Dan Grunfeld, son of NBA legend and general manager Ernie Grunfeld, tells his family’s improbable story from his grandparents surviving the Holocaust and making a new life in America, to the discovery of the game of basketball impacting generations of his family in his autobiography “By the Grace of the Game”.
The story starts with his beloved grandmother, Anyu, and her harrowing tales with Nazis in Budapest. His father, Ernie, was born in post-World War II Romania, eventually moving to the United States at a young age with his parents and older brother.
It was in New York City that Ernie learned to play basketball — a sport that made him a star, an Olympic gold medal winner, and believed to be the only professional athlete in the United States to have parents who survived the Holocaust. Ernie passed that love of the game onto Dan, who played in the same ABCD camp as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, went on to star at Stanford University, and had a successful professional career in Germany, Spain, Romania and Israel.
Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been condensed and edited.
Also, current full-time HBCU undergraduate (rising juniors and seniors) and graduate students can apply via careers.nba.com/early-career-programs/ through Feb. 20, 2022 to intern with the league office or teams for a 10-week period this summer.
NBA.com: What compelled you to tell this story?
Dan Grunfeld: I always knew the profound impact that basketball had had on my family. You know, my dad [Ernie Grunfeld] coming to the United States, not speaking English, having never touched a basketball, lost his brother to leukemia. He just went to the playgrounds in New York City to make friends, learn English and heal from that loss. He found the game and it took our family to places we could never have imagined. As I got older, as I learned more details of the story, it really became my dream to tell it.
In the forward, Ray Allen talked about how he never knew your father’s history because he never spoke about it. What was your father’s reaction when you told him that you wanted to write a book about your family’s history?
I did the research with my dad and my grandma, and I didn’t tell them exactly what I wanted to do with the research. I think I needed to create space for all of us, and I’m not sure we could have had as deep conversations as we did have, and also for myself, you know, I just needed to kind of process it all.
I did the research, I wrote the book and then I told him that I wrote it. He was a little surprised, but ultimately very proud of me, very grateful. It’s difficult because basketball took my dad away from some really hard things. I have a generation of separation from a lot of that tragedy and that trauma. It’s been hard for him to do that, but ultimately, he’s really proud and really grateful.
Your grandmother’s story is pretty incredible. How did you first learn about the Holocaust?
I always knew what the Holocaust was and what had happened to our family, but it wasn’t until I got older that they shared more details with me and that I was really able to understand what actually happened. That’s been a journey. There were so many details that I didn’t know until I started doing the research for the book, and I don’t think I would’ve ever known them because there’s some really hard questions that I had to ask my grandma. Thank God she’s so sharp. She’s got an amazing memory that she was able to answer, but I don’t think I would have ever asked some of the questions I asked if not for the book. So it’s been kind of a lifelong journey of understanding my family’s history, but it started as long as I can remember.
One of the stories that stuck out was the story about Anyu returning to her family home after the war only to find it empty with nothing but a single spoon for her to keep. When do you first recall learning that story?
It wasn’t until I was older. My grandma would talk about those family members she’d lost [to the Holocaust], how there was really nothing left, and she would mention all that was left was this spoon. I went to Stanford [University], close to where my grandma lives. She showed [the spoon] to me and then she gave it to me. Of course, it’s priceless, but it’s really one of the only things that was left. This was a happy home — 10 children — my grandma still to this day talks about how much noise there was in the house. So much laughter and so much family and because of the war that was all taken away, and all the objects in the house were taken away. That spoon was all that was left.
She always said that it’s not what happens to you in life. It’s how you respond. Remain positive, remain hopeful, stay true to your values and who you are.”
— Dan Grunfeld, on his grandmother’s advice
Despite what she had gone through, you visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with Anyu. Was that emotionally hard for her to go there with you?
She wanted to take me there. It’s important to her that, even though it’s a difficult history, we have to remember it. We have to tell these stories and she wanted me to see the section of the museum dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg, who saved her life two times. … That’s not to say that it was an easy morning that we spent together because it was very somber, but I’m so glad we did it.
When you’re in Washington D.C., visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I don’t think you can walk out the same person as you walk in. It just changes your perspective on so many things to really understand what happened during the Holocaust.
What does International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27) mean to you and your family?
We’re shining a light on what happened during the Holocaust. My dad, who’s well known in basketball, never had grandparents. They were all killed in Auschwitz. This affects us so personally.
For the world to shine a light on the Holocaust, for people to remember it, it means a lot. I’ve gone to temple with my grandmother on days like this when they read the names of all those who were lost — those are her loved ones. It’s her brothers, sisters, parents, aunts and uncles. The Holocaust, it’s almost impossible to wrap your mind around, but it wasn’t that long ago. My grandma, who’s 96 years old, was there [in Europe during the war]. She always says that we have to do all we can to make sure that it never happens again and not just to Jewish people, but to any people. For all those reasons, it’s a very meaningful day.
How did you develop such a tight bond with your grandmother?
