Behind every pro basketball player is a journey most fans never suspect, and fewer still would guess any connection between the game and the Holocaust. Dan Grunfeld and his family have lived both sides of that story for three generations.
His engaging family memoir, “By the Grace of the Game,” interweaves the story of his own childhood and basketball career with his father Ernie’s rise from a childhood of poverty in communist Romania to renown in America as an Olympic gold medalist, an NBA basketball player and eventually general manager for the New York Knicks and other top-level teams.
Most of all, Grunfeld tells the story of his extraordinary grandmother, who survived the Holocaust and then Ceaucescu’s regime, brought her family to New York, and became her son’s and grandson’s constant supporter on and off the court.
It sounds like an improbable combination, especially since Grunfeld opens with a humorous scene about his grandmother’s Hungarian cooking and his lifelong inability to resist it. But the emotional depth and telling detail he brings out in each chapter make the juxtapositions feel relevant rather than strained.
“This is a story that’s always been in my heart,” he explains. “growing up around the game of basketball, being so close with my grandmother, understanding what the game has done for our family. I didn’t know it was going to work or what the sensation for the reader was going to be. By structuring it the way that I did, what I hoped to convey was how interconnected it all is.”
Grunfeld was a two-time Academic All-American at Stanford University, and in his last year had to choose between a Rhodes scholarship and a pro career. He was recruited by a German team, called his grandmother to ask what she thought before accepting, and spent the next eight seasons playing internationally, the last four years, from 2010-2014, for Hapoel Jerusalem and Herzliyah.
After he retired in 2014 and went back to Stanford for his MBA, Grunfeld decided to dig in and learn more about his family’s journey, not just about the Holocaust, but about communist Romania in the 1950s and what New York was like for the family when they arrived in the 1960s.
He interviewed both his grandmother and his father in detail, along with cousins and family friends in Israel and elsewhere, and consulted experts at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad VaShem. “It was a year and a half and it wasn’t just my grandmother and my dad, it was people all over the world who had touched this story.”
As a result, the book is very vivid.
“That was made possible by the research I did but also by my grandmother’s incredible memory. … When I interviewed my dad and my grandma, they didn’t know I was going to write a book. I just told them I had a project in mind, and I did that to create space for them to be very honest, but also space for myself to process it all.”
What was it like talking with his grandmother about her life in Hungary during the Nazi occupation?
“I grew up hearing a lot of stories about the Holocaust from my grandmother,” Grunfeld says. “I knew the bones of the story, generally what had happened. But I’d never spent, you know, hundreds of hours asking questions about it all. I always treated both my grandparents’ stories with utmost care, sorrow, and admiration, but reconstructing what my grandmother in particular was going through in Budapest—how hungry she was, how cold she was, how dire her situation really was at 17, 18—understanding all those details really does add another layer to it.”
Grunfeld’s grandmother Livia, fair-haired and born in a Hungarian-speaking Romanian village, spent much of the war separated from her family and hiding in plain sight in Budapest. In the last year of the war, she was rounded up and imprisoned with other Jews in the Budapest Ghetto. She credits Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg for saving her life, and she tried to do the same for others. When Wallenberg’s office issued false visas or “schutz-passes” to help Jews escape, she found a way to jump the long lines and get hers, and she sneaked back 17 more times to secure visas for other people.
“She’s a hero!” Grunfeld says. “We were talking about that a couple of months ago—she’s 97 now—and I asked her why she did that, and she said, ‘When you’re young, you take risks.’”
His interviews with his father, Ernie, about growing up in Romania were just as surprising.
“I already knew that they didn’t have running water, that he didn’t have any toys, he had to make his own toys, so I knew that it wasn’t how I grew up. So while we were talking, I asked him, ‘What was it like to grow up so poor?’ and he immediately said, ‘I didn’t grow up poor.’ That’s all he knew. For him it was all about family, the safety of your family and friends, so he never thought of it that way.”
New York, in a way, was harder for Ernie. When the family first arrived in New York in the early 1960s, other children played pranks on him until he learned enough English to get by. To make things worse, his adored older brother developed leukemia that year while both parents were working long hours to make ends meet.
