Former basketball player Dan Grunfeld's new book tells the story of his family, including his Holocaust survivor grandmother, Lily Grunfeld.
Former basketball player Dan Grunfeld's new book tells the story of his family, including his Holocaust survivor grandmother, Lily Grunfeld.

Stanford alum Dan Grunfeld shares family’s story, from Holocaust to basketball fame

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As a graduate student at Stanford University from 2015 to 2017, Dan Grunfeld paid regular visits to his Romanian-born grandmother, Lily, in Burlingame. Over meals of homemade rántott hús (breaded chicken), piros krumpli (potatoes prepared with paprika) and meggyleves (sour cherry soup), he would ask her questions about what life was like in Romania and Hungary before and during World War II, and about her new life in the United States after the war ended. He told her he was simply interested in learning more about his heritage.

A few months ago, he revealed to her that he had been quietly researching and writing a book in which she and her successful son — Dan’s father, Ernie Grunfeld, an ex-NBA basketball player and former general manager of the New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards — figure prominently.

Part family history and part memoir of Dan’s own hoops career at Stanford and as a pro in Europe and Israel, “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream” will be published on Nov. 30. Grunfeld, who lives in Menlo Park, will be participating in several virtual book events in the coming weeks.

In a phone interview with J., 96-year-old Lily recalled her surprise when her grandson told her about his secret book project. “He said, ‘I need to talk to you before you read the book.’” She said she replied, “Tatele, I know what is in the book. I was there.”

As Grunfeld recounts in rich detail, Lily — whom he calls Anyu, Hungarian for “mother” — was born into a large Orthodox Jewish family in a rural Romanian village near the Hungarian border. She happened to be visiting a sister in Budapest when the Nazis invaded in March 1944. She was 18. Both of her parents and three of her siblings were murdered at Auschwitz. Two other siblings also perished during the war.

Lily Grunfeld
Lily Grunfeld

Lily endured weeks of deprivation in the Budapest Ghetto, during which time she helped care for the sick and dying despite having no medical training or supplies. She credits Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg for saving her life not once but twice — first by issuing her a Schutz-Pass, a “protective passport” that prevented her from being deported to a death camp, and then by convincing a Nazi general to call off the massacre of the Budapest Ghetto inhabitants shortly before liberation, or so the story goes.

“In the ghetto, our life was in danger,” she told J. “The Germans were there to kill us with big machine guns, and Wallenberg saved us. God bless his memory.”

In a moving section of the book, Grunfeld writes about what Lily discovered when she returned to her ransacked childhood home in January 1945. “Examining empty drawer after empty drawer, she eventually noticed something shimmer,” he writes. “Somehow overlooked by the looters, it was wedged in the back of one of the drawers. It was one of my great grandmother’s spoons. Used in the kosher household for ladling milk, the spoon was small, metallic, and nondescript. The handle was worn, the bowl weathered and scratched. The spoon had either gone unnoticed by the looters or, more likely, possessed so little value that it was left behind without a thought. Anyu grabbed it from the drawer and held it to her heart.”

She would later give the spoon to her grandson, who writes that he keeps it in his bedside table.

Another person who looms large in the book, quite literally, is 6-foot-6 Ernie Grunfeld, who is thought to be the only son of Holocaust survivors to play in any of the four major U.S. professional sports leagues.

Born in Romania, he was 8 when his family immigrated to the United States. He learned to play basketball on the bruising public courts of Queens, New York. After a dazzling college career at the University of Tennessee, he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1977, and also played for the Kansas City Kings and New York Knicks. He wore the symbolic number 18 on his Knicks jersey. After his playing days and before he started managing teams, he did some radio broadcasting. “A yeshiva in Queens once denied him admission for not speaking English,” Dan Grunfeld observes in the book. “Now he was being recruited to announce games on New York radio for the beloved Knicks.”

6-foot-6 Ernie Grunfeld lifts young Dan to reach the hoop.
6-foot-6 Ernie Grunfeld lifts young Dan to the rim for a dunk.

Dan, who is also 6-foot-6, attempted to follow in his father’s size-16 footsteps. A top high school player in Wisconsin, he was recruited by Stanford and competed in two NCAA tournaments during his four seasons on the Cardinal. He had a breakout season as a junior, averaging 17.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, but a serious knee injury forced him to miss the 2005 March Madness. A professional for eight seasons, including four in Israel (he made aliyah in 2010), he never made it to the NBA, and he writes openly about the pressure he felt to live up to his father’s legacy. “Sometimes it just felt like too much to carry,” he writes.

Still, he managed to accomplish something on the court that his father never did: He captained a U.S. team that won a gold medal at the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel. (Ernie won silver at the 1973 Maccabiah Games.)

Dan Grunfeld, 37, told J. he hopes his family’s history resonates with and inspires readers, especially younger ones. “There’s been some really troubling data around what millennials don’t know about the Holocaust, and how little Holocaust education is prioritized in school,” he said. “It just reaffirms to me the importance of telling these stories.”

Alan Freedman, the director of the Jewish Sports Heritage Association, helped Grunfeld with his research on Jewish athletes. “It’s a nice thing when you see a relatively young guy telling this story,” Freedman said in an interview. “I didn’t know he could write so well.” He added, “You do not have to be a basketball fan to enjoy the book.” Basketball fans will certainly appreciate the sections involving Larry Bird, LeBron James and legendary Jewish coach Red Holzman. Hall of Famer Ray Allen, who befriended the Grunfelds when Ernie was the general manager of the Bucks and who has championed Holocaust education, wrote the book’s foreword.

These days, Dan Grunfeld still plays pickup basketball with a group of friends once a week. He works at Menlo Park–based Lightspeed Venture Partners, and he and his wife, Samantha, have a 2-year-old, with another child on the way. He does not get to visit his grandmother (or gorge himself on her food) as often as he did when he was in business school, but he still speaks with her nearly every day on the phone.

Does she have the same competitive spirit that her son and grandson displayed on the basketball court?

“She’s amazing at bridge, and takes it very seriously,” he said. “She’s the most loving person ever. But if you play cards with her, she’s like ready to roll.”

“By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, A Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream” by Dan Grunfeld (Triumph Books, 288 pages). Available at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and from online retailers.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.