeld teamed up with fellow New Yorker Bernard King to form an impressive duo. Grunfeld went on to help Team USA win gold at the Summer Olympics in Montreal. He finished as Tennessee’s top scorer of all-time, then made it to the NBA — and ultimately reunited with King in the Knicks.
“I was born around the NBA schedule,” Grunfeld noted, explaining that he was delivered by Cesarean section while his father was home from a road trip, and that his circumcision was scheduled in time for his father’s return from another road trip.
“In so many ways, I was born into the game,” Grunfeld said. “I practiced with my dad on the weekends, I went to playoff games in the NBA, the All-Star Game. It was a very cool way to grow up.”
Passing the torch
As he got older, Grunfeld’s father retired from playing and became an executive with the Knicks, presiding over the team when it reached the NBA Finals in 1994, losing to the Houston Rockets.
Five years later, in 1999, he was fired before the season ended. After his departure, the Knicks, who had been struggling, finished the season strong and reached the NBA Finals again, where they fell to the San Antonio Spurs.
By that time, the younger Grunfeld was getting taller and thinking about playing basketball long-term himself. He realized his dream of going to Stanford and thanks to an unconventional but effective trainer, he made himself into one of the Cardinals’ top players. A bright future in the NBA seemed imminent.
Suddenly, in one game against Cal in February 2005, everything changed. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, dashing his dreams. As he lay on the court, a comforting figure walked to his side — Anyu, who was ready to impart some perspective.
“She said it was a very hard thing, but if it’s the hardest thing you go through in your life, you’re going to be okay,” Grunfeld recalled. “Her example showed me that when life moves, continue to stay positive, stay hopeful.”
Grunfeld rehabilitated his knee and ended up playing pro basketball in Germany, Spain, Israel and even in the US, where he enjoyed a spell with the Knicks but could not make the final roster.
He first visited Israel as part of Team USA in the Maccabiah Games in 2009. His father had played in the Games 36 years earlier, in 1973, winning silver.
“My family in Romania had passports to go to Israel,” Grunfeld said of the time his grandparents emigrated. “[My immediate family] ended up going to the US. Most of my [extended] family settled in Israel. It was a great kind of homecoming, recognizing so much family, understanding the Jewish homeland.”
His time in Israel included playing for Hapoel Jerusalem over two years, another chapter in the family narrative.
“My dad played for the New York Knicks and wore number 18,” Grunfeld reflected. “I played for Jerusalem. My family survived the Holocaust, came to America and found basketball. Me and my dad both represented Judaism through the game of basketball. It was a very cool experience, an absolute lifetime love.”
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