Almost everything about the Washington Wizards has changed over the last 11-plus years: the owner; the coach, four times; the entire roster, a couple of times over; and even the uniforms.
Other than the Verizon Center serving as the site of the home games, the one major constant has been the man in charge of the NBA franchise’s basketball operations.
Ernie Grunfeld has been the Wizards’ general manager since June 2003, a tumultuous period during which he has successfully rebuilt the team twice producing playoff runs from 2005-08 and in 2014-15.
This season, the Wizards finished fifth in the Eastern Conference and will open postseason play at Chicago or Toronto.
Washington’s 46 victories are its most since 1978-79 when the Bullets, as the team was then called, were the defending NBA champions.
While Grunfeld’s path to one of basketball’s top jobs might have been predictable once the All-American from the University Tennessee was the 11th overall pick in the 1977 NBA draft, it was impossible to foresee when he was an eight-year-old Jewish boy behind the Iron Curtain who knew little about America and nothing about basketball.
Grunfeld’s parents, Alex and Livia, both Holocaust survivors, had wanted to leave Romania for years with their sons, Leslie and Ernie. In 1963, the family was approved for emigration to Israel. While the final paperwork was being processed for six months in Italy, Livia’s brother, who had emigrated to New York, offered to sponsor them. The destination changed, as did the course of Grunfeld’s life.
The Grunfelds arrived in the United States 11 days before Ernie’s ninth birthday. He spoke Hungarian and Romanian, but very little English.
After a few months in the Bronx, the family moved to the Forest Hills section of Queens. Leslie died of leukemia soon after the move. With his parents working in the fabric store that they had purchased, Grunfeld found refuge on the Austin Street playground near his apartment.
“Everybody would go there after school and on the weekends,” recalled Grunfeld, who attended Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah in Queens and has never worked on the High Holidays.
“That’s how you made friends. It was difficult the first couple of years, with my brother and not being able to really speak the language, but basketball helped me. I was always fairly tall and athletic. Once I established myself as the best player on my playground, I started going to play in some different places,” he recalled.
A standout at Forest Hills High School, Grunfeld was courted by dozens of colleges. He chose Tennessee, where the swingman became the school’s career scoring leader. After starring for the U.S. team in the 1973 Maccabiah Games, Grunfeld aspired to represent his new country in the Olympics. He became a citizen in 1975.
While the American team trained at the University of North Carolina in the summer of 1976, before winning gold in Montreal, Grunfeld bonded with Mitch Kupchak, a Tar Heels forward from Long Island.
“Ernie was a tough, hard-nosed player who understood the game, so you kind of just assumed that he had been raised in New York, not in Romania,” said Kupchak, a friend for nearly four decades.
In June 1977, Grunfeld was taken by Milwaukee with the 11th pick in the NBA draft. That would begin two enduring relationships. He has been part of the NBA ever since.
He met his wife, Nancy, while playing for the Bucks. They have two children. Rebecca, a Georgetown Law Center graduate, is the director of business development for Snag Film , founded by Wizards owner Ted Leonsis; Danny, who played basketball at Stanford, and then in Europe and Israel, works for NBA Entertainment.
“I’m a lifer,” said Grunfeld, who played nine seasons for Milwaukee, Kansas City and New York before becoming a Knicks broadcaster for three years, briefly an assistant coach, and then moving into the front office in 1990. “The relationships I formed in high school, college and the pros are still with me. I love the game. My wife enjoys it. My kids grew up around it.”
Like Grunfeld, Kupchak’s playing career ended in 1986. He joined the Los Angeles Lakers’ front office and has been their general manager for 15 years.
“There are only 30 jobs like this — and I don’t think either one of us can imagine doing anything else,” said Kupchak, who gets together with Grunfeld when their teams meet, as was true when they were players. “Ernie may come across as unapproachable because he’s 6-foot-6 with broad shoulders, but he’s very easy to talk to and has a great sense of humor. He just loves to talk basketball. Once we get through talking about our families, the next two hours are about basketball.”
Grunfeld’s Knicks reached the NBA finals in 1994 and 1999 before he left to become the Bucks’ GM. Milwaukee won 14 playoff games during his four seasons before he moved on to Washington.
“I loved being back in New York,” said Grunfeld, who was with the Knicks for 18 years.
“But if I was going to go somewhere, Milwaukee was a good place,” he said. “We had been going there every summer to visit my wife’s parents and I had played for the Bucks so we had friends there. But I was really excited when the opportunity came up in Washington and we’ve enjoyed it here. [The late Abe] Pollin was a very good owner. Ted has been a great owner. He’s demanding, but he’s fun to work with. He understands basketball and has a real passion for it.”
Grunfeld’s trade for forward Antawn Jamison and his signing of Gilbert Arenas were pivotal in Washington ending a seven-year playoff drought in 2005. The Wizards returned to postseason the next three springs, but in 2009, they collapsed as Arenas and center Brendan Haywood suffered major injuries. Pollin died that November, not long before Arenas, the team’s biggest star, and fellow guard Jarvaris Crittenton were suspended for having guns in the locker room.
Leonsis stood by Grunfeld as he cleaned house and began to rebuild around 19-year-old guard John Wall, the first selection in the 2010 draft, while going just 117-297 over four years.
“I was impressed with Ernie’s willingness to listen to my concerns about the state of the team and appreciated his perspectives on how we could improve,” Leonsis said. “Changing a philosophy and a culture is difficult. We jointly devised a strategy. Ernie embraced the changes and did a great job executing the plan quickly and efficiently.”
Last season, after Grunfeld had drafted guard Bradley Beal and traded for center Marcin Gortat and forwards Trevor Ariza and Nene, the Wizards made the playoffs and upset Chicago before losing to Indiana. Despite an up-and-down 2014-15 season, they’re back in the playoffs.
“We had a plan and we followed through on it,” Grunfeld said. “We said it was going to take time and be painful along the way and it was. But we got back to the playoffs and we hope to stay there.”
And Grunfeld, who turns 60 next week, hopes to stay in the NBA for the rest of his working life.