June 19, 2024
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The Holocaust and a Basketball Legacy: Bildner Center Holds Talk by Author of ‘By the Grace of the Game’

Highlighting: “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream” by Dan Grunfeld. Triumph Books. 2021. English. Hardcover. 288 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1629379227.

True stories about the survival and the later successes of Jews who lived through the Holocaust make for interesting reading. On March 23, the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University hosted author Dan Grunfeld in a virtual conversation with Craig Karmazin, CEO of Good Karma Brands, at the Center’s annual Abram Matlofsky Memorial Program.

Grunfeld, an accomplished athlete himself, wrote a book detailing the amazing story of how his grandparents survived the Holocaust, brought their family to America, and saw their son win a gold medal at the Olympics. That book, “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream” weaves the story of three generations together in an alternating timeline with the dominant themes being basketball and Judaism.

“Books with the word ‘Holocaust’ in the subtitle are not generally associated with happiness,” Grunfeld acknowledged, “but there is much to smile and be happy about in the course of the book.”

The gripping tales of Raoul Wallenberg saving Grunfeld’s grandmother’s life twice and his grandfather’s release from forced labor camps continued with their decision to leave Europe. Originally the family planned to go to Israel, but their older son wanted to come to the United States because of a girl he knew who had moved here. The start of their American life was not all pleasant, as that son was diagnosed with Leukemia shortly after they arrived and died within the year.

Alex and Livia Grunfeld, the author’s grandparents, opened a fabric store in the Bronx, and their young son, Ernie, took to the local playgrounds to play basketball. Ernie’s talent in basketball was unknown to his parents, as they were not able to close the store to watch him play. Urged by his coach to at least watch one game, the parents arrived at the school gym and were denied admittance as the game was sold out. Upon hearing who they were, the high school administrators made room for them.

Grunfeld noted that when his father, Ernie, later made the Olympics, his grandparents made the unprecedented move to close the store for a full two weeks to watch their son play.

College coaches across the country courted Ernie and unsuccessfully tried to get him to commit to their program based on the strengths of their respective colleges and teams. Bernard King, legendary coach at the University of Tennessee, succeeded with an entirely different tactic. King enlisted the help of the Memphis Jewish community who lobbied on their team’s behalf and ensured the Grunfelds that Ernie would be well taken care of by the community.

Following a stellar college career, the NBA drafted Ernie in the 11th round. Ernie was hoping for rounds 10 (Boston) or 12 (New York), but he ended up playing in Milwaukee. While in Milwaukee, he asked if there were any nice Jewish girls in the area, and was introduced to his soon-to-be-wife, Nancy.

Grunfeld noted that he was literally born around the game of basketball. His mother’s labor was induced between two basketball road trips during a playing season.

Ernie Grunfeld went on to be a star player for the New York Knicks and later general manager with the Knicks and Milwaukee. Additionally, Ernie had a career as a sports broadcaster—an irony since as a small child he was initially denied admission to a yeshiva in the New York area because he did not know enough English. This young immigrant child grew up to be a legend in New York basketball history and was broadcasting on the radio for all to hear.

Dan Grunfeld continued with the story of his own basketball career and how he accomplished his goal of playing basketball for Stanford University. While at basketball camp with the likes of Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, he had stellar performances as college recruiters watched. Sadly, his pro career in the United States was ended by injury, but he continued to play in Europe and began to focus on writing and other pursuits.

The book’s forward is written by NBA star Ray Allen, whose mission is to teach all people about the Holocaust and its meaning to the world. Allen was a star player in Milwaukee during Ernie Grunfeld’s tenure as general manager, but he had no idea that his parents were survivors. Having learned about the Holocaust in middle school, he set about spreading the word that it wasn’t something that just impacted Jews. He declared that the Holocaust was a problem for all humanity, and he would take teammates to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum whenever they would play in Washington, D.C.

By Deborah Melman

 

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