We have always had a very special relationship, but she makes it so easy. She’s just the most amazing person in the world — so warm, loving, funny, inspirational, and giving. Every phase of my life, she’s been there as a source of support, inspiration, enjoyment. She’s the most extraordinary person.
If my dad were on the call, he would say the exact same thing. He has said, “I played basketball and my dad, my son wrote a book, but my mother is a hero.” And she is, you know, she’s a hero to us, but she saved lives during the war. She’s a hero. … She just has this extreme dignity. And if you know what she went through, it really makes it even that much more amazing.
The way you talk about your grandmother and her humor, it almost seems like her ability to not dwell on the past, and focus on the opportunities ahead are also a great lesson for anybody.
I think so. There’s darkness in this story, but there’s a lot more light and it’s ultimately hopeful and inspirational. My grandma embodies those things. To go through what she went through and to be the type of person she is today, that gives us all hope. She always said that it’s not what happens to you in life. It’s how you respond. Remain positive, remain hopeful, stay true to your values and who you are.
You describe having a love of basketball at a very young age. What has the game meant to your family?
The game was heaven sent for our family. My dad was born from the ashes of the Holocaust, being an immigrant in the United States, who was made fun of because he didn’t speak the language, and losing his brother [to leukemia]. [For him,] finding basketball at the park in New York City was just such a great gift. It’s done so much for us.
Basketball doesn’t care what language you speak, what country you’re from, what religion you are. It’s the ultimate connector. It’s given our family new life in America. It’s connected me to my dad – we share this great bond. For so many reasons, the game of basketball has just been the most profound vehicle for us.
It’s more than a game. It’s all about communication and camaraderie and working together. You build such deep bonds with people and basketball moves people so much. I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to me about my dad as a player [to talk about] how much they loved watching him and how he played with such heart and hustle. In the book, you’ll see where he came from and you’ll understand why he played the game like that. The game is just so, so core to our family’s story.
Despite your dad’s increasing notoriety as a high school player in New York City, his parents didn’t see him play until his senior year.
My grandparents were so committed to my dad, such doting, loving parents. They just didn’t know [their son could excel at basketball]. They were Holocaust survivors, immigrants in America, trying to build a life. They had no idea, but after they saw him play, my grandfather said to my dad, you never come to the [family’s fabric store in the Bronx to work] again.
You mention in the book that your grandparents had been in the country less than a decade and your dad was now an All-American. That’s the American dream that people talk about. Do you feel like your family’s an embodiment of that?
I do. It’s certainly an American dream story in that way. My dad then won a gold medal for the United States roughly a decade after coming here. For my grandparents to be in Montreal [for the 1976 Summer Olympics], having survived the Holocaust, having fled Communism under duress, losing my dad’s older brother when they got here, then to watch their youngest son stand on top of the podium, wearing the Stars and Stripes as a gold medalist … sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. You couldn’t make it up.
The Knicks cross paths across three different generations of your family throughout this story. What have the Knicks meant to your family?
My dad watched the Knicks from the rafters of Madison Square Garden as an immigrant, trying to learn English. Then his dream came true and he became a Knicks player, wearing No. 18, which is a symbolic number in Judaism. Then to be the general manager of the team — it’s just an incredible story. Then for me to have an opportunity to be in training camp with the Knicks, the Knicks will always just mean a great deal to [my family].
Walking inside of Madison Square Garden, I always get chills, and so does my dad. There’s nothing like it. Even to this day, when my dad and I go to watch a game in the Garden, we will always walk around the concourse at halftime and just take it all in. It’s New York. There’s nothing better than this.
Do you have a favorite Garden memory?
I have so many amazing memories of Madison Square Garden. The one that pops out is Game 7 against the Pacers [in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals]. John Starks drove the lane, his shot comes off the front rim, and Patrick Ewing dunks it back. That put the Knicks up for good — Ewing got on the scores table [with his arms raised].
It all relates to this story. Where my dad came from to run the Knicks, and then for them to go to the NBA Finals, even at that age (10), I had a sense of like how enormous it was. I’m actually getting chills thinking about it. To see Madison Square Garden with everyone on their feet, cheering for a team that my dad put together, knowing where he came from. Even at that age, I kind of understood that this is too good to be true. I’ll never, ever forget it.
It’s more than a game. It’s all about communication and camaraderie and working together. You build such deep bonds with people and basketball moves people so much.”
— Dan Grunfeld
In your professional career, you played in Germany, but you were nervous about having to tell your grandmother about that opportunity. Did you talk to your dad first?
[Telling] Anyu was the first thing that crossed my mind. I don’t know if I ran it by my dad, but I knew what I had to do because that is a deep history. When I called her, she didn’t hesitate. She said, “Sons are not responsible for the sins of their fathers. You can’t blame this generation for what another generation did. You should go, you should enjoy your experience. You should enjoy playing basketball there.” And that’s what I did.
What would you want people to learn from reading your book?
I hope that people remember the Holocaust and tell these stories. My grandma said that we need to tell these stories so it never happens again. Also, the power of the game of basketball, for as much as we love watching it and playing it, we should never lose sight of what it can do and what it does every day for people and families. It’s really the most amazing vehicle.