Dan Grunfeld was born around the game of basketball. His father, former NBA player and Olympic gold medalist Ernie Grunfeld had his son’s C-section delivery scheduled in between road trips.
Dan grew up alongside basketball greats at Madison Square Garden in the 1980s and 1990s while his dad was a player, coach, and executive for the New York Knicks. He has vivid memories of players like Patrick Ewing dropping by his childhood home in New Jersey, and he developed a love for the game at an early age. He became an impressive player in his own right, playing for Stanford as an undergraduate and eventually playing professionally in Europe and Israel. “Basketball has done so much for my family,” Grunfeld says.
He says his grandparents and their “chutzpah” during World War II have been a driving force behind his and his father’s success on the court. Dan’s grandmother, Livia, was visiting her sister in Hungary when the Nazis rounded up her Orthodox Jewish family in their rural Romanian village. She survived the Holocaust on the run, often subsisting on stale bread and drops of mustard, and was liberated from the Budapest Ghetto in 1945. Ernie Grunfeld immigrated to the U.S. from Romania at age nine not speaking a word of English.
After Dan retired from basketball in 2014, he enrolled at Stanford GSB to build on skills he’d developed as a professional athlete and learn how to apply them to the business world. Now, he helps startups as a vice president at Lightspeed Venture Partners, and he’s recently written a book, By the Grace of the Game, that weaves together his family’s rich basketball legacy with his grandparents’ remarkable story of survival.
You loved basketball growing up, but did you ever imagine it might be what you did for a living?
From the time I was a kid, I inherited this really big history. I wanted to play in the NBA like my dad. That was always my goal. My freshman year of high school, we moved from New Jersey to Milwaukee, and I became a top-100 high school player in the country, which gave me the opportunity to play at Stanford. Junior year, I was projected to be an NBA draft pick but tore my ACL in a home game against Cal. It was a big disappointment and a tough thing to deal with. After that, I played eight years professionally overseas — a year in Germany, three in Spain, and four in Israel.
What was your transition like from basketball to business?
I was 30 years old and had dedicated my life to my basketball career. In Israel during my eighth pro season, I knew I was done. The game had given me so much, and I didn’t have anything left to give back. I loved to learn, and I knew I wanted to go back to school and explore a new path. I wanted to acquire hard skills, but also learn more about myself. I think I spent more time preparing for the GMAT than working on my basketball skills during my last season. I brought my materials with me on road trips and studied every chance I got. I applied to and visited several business schools, but there was something about Stanford. It surpassed my expectations.
Since graduation you’ve been working with startups. What do you find satisfying about it?
After I graduated I worked for a startup that was using virtual reality as a training tool, initially for athletes. Then we applied the technology to train employees at companies like Walmart. Now I’m on the venture capital side. I work with founders and entrepreneurs helping startups grow and scale. I enjoy how fast-paced and dynamic it is. A lot of what I do you can relate to my career in sports. It’s competitive, you want to win, but you also need to be a strong communicator and work well with others. I love the startup world. Tech is helping to solve some of our biggest problems.
Your new book, By the Grace of the Game, has been a bestseller on Amazon, and you’ve been featured on shows like Good Morning America. Tell us how you got into writing.
My passion for writing blossomed at Stanford as an undergrad, and it was something I carried forward. Junior year, I wrote a 20-page family history for an American Studies class and got great feedback. When I was playing pro basketball, I wrote for publications including SB Nation, the Jerusalem Post, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Daily News. After retiring as a player and starting at the GSB, I had the space to explore other interests. My family’s story had always been inside me. I had to tell it. I woke up at 6:02 a.m. every day to write my first draft, and it took eight months. After that, it was years of editing and iterating.
The book is both a family story and a history lesson.
It’s a big story to tell, weaving together three generations of my family to share my grandparents’ survival, my dad’s improbable basketball ascension, and my own basketball journey. My family’s story is about overcoming adversity, and it’s unfortunately timely given the global rise in anti-Semitism. The data around Holocaust education is really scary when you look at how little Americans — especially Millennials and Gen Z — know about the Holocaust. My grandma always says we have to share these stories, so it never happens again, and not just to Jewish people, to any people.
Your father is the only current or former NBA player whose parents survived the Holocaust, and he faced anti-Semitism himself. What has your experience been like?
I once opened an equipment shed on the baseball field in my hometown and found a big white swastika painted on the inside. When I saw that, I froze. I knew what it meant and knew what had happened to my family. I was also called “Jew boy” when I was a kid, and those things stick with you. I channeled some of those feelings onto the basketball court. My dad faced anti-Semitism under communism in Romania and was made fun of as an immigrant in America for not speaking English.
What does your grandma think about the book?
My grandma is 96 and lives in the Bay Area. She lost both parents and five siblings in the Holocaust. They were taken to Auschwitz and never seen again, and she’s always been afraid that people won’t even know they existed. Now, their stories will live forever through my book. My grandma is the clear star of this story. I recently spoke to her retirement community over Zoom. Her friends knew little about her Holocaust survival before the book came out. My grandparents have been such an inspiration for me and my dad. I hope that people read the book and feel similarly inspired.
Photos by Billy Michels