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.”
The sharp-shooting swingman left as the program’s all-time leading scorer, won a gold medal with the 1976 U.S. Olympic team and had a productive, nine-year career as an NBA player. Now he makes million-dollar decisions and draws a handsome salary — believed to be higher than $1.5 million a year — as an NBA wheeler-dealer.
“I don’t have time to think about how far I have come,” said Grunfeld, who learned from his father how to run a business. “I always had a lot of love from my parents. I also had a lot of discipline. My dad always told me as a kid, ‘Work hard and good things will happen.’ It has kind of been my motto.
“I have always tried to work hard and be fair. And I have been fortunate.”
Surviving the war
Alex Grunfeld survived the Holocaust by being productive and resourceful at a Nazi work camp.
“It was German-run,” Ernie Grunfeld said. “They would dig ditches or did whatever. A lot of Jews were either transferred to a concentration camp or a lot of them — particularly men — went to a work camps.”
Alex was an athlete himself, a world-class table tennis player and one of his country’s top soccer goalies. His sports skills earned him credibility — and perhaps helped save his life — as a prisoner.
“That kind of helped him because he knew the guards,” Ernie Grunfeld said. “He would play soccer and things like that and ended up being the chef in the work camp. That helped him survive because he was getting a little more food than most. He went through tough times. He told me stories of things that happened and how he and some of his friends survived. … Obviously, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.”
While Alex worked, Livia was running, trying to avoid the Nazis.
“She spent most of the war hiding,” Ernie said. “She had phony papers. She got her papers from Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish ambassador to Hungary who helped many Hungarian Jews at that time by giving them Swedish papers. She was in Budapest and went house to house, basement to basement, trying to survive.”
Alex died in 1987. Livia is 79 and living in the San Francisco area. She declined an interview request, preferring to leave speaking with the media to her son.
The Grunfelds always spoke Hungarian at home, and Ernie and his mother still do so with each other. Their hometown of Satu-Mare belonged to Hungary before the war.
“After the war, it became Romania,” Grunfeld said. “Because the Hungarians were on the side of the Germans, part of their territory was taken away, and they formed new borders. Romania was with the Russians.”
Grunfeld has returned to Budapest several times to visit relatives, but he has little interest in visiting Romania since he feels no great connection to his childhood home.
Coming to America
Times were difficult in Satu-Mare, but Grunfeld said he was mostly oblivious to the political and economic situations. He spent the first eight years of his life as a “normal kid” before leaving for good in 1963.
“I was a regular kid who would go out on the street and play soccer and hang out with my friends,” he said. “I had a normal life.”
And he remembers the trip to America more like a Tom Sawyer story than a painstaking journey.
“As a kid, you just go along with everything,” Grunfeld said. “Everything is an adventure. You don’t know the magnitude of what’s happening. … America was an unknown. Everything was so big: big building, lots of cars, fast-paced. But as a kid, you adjust.”
Ernie was almost 9 when he arrived on April 13, 1964. The Grunfelds were greeted by cousins who had left Satu-Mare three years earlier, and they moved in with Ernie’s uncle, Andy Samuels, in the Bronx. It wasn’t long before he discovered playground basketball, and he spent most of his free time on the blacktop.
“That’s what you did,” said Grunfeld, who never played the game in Romania. “It was a concrete park. There was no grass. They had basketball courts. And everybody played. I was a good athlete and one of the bigger kids for my age. The younger kids played on their own baskets, and you worked your way up to the main basket — where the real players played. The more I played, the more friends I made.”
Said Tapscott: “He moved to a pretty predominant black neighborhood in the Bronx. The only way to fit in for a guy who couldn’t speak much English — he had this Hungarian accent — was to go play basketball.”
Alex soon saved enough money as a house painter to move the family to its own place in Queens. Soon after, Leslie succumbed to leukemia.
“It was difficult, particularly for my parents,” Grunfeld said. “He was my big brother. I used to follow him to the basketball courts.”
Ernie began to excel in basketball and gained confidence by making his junior high team as a seventh-grader. He grew four inches to 6-foot-2 between ninth and 10th grade and became an All-American at Forest Hills High School. He was regarded as one of the top two prep players in New York with Steve “the Bear” Sheppard, who later played at Maryland.
Grunfeld often saw NBA games at Madison Square Garden with his father. He admired the physical and intellectual game of power forward Dave DeBusschere and the title-winning teamwork of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley.
“That was the beauty of that team,” said Grunfeld, who would sit in the cheap seats. “The whole Knicks team style was one of unselfishness and doing the little things. I can vividly remember going to the Garden and the chants of ‘Defense!’ going up. The whole Garden was shaking with the sound. The shot goes up and the Knicks would pride themselves on boxing out. They don’t even go after the ball. The ball goes into the lane, and there was a roar of approval from the fans who really understood what was happening.”
Grunfeld came to Tennessee as a scorer but not a good shooter. After his freshman year, he spent the summer working on his shot. It paid off. He averaged 23.8 points his sophomore season and 25.3 as a junior while sharing the ball with King.
After his junior year, he played on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team for former North Carolina coach Dean Smith. That team included current Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, Phil Ford, Wizards assistant coach Phil Hubbard and King.
“To this day, it was the greatest basketball experience I have had,” Grunfeld said. “We were on a mission. It was the first time the U.S. had not won a gold medal [after the controversial loss to Russia in 1972 in Munich]. We wanted to win it back. We wanted Russia in the final.”
Grunfeld had to settle for beating Yugoslavia, which defeated Russia in the semifinals, for the gold in Montreal.
The Olympics also taught Grunfeld to adjust to becoming a role player. The lessons came in handy: The 6-foot-6 swingman spent most of his NBA career coming off the bench.
He was drafted 11th overall in 1977 by Milwaukee, where he played for current Dallas coach Don Nelson. He went on to play in Kansas City and New York. His highest scoring average was 10.3 points for the Bucks in 1978-79, and he finished his career backing up his old college teammate, King, in New York.
“He had the ability to make up for his lack of athletic ability in quickness and jumping ability because he was a cerebral player,” said Hubie Brown, who coached Grunfeld in his final four seasons in New York and now coaches the Memphis Grizzlies. “You knew the IQ was there for the sport. For him to eventually go into radio, coaching and then the GM side, it was a natural progression.”
Though relegated to the supporting cast, Grunfeld contributed in various roles, from being a locker room leader to providing bulk on the floor.
“As an inner-city kid in Kansas City, I grew up watching the Kings and Ernie Grunfeld,” said Wizards shooting guard Anthony Peeler, who was signed by Grunfeld this summer. “He never went around people. He always went through. He always wanted contact.”
Grunfeld spent three seasons doing Knicks commentary on radio and a little over one season as an assistant to Stu Jackson for the Knicks.
Grunfeld has passed on his basketball knowledge to son Danny, a 6-foot-7 junior forward playing for Stanford. Daughter Rebecca attends Georgetown’s law school.
“I feel very fortunate at my age to still be involved in basketball,” Grunfeld said. “It is really a form of competition. It’s just that I do it behind the desk now instead of on the floor. But when the games are going on, the tension is still there.”
And it all was made possible by the luck of a lottery 40 years ago.