By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream

“My birth was planned around Judaism and basketball,” writes Dan Grunfeld in the opening paragraph of his book. “It’s an appropriate testament to what I was inheriting. When I was born in 1984, my dad was an NBA player for the New York Knicks. My parents scheduled my C-section delivery to take place between two long road trips so he could be present for both my birth and my bris, the Jewish ritual of circumcision on the eighth day of life.

            17-year-old Lily Grunfeld survived the Holocaust by hiding in a crowded attic room in a burned-out building in Budapest. She was twice saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Once when he issued false citizenship documents to Hungarian Jews in Hungary and, then again at the end of the war, when he convinced Nazi guards not to gun down the remaining 80,000 Jews still alive in the Budapest Ghetto.

            After the war when Anyu returned to the home she had shared with her parents and siblings in a small Transylvanian village in Romania near the Hungarian border, it had been looted and almost everything was gone. Her parents and five siblings had died at Auschwitz. She had also lost aunts and cousins.

            All that was left, tucked away out of sight in a drawer, was a spoon.

            Grunfeld is turning 98 later this year. She doesn’t harbor bitterness and hatred—though who could blame her if she did? Even though after moving to the U.S. with her husband, she lost her oldest son who died of leukemia.

            “My grandmother certainly has an incredible attitude and approach to life,” says Dan Grunfeld, author of “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream” (Triumph Books 2022; $28) about the woman he calls Anyu (Hungarian for mother). “She believes it’s not what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond. She believes it’s important to be true to your values and who you are and to stay positive.”

            Arriving in New York in 1964, the family including their surviving son Ernie and daughter Rebecca, didn’t know the language or customs of their new country. Eight-year-old Ernie also didn’t know anything about the game of basketball but he gravitated to the playgrounds of New York City where kids were shooting baskets. It was an opportunity, he thought, to learn English and to make friends.

            It turned out to be more than that. Ernie Grunfeld was really, really good at this American game. So good in fact that within ten years of moving to the U.S. he had won two gold medals—one for playing basketball with Team USA at the 1975 Pan American Games and the other in the 1976 in the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Drafted into the NBA to play for Milwaukee Bucks, he went on to play for the Kansas City Kings and then the New York Knicks. Once his playing days were done, he worked in administration rising through the ranks to become president and general manager of the Knicks and then the general manager of the Bucks. He followed that up with 16 years as president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards.

            It was indeed a basketball family.

            “My birth was planned around Judaism and basketball,” writes Dan Grunfeld in the opening paragraph of his book. “It’s an appropriate testament to what I was inheriting. When I was born in 1984, my dad was an NBA player for the New York Knicks. My parents scheduled my C-section delivery to take place between two long road trips so he could be present for both my birth and my bris, the Jewish ritual of circumcision on the eighth day of life. I’m sure thousands of Jews in New York City during the 1980s planned their sons’ bris ceremonies around Knicks games. My dad was almost certainly the only Jew actually playing in the Knicks game.”

            Indeed, Ernie Grunfeld was the only child of Holocaust survivors to ever play in the NBA.

            It’s Dan Grunfeld’s ability to move between the dark and light of life, a reflection surely of his grandmother’s philosophy, that makes this book so immensely readable. Dan Grunfeld also played basketball, both at Stanford University and then for nine years overseas professionally in Germany, Israel, and Spain. He even became a Romanian citizen to play in his grandmother’s native country.

            “My first professional game was in Germany, I was probably the only player who called his grandmother and asked her if it was okay to play there,” says Grunfeld. Anyu, being Anyu, of course said yes, telling him that you can’t blame the sons for what the fathers did.

            Growing up, Grunfeld was fascinated not only with his grandmother’s Eastern European cooking (“I eat so much sometimes that I get sick,” he says),  but also, when he was old enough, her tales of those early days. Stanford was just 25 minutes from where she lived and he would take notes when they talked or at least when he wasn’t eating.

