By the grace of the game: The Holocaust, a basketball legacy, and an unprecedented American dream

By the grace of the game: The Holocaust, a basketball legacy, and an unprecedented American dream


By the grace of the game: The Holocaust, a basketball legacy, and an unprecedented American dream

- by

In By the Grace of the Game, Dan Grunfeld chronicles the world’s only known journey from Auschwitz to the NBA. Dan’s dad, longtime NBA player and executive Ernie Grunfeld, is the only player in NBA history whose parents survived the Holocaust. See below for an excerpt from By the Grace of the Game detailing Ernie’s famous partnership at the University of Tennessee with Hall of Famer Bernard King. Grunfeld and King, known as the “Ernie and Bernie Show,” appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1976 under the headline “Double Trouble from Tennessee.”

One battled the dark cloud of poverty. The other lived under a shadow of tragedy. The game of basketball served as their armor.

Sports Illustrated described the “Ernie and Bernie” phenomenon well: “King teases opponents with his lightning-fast, in-your-face jumper. Grunfeld repeatedly bangs them over the head with his bruising drives. King leads the league in scoring (26.8 points per game), while Grunfeld is second with 24.3. Both are among the nation’s top 10 scorers – King is seventh, Grunfeld ninth – and if they stay that way it will be only the second time a team has had two in that category. Coaches usually pontificate about the value of balanced scoring, but, understandably, not Tennessee Coach Ray Mears, who admits, ‘We have a star system.’ His unorthodox strategy has led the Vols to some celestial heights – they have a 14-2 overall record and a No. 9 national ranking.”

At the time of the Sports Illustrated cover story, Bernard was a sophomore at Tennessee and my dad was a junior. Bernard had been named SEC Player of the Year as a freshman, and he’d win it again as a sophomore. Dad had been named All-SEC first team as a freshman and sophomore, and he’d earn the honor again as a junior. He and Bernard would average more than 50 points combined that season – Dad at 25.3 points per game, Bernard at 25.2.

After each road game the Vols played, the Tennessee team manager had a crucial job to complete. He’d run up the arena’s stairs when the horn sounded, entering the opposing team’s concourse in his bright orange blazer and locating the nearest pay phone. As Kentucky Wildcat fans cursed him in Rupp Arena or Florida Gator faithful taunted him in Alligator Alley, he made a collect call to a number he could repeat in his sleep: 212-268-4480. When Apu answered in the apartment after one ring, the manager told him how the team had done and how many points my dad had scored. My grandparents couldn’t go to sleep until they knew how he’d played. Luckily, the news from the manager was almost always good.

Ernie Grunfeld

Ernie Grunfeld of the New York Knicks tries to grab on to a loose ball that was knocked from the hands of Greg Ballard of the Washington Bullets, left, during action in the first quarter of their exhibition game at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., Oct. 22, 1982. (AP Photo/Joe Giza)

My dad had modeled his game after the blue-collar Dave DeBusschere, developing a playing style that was physical and punishing. He’d conditioned himself as a kid to block things out, so nothing could distract him on the court. Being treated as an illiterate immigrant in America had only fueled his competitive drive, and once he grew big, strong, and fluent, he unleashed that pain on his opponents. His massive legs and butt allowed him to carve out space whenever and wherever he wanted, but it was his work ethic that amplified his ability. Dad grew up watching Anyu and Apu work seven-day weeks in the store. They had nothing when they came to America. They couldn’t speak the language and had no formal education. They lost a son. Despite it all, they built a good life in their new country through work. “If you work hard,” Apu would always say, “good things will happen.”

The notion was simple. Don’t sit in a room and plan your success. Don’t obsess over where the road may take you. There is too much unpredictability in life to waste energy trying to understand every component of a situation. Boil it down to what’s within your control: work. Put the time in and go to bed satisfied. From Sports Illustrated: “Grunfeld, the only member of the Vols who is allowed to think ‘me first, King second,’ is just as effective. Pro scouts rate him equal – or perhaps superior – to King, because he is so rugged. His father insists that Grunfeld not take a summer job so that he can work on refining his basketball skills. The son repays his dad with diligence. Grunfeld was a 58% free-throw shooter in high school. As a Tennessee freshman he made 73% and last year he hit 81% after wearing out countless nets while practicing.”

The thought of being a better pro prospect than Bernard King, now an all-time great and an NBA Hall of Famer, has always made my dad chuckle. Nonetheless, his talent opened amazing and unlikely doors for someone born under communism in Romania. The most profound opportunity was to represent his adopted homeland, the United States of America, in international play. It started the summer after high school. Before heading to Knoxville, he competed for Team USA in the Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics, in Israel. He won a silver medal for the United States, losing in the gold medal game to the Israelis, led by Jewish basketball legends Tal Brody and Mickey Berkowitz. Israel’s basketball was slowly improving. Dad was the youngest guy on the U.S. team but its leading scorer. Anyu and Apu made the trip to Israel to visit family and watch the games. Dad got flowers for being high scorer and gave them to Anyu in the stands.

A few years later, after his sophomore season at Tennessee, Dad was invited by USA Basketball to play for America’s national team for the first time. He’d compete in the International Cup in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Russia on a team coached by Dave Gavitt of Providence. A problem soon emerged, though: Dad wasn’t really an American. As the team prepared to leave training camp in Rhode Island to make the flight overseas, they were told to bring their passports to practice. All Dad had was a green card. He told the coaches and USA Basketball administrators that he didn’t have a passport. They were stunned. It was an international competition. Dad had traveled overseas before with his green card, but to compete for USA Basketball, he needed to be a citizen with a passport.

In high school, he’d gotten lucky with a good draft number during the Vietnam War and never got called to duty. He would have been able to fight and die for America with only a green card but representing the country in basketball required a passport. “You’re from New York City, right?” Dad’s perplexed coaches asked. “From Queens?”

Dad shrugged. “Not originally,” he said with what by now was a heavy New York accent.

After some research, USA Basketball determined that he was eligible for a passport since he’d been in America for more than 10 years. Everyone exhaled. The USA Basketball staff arranged it all. He missed a practice in Providence and flew to Washington, D.C. for the day.

Someone from USA Basketball met him at the airport. All his forms had already been filled out. Dad returned to Providence the next day with his passport in hand. It had taken his parents 10 years to get their documents to leave Romania. Now, because of Dad’s scoring ability, American citizenship was a 24-hour endeavor.

By the Grace of the Game is available wherever books are sold.

, , , , , ,

More HoopsHype