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.

Signed Copies of Derrick Rose’s New Book Available at Anderson’s Bookshops

While supplies last, Anderson’s Bookshop locations have autographed copies of I’ll Show You, by former Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose. A unique gift for any Bulls fan!

I’ll Show You was written by Rose with award-winning sportswriter Sam Smith. From a kid raised in one of Chicago’s roughest neighbors, Derrick Rose showed himself to be capable of ruling the basketball universe! D-Rose’s inspiring story is candid, difficult at times and illuminating.

About the Book:  In 2012, Derrick Rose was on top of the world.

After growing up in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, Rose achieved an improbable childhood dream: being selected first overall in the NBA draft by his hometown Chicago Bulls. The point guard known to his family as “Pooh” was a phenom, winning the Rookie of the Year award and electrifying fans around the world. In 2011, he became the youngest MVP in league history. He and the Bulls believed the city’s first berth in the NBA Finals since the Jordan era was on the horizon. Rarely had a bond between a player and fans been so strong, as the city wrapped its arms around the homegrown hero.

Six years and four knee surgeries later, he was waived by the Utah Jazz, a once surefire Hall of Fame career seemingly on the brink of collapse. Many speculated his days in the NBA were over.

But Derrick Rose never doubted himself, never believed his struggles on and off the court were anything other than temporary setbacks. Rather than telling the world he had more to give, he decided to show them.

I’ll Show You is an honest, intimate conversation with one of the world’s most popular athletes, a star whose on-court brilliance is matched only by his aversion to the spotlight. Written with New York Times bestselling author Sam Smith, Rose opens himself up to fans in a way they’ve never seen before, creating a document that is as unflinching—and at times as uncomfortable—as a personal diary.

Detailing his childhood spent in one of his city’s most dangerous neighborhoods; his relationships with both opponents and teammates; the pain and controversies surrounding his career-altering injuries; his complicated relationship to fame and fortune; and his rise, fall, and reemergence as the player LeBron James says is “still a superhero,” I’ll Show You is one of the most candid and surprising autobiographies of a modern-day superstar ever written.

About the Authors: Derrick Rose currently plays for the Detroit Pistons of the NBA. He played one year of college basketball for the Memphis Tigers before being drafted first overall by his hometown Chicago Bulls in the 2008 NBA draft. After being named the NBA Rookie of the Year, Rose, at age 22, became the youngest player to win the NBA Most Valuable Player Award in 2011.

Sam Smith has been covering the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for more than three decades, as reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune for 28 years, and currently for Bulls.com. Recipient of the prestigious Curt Gowdy Media Award from the NBA Hall of Fame, he also received the Professional Basketball Writers Association Lifetime Achievement award in 2011. He is the author of the classic bestselling book The Jordan Rules, for which he had unparalleled access to Michael Jordan and 1991-92 Chicago Bulls. He has written extensively for media outlets around the world, including ESPN.com, ESPN Magazine, NBC Sports, Basketball DigestThe Sporting News, and for major publications in Japan and China.

Anderson’s Bookshops are located at 123 W. Jefferson Ave., in the heart of Naperville (630) 355-2665; 5112 Main St., Downers Grove (630) 963-2665; or 26 S. La Grange Rd., La Grange (708) 582-6353. On visit online at   www.andersonsbookshop.com.

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