            In that respect, he is unlike most of us who when young who don’t write things down and so lose the important stories of our elders. Indeed, I had a Romanian grandmother who loved to cook but I just ate and never recorded her times in her homeland and her journey to East Chicago and so all that is lost. Bravo to Grunfeld who felt that these stories were important enough to turn into a book. He did it for Anyu who doesn’t want people to forget the Holocaust and what happened to her family and so many families like hers. He did it to enshrine her story into written words. And he did it so that her courage could help all of us when things seem very dark.

            “My grandmother certainly has an incredible attitude and approach to life,” he says. “She’s such a remarkable person. I say if my grandmother can survive and be like this than there is hope for all of us.”

            When I ask Grunfeld if he misses basketball, he tells me that he misses what it was like playing the game when you’re playing at a high level and having success.  

            “I also understand that part of my life is over,” says Grunfeld who is married and is expecting the birth of his second son in a matter of weeks. “I’m at a point in my life where I realize I’m not coming back. But there are so many other ways you can integrate it into your life. You can watch it, read about it, and write about it.”

            Which, of course, is what he did.

            As for that spoon Anyu found. 75 years later she gave it to Dan who keeps it in the drawer next to his bed.  Sometime in the future, it most likely will be passed on to Dan’s son Solomon, named after his grandfather who died at Auschwitz.

For Dan Grunfeld’s events, click here.

The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021

            For thirty years, Glenn Stout, the founding editor of The Best American Sports Writing series, has read–or at least started to read—a seemingly endless pile of articles searching for the most exceptional sports stories of the year. That hunt seemingly ended when the publishing company was purchased and the new owners canceled that series as long as several others.

            That’s when Triumph Books, the Chicago-based publisher decided to recreate the series and this October, with Stout editing again, the first in the new series, The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021 was released.

            Longform sports writing for those who are not in-the-know (as I was before talking to Stout) aren’t typical play-by-play game descriptions but instead are in-depth profiles and feature articles offering fascinating views into a variety of sports-related subjects. For example, when I tell Stout, in a phone conversation from his home on Lake Champlain in northwestern Vermont that I particularly enjoyed “Twelve Minutes and a Life” by Mitchell S. Jackson in this year’s anthology, he gave a laugh as it turns out I wasn’t alone. The article, which ran in the June 18, 2020, issue of Runner’s World, won both the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing recounted the killing of Ahmaud Arbery from differing aspects including the beginnings of jogging in the 1960s and how it evolved into a mostly White national sport.

            That certainly proves the caliber of the writing included in this year’s book which also features such articles as “The Confederate Flag Is Finally Gone at NASCAR Races, and I Won’t Miss It for a Second” by Ryan McGee, first published in ESPN, June 10, 2020, “Their Son’s Heart Saved His Life. So He Rode 1,426 Miles to Meet Them” by A.C. Shilton, first published in Bicycling, January 24, 2020, and “This Woman Surfed the Biggest Wave of the Year” by Maggie Mertens, first published in The Atlantic, September 12, 2020.

            But as time consuming as reading—and often re-reading sports stories—is, Stout has also found time to write, edit, or ghostwrite over 100 books such as his 2009 Young Woman and the Sea; How Gertrude Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Changed the World, now to be made into a motion picture and his latest Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid: America’s Original Gangster Couple, a true crime book about a Bonnie and Clyde-like Jazz Age couple only with a more compelling storyline and, according to Stout and the photos I’ve seen, much better looking. There’s also Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Year and The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball.

            Interestingly, though Stout played a variety of sports, he studied poetry at Bard’s College and worked at the Boston Public Library after graduating. That may be one of the reasons he looks at sports writing as literature, discarding stories he’s given to read once he begins to lose interest (a sign, one of his writing teachers told him, indicating the writer had also lost interest or didn’t know what to say) or finds the author indulging in tropes, those overused themes or cliches that show a lack of originality.

            Life is too short, it seems, to read bad writing. But if Stout likes what he’s reading, he may read it again right away and if not, is likely to get back to it at some point in time.

            It’s this discernment that makes The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021 so compelling.

