Former Washington Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld is an important and controversial figure in recent team history. Over his 16-year tenure from 2003-2019, he made a number of savvy trades for key players like Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Marcin Gortat and Nene. He constructed the first Wizards team to win a division title since 1978-79 and constructed multiple playoff-bound teams. But Grunfeld also made some draft picks and free agents that didn’t work out, especially toward the end of his tenure in Washington.
All that said, Grunfeld’s job performance in Washington is not the purpose of this post. It is however on his family’s story on how they arrived in the United States as Jewish Hungarian-Romanian immigrants in 1964.
There’s also more to the story. Grunfeld’s mother Lily is a Holocaust survivor, saved by multiple actions of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, including where she was a recipient of Schutz-passes to prevent her deportation from a Budapest ghetto. And Grunfeld’s aunt Bubby was liberated from the Auschwitz concentration camp in current-day Oświęcim, Poland.
Various publications and even an “ESPN 30 on 30” television special about Grunfeld and his Tennessee teammate Bernard King mentioned that he was the only known NBA player who was the child of Holocaust survivors. But there isn’t very much on how some of his family members survived that time until now.
Dan Grunfeld, Ernie’s son wrote a book called “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream” after numerous conversations with his father and grandmother. The book will be released tomorrow and comes with a foreword by Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame player Ray Allen.
Like Ernie, Dan was a great basketball player in his own right. He played on Stanford’s men’s basketball team from 2002-06 and had a long professional career in Europe with stints in Germany, Spain and Israel. Dan has also written columns on various sites during and after his playing career, including SB Nation’s national site from 2011-13.
I had the chance to speak with Dan last week, right after Thanksgiving on the release of the book, which has two main storylines that alternate between each chapter. The first storyline focuses on his family’s journey from the Holocaust to moving to the United States to Ernie’s time in college and as a young NBA player. The other storyline is on Dan’s life as he grew up as a child to his time as a professional player in Europe, coming full circle with parts of his family’s history.
“The game of basketball has always been a connector in our lives,” Dan said. “When I played at Stanford, my grandma came every game and she lives in the Bay Area. After college and when I played overseas for my professional career, my first year was in Germany. Given what happened in World War II, I’m probably the only professional basketball player who had to ask his grandma’s permission to sign his first contract, which was one of those full-circle moments.”
When pressed further on why or whether his grandmother would have taken issue with him playing in Germany, Dan replied that “I was a 22-year-old person at that point in time, started trying to start my career. My grandmother lost seven immediate family members in the Holocaust.”
“When my agent said, ‘Hey, you have a great opportunity in Germany,’ out of respect for my grandma, that was the first thing I thought about. I was becoming an adult and making my own decisions. But because this opportunity was in Germany and because of what happened in the Holocaust, I owed that to her.”
While Dan played in Europe, including Germany, he still has not been to Auschwitz or Budapest. “I haven’t been to Auschwitz because all my dad’s grandparents were killed there. It would be a very serious trip. I haven’t ruled it out but it’s not one that I’ve chosen to take yet. I’m not sure if I’m ready, honestly.”
“I've also never been to Budapest, but that is a trip I would like to make because that’s where my grandma survived the war. It’s a very meaningful city for our family.”
The Holocaust is a sobering moment in world history where 6 million Jews were killed in Europe by Nazi Germany during World War II. Now that the 1940s are 80 years ago, it is more difficult for younger people to learn firsthand accounts about it and how they can make sure such a thing never happens again. In 2018, Dan wrote a column on how we in the United States must remember the Holocaust. I asked him specifically how, given that the genocide happened in Europe, not the US.
“We need to make sure that the Holocaust is taught in our schools because genocide can happen again. It’s not just to Jews, but to anybody. The Holocaust is a very sobering example of what can happen when people aren’t treated fairly as a group. For Americans, we need to remember the Holocaust by talking and educating our children about it, It still wasn’t that long ago and it didn’t that far away either. This is a topic that matters a lot to me, given my family’s background. But again, that’s what’s at stake when people are not treated fairly.“
It is well-known that Grunfeld and his family lived in Romania before moving to America, but they were also part of a Hungarian ethnic minority based in Transylvania, which some, including me, didn’t know beforehand. “My dad is from Romania, but the culture is more Hungarian traditionally for those in the community,” Dan said, “It was a disputed territory throughout history. When my dad was a child, he spoke Romanian in public but at home, he spoke Hungarian.”
The interview led me to ask one question that Wizards fans, myself included may be thinking, in particular with Ernie and his family’s story. Why isn’t Ernie himself talking about this? He seemed to be reserved while in his role with the Wizards. Dan pushed back on this perception to a degree, though he acknowledged that his father has a lunch pail mentality at work.
“I don’t think this story is something that my father is unwilling to talk about. But it’s not something that he actively looks to discuss either. There’s a lot of sorrow in this story because my dad lost so much family in the Holocaust, then fled communism and his whole life behind in Romania to come to a strange country. And he lost his older brother to leukemia soon after.
My grandparents worked six, seven days a week after moving to America. That’s what my dad observed as a child. So at work, my dad has always prided himself on putting his head down, working on treating people the right way, and then living with the results. So he’s a little bit quiet in that way. He learned these values of hard work, integrity, and competitiveness from my grandparents.”
Tomorrow, I’ll share some more from my interview with Dan, where we’ll cover more on the shared basketball bond he has with his father as well as some of his favorite Wizards moments.
To buy “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream,” click here. It is available as a hardcover book, a Kindle eBook or an audio CD. As a note of disclosure, there are no affiliate links.