Dan Grunfeld, author of “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream” focused his book on several common bonds between three generations: His grandmother Lily, a Hungarian-Romanian Holocaust survivor who ultimately moved to the United States; his father Ernie, Lily’s young Romanian-born son who became a college basketball star, NBA player, and eventually, the Washington Wizards President of Basketball Operations; and himself, a former professional basketball player with multiple years of experience in Europe and Israel.
These bonds include that they are devoted to the Jewish faith; they love making and eating Hungarian dishes like rántott hús (a chicken schnitzel) or faschilt (a beef-only fasirt). But basketball, particularly Ernie’s rise as a high school and college basketball star at Tennessee, is the bond that accelerated the family’s opportunity to achieve the American Dream.
Though much of the book details key moments during his younger years, the book doesn’t mention much of Ernie’s time with Wizards. To be clear, the book does not detail much about Ernie’s time as the Milwaukee Bucks’ General Manager either.
“I told the whole trajectory of my career and my dad’s career. But my dad’s career as an executive — which spans three decades — is not the focus of the book,” Dan said in an interview last week. “I wrote a little more specifically about his time with the Knicks, because when I was growing up as a young child, he was their General Manager. But again, that wasn’t the focus.”
The most notable bond that Dan and his father share is that they were great basketball players. In addition, both represented the United States for the Maccabiah Games, a quadrennial multi-sport competition of Jewish athletes from all over the world. Ernie won the silver medal with Team USA in the 1973 games where they lost to Israel and when he was still a high school athlete. And while Dan didn’t have as notable of a career as his father, he won the Gold Medal in the 2009 games for Team USA when they defeated Israel and he also won the MVP award of the tournament. In the final of the 2009 games, Dan scored 25 points and 12 rebounds, and that performance is one of his father’s favorite basketball moments.
I asked about what the Maccabiah Games mean for him and his family. “The Maccabiah Games are a wonderful sports competition. Jewish athletes from around the world come to Israel, tour and learn about the country of Israel. It was a very meaningful experience for me.” Dan said. The 2009 team was led by then-Tennessee men’s basketball head coach Bruce Pearl who is now in the same position at Auburn. It wasn’t mentioned in the book or the interview, but it is another full-circle moment of sorts for Dan given Ernie’s status as one of the Volunteers’ greatest players.
Ernie still has something that Dan doesn’t, namely an Olympic Gold Medal from the 1976 Games in Montreal, Quebec, Canada while playing for the USA Basketball men’s national team. If Ernie wasn’t playing, he was in the Olympic Village, passing by other famous American athletes and gold medalists like boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and decathlete Bruce Jenner.
And 1976 was also the Olympic Games when Ernie saw Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci win three gold medals in women’s gymnastics, including the all-around. While Ernie came from Romania, the book made it seem like he was not as enthusiastic about her as other athletes.
Dan pushed back on that a bit, saying “My dad was a big fan of Nadia. He loved watching her compete. What I mentioned in the book is that I asked him, ‘Did you feel a connection to her because she’s from Romania and you were born and raised in Romania?’ And he said at the time, ‘I didn’t feel a connection because I’m an American now.’ ”
I didn’t press further on this topic because it wasn’t the focus of the book nor our site. But I think Comaneci today would have more of a connection with Ernie because of events in her life since the 1976 Olympics. In 1989, she fled then-communist Romania to the United States where she lives today. Comaneci has also been a U.S. citizen since 2001 while keeping her Romanian citizenship. Finally, since the Cold War ended, modern-day Romania is a democratic state and part of the European Union since 2007.
Toward the end of the interview, I asked Dan some questions about his father’s time with the Bucks and Wizards, even though they were not part of the book. When Ernie was the Bucks’ General Manager from 1999-2003, they made the playoffs three times and made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002 with a roster that featured Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson Sam Cassell, Tim Thomas and a young Michael Redd.
There were several members of the Bucks at that time who continued their careers in Washington in addition to Ernie. Cassell, then a guard for the Bucks began his coaching career in Washington in 2009 with the Wizards after retiring as a player. Then-Bucks assistant coach, the late Don Newman, was with the Wizards from 2012-16 as Randy Wittman’s lead assistant. And then-Bucks assistant coach Mike Thibault came to Washington to be the General Manager and Head Coach of the Mystics WNBA team since 2013. I asked Dan for his insights and how close he and/or his father were with them.
“I was very close with all those guys. We had a great community when my dad was with the Bucks and he kept those relationships [after moving on to Washington],” Dan said. And he brought a lot of them to D.C.”
“I’ll just say this about my dad as an executive. As it relates to his time with Milwaukee and how it led to Washington, Donnie was a very dear friend as well as Mike Thibault and Sam. So I figured, you know, that’s how business goes when I saw dad interact, You meet people, you understand people’s abilities and you make great relationships. And so I think it’s natural for him ... to recommend people he’s worked with in the past because he’s liked what they’ve done for him.”
Of the recommendations Ernie made to ownership in Washington, perhaps his most significant one was Thibault’s even though the Mystics weren’t his responsibility and were coming off a 5-29 season in 2012. To be clear, Thibault wasn’t given a “handout” to coach a WNBA team. When he was hired by the Mystics, Thibault already had a very successful 10-year run as the Connecticut Sun’s head coach.
And Dan had more to say about Thibault specifically. “My dad was a big fan of Mike, as a coach, as a basketball mind, and as a person. I now look back at what Mike has done for the Mystics. He has brought a championship and the Mystics have done really well since he arrived. He’s the best. And Eric [the Mystics’ associate head coach and Mike’s son] is a friend of mine. I’ve known Mike since I was 15 years old and we were very tight as well as with the Bucks community,” Dan said.
Finally, I asked Dan two more specific questions. First, what were his favorite moments of the Wizards were while his father was running the show in D.C.?
“I was out of the house [since I was playing at Stanford], but I’ve always just been a big fan. I had so many thrills from my dad’s years with the Wizards. He joined them when I was a sophomore in college. And his last year there was when my professional career was done and I was already a father. My adult life was spent with the Wizards in many ways. The Gilbert [Arenas]-Antawn [Jamison]-Caron [Butler] years. I flew back to go to the game when Gilbert made the buzzer-beater against the Bulls in the  NBA Playoffs. I’d watch Gilbert and that scene with so much fun and I think really made the city proud.”
“And then to see John [Wall], Bradley [Beal] and Otto [Porter], and Paul Pierce and those teams battling like the Hawks in 2015 and the Celtics in 2017 the playoffs to go to the one quarter away from the Eastern Conference Finals, they were so exciting.
John made the buzzer-beater to win game six against the Celtics, you know, and he stood on the scorer’s table afterward to a raucous crowd. Those are the big Wizards moments I’ll never forget.”
The final question I asked Dan was a very simple one. How is Ernie doing today? Is he still in the Washington area or is he on a tropical island like Curaçao sipping on cocktails and playing golf? After all, there hasn’t been much reported on him since he left.
“He’s doing very well. He is still in the area and he enjoys being a grandfather. My dad loves the game of basketball and is still a big fan. He still talks to people all the time and will help people out with things here and there. He’s still connected to the game in his own ways and it will always be a big part of our family.”
Thanks again to Dan Grunfeld for taking time out of his Thanksgiving weekend for the interview. I hope this piece as well as the first part from Monday give you another insight on the Wizards’ former front office leader.
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.