This article previously ran in the Northwest Indiana Times.

History Through the Headsets

It didn’t take long for Notre Dame senior defensive signal-callers Reed Gregory (No. 50) and John Mahoney (No. 25) to get to yes when then-defensive backs coach Terry Joseph asked if they wanted to write about what most likely will remain the most unique time period in the school’s football history.

John Mahoney

The two, both members of the class of 2021, were on the sidelines signaling during practice recalls Maloney when they looked at each and asked, “do we really want to do this?”

They did indeed. After spending spring and summer writing, their book History Through the Headsets: Inside Notre Dame’s Playoff Run During the Craziest Season in College Football History (Triumph Books $26.95) has just been released during what is a much saner season.

Reed Gregory

            Neither was an English major—Mahoney, who majored in finance and minored in history and now works as a management consultant in Minneapolis and Gregory, an economics major with minors in Russian and digital marketing who now works in wealth management in New York City. Still they knew what to do.

            “Once we spoke to each other and decided that’s what we wanted to do, we went to the bookstore and looked through every sports book for the name of the publisher and then contacted everyone we could,” says Gregory. They chose Triumph Books, a Chicago publishing house.

            Next came the writing part. That was easier than they thought as well.

“We wrote a lot of it in first person and a lot of it was recounting the personal memories we have,” says Gregory while Mahoney notes that as defensive signalers they had the inside story on every snap. Plus, they added their owner firsthand experiences about being on a football team during the pandemic. Both mention working out while wearing masks while attempting to keep the correct social distancing. There was also the experience of playing against Boston College where the empty stands were filled with paper cutouts of people.

“More than anything we hope the book is a memento of the time—and hopefully one that will never be repeated—and what our lives were like in the daily process as a football team,” says Mahoney.

Both count the double overtime win against Clemson last November as the best moment in a season of ups and downs.

Their work is appreciated by then-Notre Dame Head Football Coach Brian Kelly who in the book’s forward “This 2020 edition of Notre Dame Football was a very special group to me because of the strong character they possessed, and Reed and John are the epitome of that as much as anyone in our program.”

If These Walls Could Talk by Reggie Brooks

        “I wouldn’t have been so open if I had written my book five years ago,” says Reggie Brooks, author of the just released If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box (Triumph Books 2021, $17.95). “But Covid showed me how important it is to share. There were many people in my life who helped get me to where I am. I also learned that we’re here to serve others and not just ourselves.”

        In many ways his book is a behind the scenes look at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish but for those who groan at the thought of another football book, Brooks wants you to know it’s more than that. He discusses both the highs and lows of his life and career, offering a human look at being a gridiron star as he takes us on his personal journey, often peppering his book with humorous anecdotes. That includes the time he scored a 20-yard touchdown against the University of Michigan in 1993 while unconscious.

        “I didn’t even know I was knocked down,” says Brooks about the incident where, after catching a pass, he was able to break through six Wolverine tackles—the last knocking him out—and still managing to make it across the finish line before falling face first in the end zone.

“I didn’t really know about the play until I saw it on Sunday during our film session and team meeting,” he says.

        Brooks, a Notre Dame tailback, ended his senior year with  1,372 rushing yards, averaging about 8 yards a carry and scoring 13 touchdowns. He was named an All-American, finished fifth in the voting that year for the Heisman Trophy and was selected in the second round of the 1993 NFL by the Washington Redskins. But after a stellar first year in the league, his career started stalling, in part, he believes by a disagreement he had with the management over the team’s use of his image.

        Welcome to the NFL. For Brooks, it seemed that he had upset the wrong people and paid the price for doing so. But he’s self-aware of how he responded. Feeling as if he were drowning he retreated into himself and didn’t avail himself of the help he was offered.  Brooks’ experiences in the NFL reinforced his realization of how important Notre Dame had been in his life.

        “It allowed me to see more clearly how special my teammates at Notre Dame were and what it meant to be a college football player,” he writes. “It’s the maturity you have to develop and the care for the others—even if you do not consciously think about it.”

