The story of Dan Grunfeld’s family related in his book By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream follows a trajectory that is entirely unique in Jewish or athletic history. Grunfeld takes us from the Budapest ghetto that his grandmother survived during the Holocaust to Madison Square Garden, where his father Ernie Grunfeld became a star player for the Knicks, through his own pro career, on a journey where family and perseverance are the name of the game.
Dan’s grandmother Lily Grunfeld was born in rural Romania. While she lived out the Holocaust in the Budapest ghetto, saved twice by the famous Swiss diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, she lost both parents and five of her nine siblings. When Lily returned to her childhood home after being liberated from the ghetto, the entire house had been looted except for a single serving spoon tucked deep in a drawer.
“Either it was unnoticed, or it was of so little value that people just left it,” Dan says. “But my grandma took it and held it to her heart, and that’s what she has left.” Lily later gifted the spoon to Dan, who now keeps it in his bedside table and plans on giving it to his own children someday.
Lily’s first day home after being liberated from the ghetto was also the day she met her husband. Her brother, who had survived the war in a forced labor camp in Hungary, recalled a friend from the camp who had opened a shop in their town in the few months since they had been liberated. Lily, who had nothing to wear but the clothes on her back, agreed to visit the shop. It was there that she met the shopkeeper Alex Grunfeld, whom she would later marry.
After the war, the family endured the hardships of the Soviet Union before immigrating to the United States in 1964. Their young son Ernie Grunfeld turned nine years old the week after their arrival.
That year was the first time that Ernie began to play basketball. He would go to the local parks to learn English and meet other children and soon picked up the sport. It was also one of the hardest years in his life, due to the loss of his older brother Lutzi who was diagnosed with leukemia not long after the family’s arrival in the country. Ernie later gave Dan the middle name Leslie in honor of this brother.
Despite losing Lutzi, Ernie and his family persisted in their new lives in the U.S. A decade later, Ernie was standing on an Olympic podium holding a gold medal, the family’s destiny transformed forever. He went on to play for the Milwaukee Bucks, Kansas City Kings, and finally the New York Knicks.
Dan says, “So many people have reached out to me and said, ‘Wow I loved watching your dad play. There was never a ball on the floor that he didn’t dive on,’ or, ‘He played with such passion and such hustle.’ and I say, ‘Listen- read the book. You’ll see what he and my family went through; you’ll see why he played that way.’”
Dan’s own story, woven throughout the book, is inextricable with that of NBA history.
He says, “My birth was planned around the NBA basketball schedule. When my mom was…due with me my dad was playing for the Knicks and they had two road trips. So I was induced at one point in time so he could be there for my birth. Then he went on the [next] road trip, and he was there for my bris.”
In fact, the road trip that Ernie took directly before Dan’s birth was one of the most iconic moments in Knicks history. Ernie and his teammate Bernard King, often referred to as “The Ernie and Bernie Show,” were a famous duo on the court. They had played together as students at the University of Tennessee and quickly fell into a rhythm when they joined forces again as teammates on the Knicks. Only a week before Dan’s birth, Bernard King scored 50+ points in consecutive games, a feat that had been achieved only once before in basketball history and has seldom been replicated since.
Dan discovered this detail for the first time when researching the book. He says, “I looked at the schedule, and I said, ‘Wait a second, these are the games?’”
After a childhood spent in Madison Square Garden, Dan went to Stanford University where he played college basketball and became a two-time Academic All-American. His grandmother Lily who has now lived in the Bay area for over forty years was a frequent spectator in the stadium. He then embarked on his own professional basketball career, which began with a contract in Germany.
He says, “I’m probably the only professional basketball player who told his agent that he has to call his grandma to see if it’s okay for him to sign his contract… My grandma said to me–she didn’t hesitate–she said, ‘Sons are not responsible for the sins of their fathers. Go to Germany.’ So I went.”
It was not until eight seasons later when Dan retired from the pros and returned to Stanford University for his M.B.A. that he began to formally chronicle the story of his family. Dan devoted a full year and a half to research before writing the book, utilizing materials as wide ranging as sources from Yad Vashem to Knicks box scores from the 1980s. However, his primary sources were his grandmother Lily and his father Ernie.
He says of the many interviews he conducted with them, “There were difficult conversations for them–for me. But some of the conversations were very happy. That’s the nature of the book. There’s some darkness, but there’s also a lot of light.”
Dan is now the father to a two-year-old boy, who has already taken to playing basketball around the house.
He jokes, “I’m not going to force it on him just like my parents didn’t force it on me. However, there’s a Little Tikes hoop in our living room; there are basketballs all over the apartment. ‘If you’d like to engage with those…’ [he gestures] And he does, he really enjoys it. So, he shoots hoops on his little hoop. I teach him, ‘What is an assist?’ And if he misses– well the fun part about missing is you can get the rebound.”
Dan’s grandmother Lily, who is now 96, lives within thirty minutes of her grandson and great grandson and often hosts the family for dinners.
Dan can only reflect on how far the family has come within her lifetime.
He says, “My book is called By the Grace of the Game, and I named it that intentionally. The game kind of came down from heaven and brought my family to places they couldn’t have imagined. And along with that there are the values, because basketball is about teamwork and communication and positivity and optimism and perseverance.”
By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream is available now for pre-order online and in bookstores on November 30, 2021.