- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

It was the lottery that changed Ernie Grunfeld’s life. And this lottery had nothing to do with the NBA Draft.

Four decades ago, the Washington Wizards’ president of basketball operations and his family received permission to leave communist Romania and escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

Grunfeld’s father, Alex, was a Holocaust survivor who labored in a Nazi work camp. His mother, Livia, spent World War II avoiding capture by the Nazis by carrying false papers and hiding out in basements in Hungary.

In 1964, the Grunfelds finally were able to leave their past and that world behind.

“There was a certain amount of Jewish immigrants that they let out every year,” said Grunfeld, who was 8 when he took a train from Eastern Europe to freedom in Italy. “It was a lottery system. It took us about five or six years from the time we registered to leave. We took a couple suitcases and lived in Rome for six months before we had all the paperwork and everything was in order.”

Fast forward 40 years. Ernie Grunfeld, the kid who spoke no English when he came to the United States as a poor immigrant, now is one of the NBA’s top decision-makers.

He signed point guard Gilbert Arenas to a $65 million contract last season, and he pulled the trigger on the blockbuster trade that sent Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner to the Dallas Mavericks this summer for Antawn Jamison.

Grunfeld, 49, is in his second season with the Wizards and his 14th as a general manager, a span that includes successful stints with the New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks.

He always has been an aggressive deal maker: He acquired Latrell Sprewell and Xavier McDaniel for the Knicks and traded Ray Allen with the Bucks.

He always has been a winner: He was the architect of 12 playoff squads, including Knicks teams that reached — and lost — the NBA Finals in 1995 and 1999.

“I think a lot of what he has been through in life, although it was difficult, has driven him to where he is,” said Memphis Grizzlies general manager and NBA great Jerry West, a close friend.

It was a tragic start in this country for the Grunfelds, who landed at New York’s Idlewild (now Kennedy) Airport on April 13, 1964, and moved in with relatives. Soon after, Ernie’s brother and only sibling, Leslie, died of leukemia at 18.

The mourning family persevered and eventually lived the American dream. Alex opened his own business, a fabric shop, and the Grunfelds led a middle-class life in Queens.

“Ernie has a great sense of appreciation of what the United States means in a way that many of us who were born here take for granted,” said Ed Tapscott, who served nine years under Grunfeld with the Knicks and now is the president of the new Charlotte franchise. “I think he does want to take advantage of everything here because he has seen the opposite spectrum.”

Grunfeld became a high school All-American and co-starred at Tennessee with Bernard King as the “Ernie and Bernie Show.”

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