        He also saw the power of the Notre Dame network and how it opened doors for him when he was struggling—how the kindness of those he knew there helped him find his way.

        When I ask what impact he hopes his book will have on readers, Brooks responds that he wants to show how his life and Notre Dame intertwined.

        “I also want to get people to realize the value of ‘you’ and what ‘you’ bring to the community,” he says.

        His father was his first coach and taught him the importance of treating others well. The emphasis was not on football as a way make a lot of money (though no one is arguing that isn’t nice) but the impact you can have on others.

        “I still struggle with fandom,” he says. And we laugh about the old saw about never believing in your own press clippings—in other words not letting the hype change who you are.

“Those who are just starting are as important as the most famous,” he says.

Married to his college sweetheart, Christina Brooks, the couple have five children. Until recently Reggie Brooks worked for Notre Dame as the university’s Director of Student-Athlete Alumni Relations/Engagement and participated in after game shows. Recently he accepted the position of executive director of Holtz’s Heroes Foundation which precipitated a move from South Bend, Indiana to Prairie View, Texas. But that move was in part participated with his wife getting a job in Fort Worth and it was time, he said, to support her as she had always supported his career and many moves.

Still there was a sense of loss about leaving. Brooks had followed his brother Tony, who also played football, to the university after high school, played there throughout college and then returned. He loves the school’s values. When I tell him my brother taught accountancy there for 30 years and never ever was pressured to give a break to an athlete, he laughs, saying “You go to class, you do the work, that’s what makes it Notre Dame.”

He makes sure to complement the university’s accounting program as if wanting to assure me that it’s just as glamorous and important as their fabled football program. It’s just what makes him Reggie Brooks.

What:  Reggie Brooks book signing

When: Saturday, October 23 at 12:30pm CT

Where: Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore, 1 Eck Center on the Notre Dame Campus in South Bend, Indiana

FYI: 800-647-4641; http://www.bkstr.com/notredamestore

Kirk Herbstreit: Out of the Pocket

      

Eight schools in just as many years, parents divorcing, new step-parents, more divorces, more new homes, overwhelming shyness, red-faced when emotional and almost always feeling out of place. It doesn’t sound like the prerequisites for Kirk Herbstreit’s stellar career as a sportscaster and star of College GameDay.

       But Herbstreit always had football and no matter what school he landed in, he made the team, and he was a star. It might not have been enough—not with a stepmother who didn’t mind entertaining male guests in front of her stepson when his father was out of town, a barely tolerable stepfather, and constantly saying goodbye to friends, attempting to make new ones, and trying to hide out in the back row of the classroom in his newest school. But what else could a kid like Herbstreit learn to do but stuff his feelings deep inside and throw the ball. It worked.

       For a while.

Herbstreit was playing for Ohio State University just as his father had. But things weren’t going well. He didn’t quite fit in with the program. Suddenly he wasn’t a star. He was barely on the team.

Dallas, TX – October 6, 2018 – Fair Park: Desmond Howard, Rece Davis, Toby Keith, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit on the set of College GameDay Built by the Home Depot (Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)

       In other words, it wasn’t working.

       “I’ve always been the guy who tried to say the right thing, to tell people what I thought they wanted to her,” says Herbstreit in his new autobiography, Out of the Pocket: Football, Fatherhood, and College GameDay Saturdays written with longtime ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski. “I’m a shy guy, the one who holds things in—it’s my way. I’m an introvert by nature.”  

Tallahassee, FL – November 2, 2013 – Doak Campbell Stadium: Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit on the set of College GameDay Built by the Home Depot (Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images)

       On the phone Herbstreit seems like the kind of guy you could talk to for hours. He’s friendly, he’s chatty, he listens, he doesn’t need to dominate the conversation, he’s open about his feelings, and he cries at sentimental movies.

       So what happened to the stuffing feelings thing?

“I’ve come a long way from what I was,” says Herbstreit. “I just evolved.”

But it was more than that. He took a huge step. It seems there’s was this funky looking OSU team doctor.

