A Holocaust tale with a basketball ending

Dan Grunfeld’s new book reflects on his family’s journey from Auschwitz to the NBA, with a stop in Israel.

Dan Grunfeld has a fascinating story to tell in his newly published book ‘By Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream.' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dan Grunfeld has a fascinating story to tell in his newly published book ‘By Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream.'
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The Grunfeld family, specifically father Ernie and son Dan, have been part of the basketball fabric across North America and Israel for many years.

Ernie, who won a gold medal for the 1976 United States Olympic Team, starred at Tennessee as well as for the New York Knicks and then became the NBA franchise’s general manager who built the great team of 1990s along with also holding the same role in Washington lived the great American Dream to its fullest.

Dan was a standout at Stanford and then plied his trade across Europe while finishing his career in Israel.

However, that’s not even the half of it.

Dan’s new book By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream highlights his father Ernie’s unique journey to the United States after being born in communist Romania following his parents’ survival from the horrors of the Holocaust.

Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi (18) drives past New York Knicks forward Lance Thomas (42) (credit: REUTERS)Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi (18) drives past New York Knicks forward Lance Thomas (42) (credit: REUTERS)

But it’s not just his father’s story that makes the book so special, but that of his grandmother’s – the matriarch of the Grunfeld family who lives at the age of 96 to this day in California.

To get a taste of their trials and tribulations along with understanding how the Grunfelds' basketball lore was born out of the ashes of Auschwitz, Dan spoke to The Jerusalem Post about his new book.

“The story means the world to me. I grew up being so close to my grandmother Anyu and just knowing what she went through by surviving the war and what my dad went through so I would have a better life is just mindboggling. When I was born, my dad was an NBA player and I grew up wanting to be just like him, wanting to play in the NBA. But really there was just so much more before that and I always wanted to tell that story.

“After I had retired from the game, I came back to the United States from Israel and I had time to explore the idea. I spent a year-and-a-half just doing the research and approached the process of writing a book exactly as I did when I was playing. The story is not just about my family but it’s a universal one of survival and perseverance of the Jewish people.”

Dan’s grandmother Anyu’s story is the anchor of the book as her survival was the key to the continuing lineage of the Grunfeld family as well as many, many others.

“Both of her parents were killed in Auschwitz as well as five siblings who did not survive the Holocaust,” explained Dan. “Not only is she my hero, she is a hero. She saved people’s lives during the war and risked her life to obtain false documents for not only herself but for many others with the help of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. For me to tell their stories and preserve their memories is really meaningful to her and to me too.”

Following the end of World War II, Dan’s grandparents decided to begin to rebuild the family but did so at the beginning in communist Romania,.

When they survived the war and they got home after their families were decimated in the Holocaust, there was an urge to start over and rebuild. They had roots in Romania and it took them 10 years to leave once communism descended upon the country. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to leave, it was that they couldn’t leave.”

With the help of the Israeli government, the Grunfelds were allowed to leave and they made their way to the United States. But once in America it still took plenty of time for his family to adjust to their new surroundings.

“My dad came to the United States when he was nine years old and he didn’t know a word of English. Now when he talks he doesn’t even have an accent. He remembers his childhood well and has many recollections of what it was like to grow up in communist Romania. It was so interesting to contrast my childhood to his because when I was growing up he was playing for the New York Knicks and that allowed me to have a totally different life than he had as a child.”

Amazingly, 10 years after immigrating to the United States, Ernie was standing on the podium at the 1976 Olympic Games with a gold medal around his neck representing Team USA. But what is so ironic is the fact that many years later, Dan was called upon to represent Romania due to his heritage.

“Life goes around and family history is intertwined,” he noted.

As the GM of the Knicks, Dan was able to hang around the great teams of the 1990s along with his father and coach Pat Riley, who remains close to the family to this day.

“During that period of time, I remember that the majority of my conversations with my father were about the Knicks. Whether it was about John Starks, Charles Oakley or Patrick Ewing, who is the next opponent and when are you going to practice. It was awesome to be able to grow up in a situation that was so cool and that the Knicks were great. I knew all of the players and I was really lucky and privileged. But I also learned about the game, how the players approached it and how they prepared and played which I used in my career.”

After attending Stanford and suffering a devastating injury that most probably cost Dan a chance to play in the NBA, he received a contract offer to play in a place that could have potentially been a major issue for his family.

“My first professional contract was with a team in Germany and I was probably the first basketball player to ask permission from his grandmother to sign my first contract there. When I called her to tell her that I had received my first professional offer she said ‘mazel tov’ and then I had to tell her where it was. But she immediately said ‘Tatele, sons are not responsible for the sins of their fathers.’ I had a great experience there and it also speaks to how open-minded she is and how she embraced humanity.”

After playing in Germany, Dan made his way to Spain and then finally came to play in Israel between 2010-2014.

“I had a nice career and to finish it in Israel was really the best. I have so many friends and family in Israel and being in the Jewish homeland allowed me to connect to my history. I have such fond memories of my time in Jerusalem and Bnei HaSharon.”

One the NBA’s 75 Greatest players and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Ray Allen wrote the foreword to the book and has always been someone who has promoted Holocaust education played with the Milwaukee Bucks when Ernie was the general manager.

“As great of a basketball player he was, he was an even greater human being and someone I look up to so much. He saw Schindler’s List in college and was so moved that he understood that the Holocaust wasn’t just a Jewish tragedy but a human tragedy and everyone needs to work to make sure that it wouldn’t happen again. Ray is a person who walks the walk and doesn’t just talk the talk. He went to Auschwitz, he took his teammates to the Holocaust Museum every time one of his teams were in Washington DC and he has made it his business to make sure people understood the Holocaust. To have him be part of the project means the world to me and such a testament of standing up for what is right.”

Today, Dan along with his wife and toddler son live a short drive from his grandmother in the Bay Area while his parents are still in the DC area in order to be close to his sister and her family. At 66-years old, Ernie is taking some time off after having been with the Wizards from 2003 until 2019 and while he misses being around the game, something he did for 40 years, it’s nice not having the pressure that comes along with it.

“The most important thing to me is what kind of amazing father he is,” Dan said. “My dream is for younger people who have not had exposure to the Holocaust to be given the chance to engage with the topic wrapped around basketball.

“It’s a story with fun and dramatic things along with a history that needs to be told. Holocaust education is lacking and it is concerning. I wanted to expose people to that history and talk about the game that we love so much.”