“I grew up hearing my grandmother speak about these things but less so my dad,” says Grunfeld. “ ‘By the Grace of the Game’—basketball took my dad away from a lot of painful events and I think he never really cared to look back, and I don’t blame him. I have a generation of separation from that and so I was able to do it but he doesn’t have that luxury. He was really born from the ashes of the Holocaust.”
Eventually, though, Ernie discovered basketball on the neighborhood courts and pursued it as a calling, something Dan’s grandparents only discovered when the high school invited them to a key game. Ernie was recruited for the University of Tennessee, then the U.S. Olympic team, winning the gold in Montreal in 1976, only 12 years after arriving in the U.S.
Grunfeld says the lesson he takes from his father’s life is one of persistence. “He came to the U.S. as an immigrant, a son of Holocaust survivors, didn’t speak the language, was teased by kids, got beat up, but he kept working, he kept going, and look what he became.”
By contrast, Dan Grunfeld grew up steeped in elite basketball culture. As a child in the 1980s he was on a first-name basis with NBA players and hung out at Madison Square Garden, which was home court for the Knicks. His father taught him how to hold a ball and shoot for accuracy from a very young age and he attended and excelled at basketball camps most summers.
But he also saw the downside of fame at close range when the Knicks fired his dad as general manager over what they thought would be a losing combination of players, and both fans and the media heaped on the scorn.
Ernie responded the way he coached Dan to do—he kept going. The team he had put together proved its mettle by going to the NBA Finals, while Ernie moved his family to Milwaukee to manage the Bucks.
Grunfeld says his own approach to a career in basketball was always more pressured, not by his father but from something internal. He was an avid fan, knew all the teams and player rankings, and aimed for recruitment to Stanford from the time he was 12. When his college career was nearly derailed by a torn ACL, he spent the summer after it healed training to extremes with an ex-Marine so he could requalify for the team.
“My dad didn’t have his eyes on any goals or peaks, and look where it got him. For me, I was always focused on the game and becoming a good player. Sometimes when you squeeze onto something so tight, it makes it hard.”
That kind of drive is typical for athletes, he says.
“Comparing yourself, measuring yourself, yes. Every player does that. You are quite literally measured against your opponent; that’s what basketball is. That’s the cool thing about it. Every pro athlete you see on the screen has a journey because you can’t rise to a high level without it. I felt judged by people, I felt people assumed I was given things because of who my dad was–and by the way, I was extremely privileged. I had two loving parents, I grew up with resources, just by the fact that I am a white male I was privileged. But between the lines on the basketball court, it’s competition. My story’s my story; the guys I played with had their own stories.”
That inner tension eventually contributed to his decision to retire from the game after four seasons in Israel.
“Israel is a wonderful place to live,” he says. “I have family there, and in fact my dad’s family was originally set to go there instead of New York. I was always striving for success, even to the very end. I wanted good seasons, better teams. I think by the end I just wanted peace because of how complicated my journey was, all that basketball had done for my family, all those pressures to feel fulfilled. I wanted a sense of serenity around the game.”
These days, Grunfeld is less single-minded and invests himself in a number of endeavors. In addition to working for a Silicon Valley tech company, he writes occasional pieces for sports and general publications, and he and his wife are raising two young children. He still visits his grandmother regularly and revels in many of her hard-to-spell, hard-to-replicate specialties. “My grandma doesn’t cook with recipes,” he says. “My wife Sam has tried to codify it. But the food is as good as advertised!”
His intensive research for the book has also stretched him. “I did some work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum after the book came out. We did some interviews and someone asked was I an historian, and I said, ‘Well, I am now.’”
Dan Grunfeld will present “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream” at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona on Saturday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the 2022 Jewish Book Festival. For tickets and more information, visit the Jewish Book Festival web page, www.jewishsgpv.org/jewish-book-festival or call the Jewish Federation office at 626-445-0810.
Deborah Noble is a member of the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Book Festival committee and a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.