“He had this look to him,” Herbstreit recalls about the team’s therapist. It’s not an unusual comment about psychiatrists.

“It was 1990, forget 2021,” says Herbstreit about deciding to talk to a mental health professional.  “I remember going into his office looking over both my shoulders, like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. I was very standoffish, giving the answers he might want to hear. I was just giving him canned answers, then he started talking to me about my background, saying tell me about your mom, your dad, and I suddenly started talking about what I’d been through. He was the first person I really talked to about all this. He became my confident, my guy. I was skipping when I went into his office. When the season ended, I went up to get three different awards, the last time I went up was to get the most valuable player, I just got it out, I said there’s this guy, it was such a credibly positive experience. It was a game changer.”

Herbstreit was the youngest of three siblings, John and Teri, who after their parents’ divorce lived with their mother, a struggling car sales person. When she didn’t sell a car, they didn’t eat. They often scrounged for food. Their father? Missing in action. But to give him his due, he may have taken one too many hard blows to the head while playing football for Ohio State. It changed him, Herbstreit’s mother claimed. Whatever the cause, his father was remote and withdrew from his kids’ life for long periods after the divorce. He married a woman who kicked John out of the house. Teri took over a big part of parenting her younger brother, giving up a big chunk of what should have been her fun years.

Pasadena, CA – January 1, 2020 – Rose Bowl: Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler in the broadcast booth during the 2020 Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual (Photo by Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)

But Herbstreit revered his father, no matter what. When the family still lived together, he would go down to the basement and lovingly unpack his father’s football momentous from his days as a player and then coach at OSU. And there was his dad’s Captain’s Mug—the ultimate trophy.

And in Herbstreit’s last year at Ohio, he would get his own OSU Captain’s Mug.

How often does that happen?

“In 130 years in football it’s happened three times,” says Herbstreit, who after a pause adds, “some kids go through divorce angry, I never had that, I just wanted my dad. He was my hero—he was Zeus, he was Superman, when I finally got voted captain, the first person I wanted to call was my dad.”

But his father had a hard time listening. It taught Herbstreit, the father of four sons, how important it was to listen to his kids.

After his senior year, Herbstreit was offered a totally awesome job as a medical supply sales rep—six figures, a company car, and 401k plan. But he wanted to be a sports talk show host and he also had an offer doing just that. It paid $12,000 with no benefits. Seems like an easy decision. It was. Herbstreit took the radio sports job with WBNS 1460. He worked his way up.

And then he got the call. A try out for College Game Day. He was a disaster—he was visibly sweating, and his face was bright red. Afterwards the only thing Herbstreit could remember was that he jabbered away but not what he said. Oh and he did remember Lee Corso kindly telling him over and over again to relax. It was bust he thought, knowing he was up against the much better known Mike Adamle who was considered a shoo-in for the job.

But we know how it turned out. Herbstreit has been on College GameDay for more than 30 years.

As long as we’re talking football, does Herbstreit have any comments on Justin Fields, the new Chicago Bears quarterback?

“Congratulations, congratulations, you’ve got a great player, who has a chip on his shoulder and is competitive, the players will love their teammate,” says Herbstreit in what is music to a Bears fan’s ears.

Not for Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete

Robert Turner II was the first member of his family to go to college, attending James Madison University on an athletic scholarship.  But he did so because of his love of football and a desire to play at a professional level.

“I majored in communications because that’s what the other players did,” says Turner who played football professionally in the now nonoperational United States Football League, the Canadian Football League, and briefly in the National Football League until his career abruptly ended.

Consider Turner one of the lucky ones. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and is an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Research and Leadership at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Science and also holds a position as a Research Scientist in the Center for Biobehavioral Health Disparities Research at Duke University.

One of his areas of interest is what happens to athletes when their playing days are done and, after amassing more 140 interviews with current and former NFL players and extensively researching the subject, he’s written OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Oxford University Press 2018; $24.95). It’s a look at what is the most popular professional sports league in the U.S., one where some athletes at the height of their physical prowess can boast stratospheric salaries in the multimillions  but then, often in just a few years, are no longer working.

“The stories of many of these players is heartbreaking,” says Turner. “I love these men and they’ve gone through a lot of pain and sorrow and it hurts to hear that but what kept me going was the awesome gift of being able to tell their stories.”

Turner describes his book as being about what happens upstream, the path that players take from high school and sometimes ever earlier through college and into professional sports. As for what happens after that, Turner says that society turns a deaf ear to their lives after college and the pros.

“People say well, they got their college education, they got all that money,” says Turner, who serves on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, D.C.

But many players don’t make millions.  Without guaranteed contracts, the majority of players are forced out of the league after a few seasons with few health and retirement benefits.

Statistics show that more than three-quarters of retirees experience bankruptcy or financial ruin, two-thirds live with chronic pain, and many find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Turner believes that’s no accident. The powerful the labor agreements between the NFL and players doesn’t provide much in the way of job security. And because players dedicated to their game and dream of becoming a professional have little time to prepare for what to do when their time on the field is over and have little in the way of marketable skills.

“It doesn’t just start at the NFL,” he says. “Universities and colleges should make sure all these players have the resources they need. Many of these kids come from environments where they haven’t learned many basics in terms of finances, planning ahead and all the other tools they need to be successful after sports. The League generates $15 billion a year and yet players are treated like disposable commodities. We need to help them learn how to transition effectively.”

Turner is currently a technical advisor and consultant and is making an on-screen appearance in Student Athlete, a documentary which looks at “the exploitative world of high-revenue college sports” and features four current and former college athletes, including Kentucky basketball player Nick Richards. Co-produced by NBA star LeBron James, Student Athlete debuts October 2 at 10 p.m. on HBO.

“The documentary is an important story about this subject,” he says. “We need to take care of all the players not just the 300 Hall of Famers.”

Ifyougo:

What: Robert W. Turner II discusses Not for Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete. a Q&A and signing will follow the discussion.

When: Oct. 14TH from 3-4 p.m.

Where: The Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, 5751 S Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, Il

Cost: Free

FYI: 773-684-1300; semcoop.com

 

 

If These Walls Could Talk: Chicago Blackhawks: Stories from the Chicago Blackhawks Ice, Locker Room, and Press Box

Walls Blackhawks COVER (1)“It was like chronicling the Dark Ages of hockey,” says Mark Lazerus, a fan of the Chicago Blackhawks since the early 2000s when the only way players could get people to attend games was to hand out free tickets at bus stations among other places.

“Back then, with 23 on the team, 20 would be out getting drunk the night before a game,” recalls Lazerus, a sportswriter who lives in Highland, Indiana. “I knew they were young and crazy but that was really something.”

Growing up on Long Island, New York, Lazerus has long been a serious hockey aficionado, rooting for the Long Island Islanders since he was young. A graduate of Northwestern University, he continued his passion for hockey by avidly following the Blackhawks. But even such a seasoned and dedicated fan was amazed by the big change in the team and their fortunes.

“The players are all very different now,” says Lazerus, author of If These Walls Could Talk: Chicago Blackhawks: Stories from the Chicago Blackhawks Ice, Locker Room, and Press Box (Triumph Books 2017; $16.95). “I was surprised by the complete turnaround. These guys are now finely tuned machines.”

Going behind the scenes including on the team plane, players’ homes and, of course, in lots of bars, Lazerus interviewed present and former team members collecting stories which he shares in his book. These include reminiscences of how Blackhawk players celebrated after winning their first Stanley Cup victory in almost a half century, dialogues with such greats as Adam Burish, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews and stories on sharing the bench with Head Coach Joel Quenneville. The book’s forward is written by Hockey Hall of Famer Denis Savard who played for the Blackhawks.

“It was fun watching the city fall in love with the Blackhawks,” says Lazerus. “And for me, writing the book was great. It let me talk to people about hockey and that’s all hockey fans like me want to talk about.”

 

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