When Glen Grunwald was named vice-president and legal counsel of the Denver Nuggets, I called to congratulate him. We go back a long way, to the time he broke in as a freshman sensation for Norm Goodman's basketball team at East Leyden.
When he returned my call, he began: "I finally made it to the NBA."
Now he's back again. After serving as interim general manager for the New York Knicks since last July, he has promoted to executive vice-president and general manager on a permanent basis. No more interim. He has a hearty endorsement from Knicks owner James Dolan.
"Glen has done a terrific job this season," said Dolan, the chairman of Madison Square Garden. "He is an intelligent, seasoned executive and we look forward to him continuing in the role of general manager for many years to come."
Grunwald was just as upbeat when he returned my congratulatory call the other day. "It's a new job. We have a great fan base. Hopefully we can keep moving forward. I never knew where life would take me," he said.
After serving as general manager of the Toronto Raptors from 1994 to 2004, he became president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade, the largest business organization in Canada, before joining old friend and college teammate Isiah Thomas as senior vice-president of basketball operations of the New York Knicks in 2006. He was promoted to interim general manager in 2011.
Now he is preparing for the NBA playoffs and the upcoming NBA draft. He is excited about working with another college teammate, Mike Woodson, the Knicks' new head coach, and is proud of the development of former Oak Park star Iman Shumpert, who moved into the Knicks' starting lineup, then suffered a season-ending ACL tear last Saturday at the same time that the Bulls' Derrick Rose was sidelined with the same injury.
Shumpert was the Knicks' first-round draft choice last year, the No. 17 pick out of Georgia Tech. "He has played so well for us. Unlike most rookies, he knows how to play hard and compete. He has great physical gifts. He is athletic and has a great NBA body," Grunwald said.
Of all of the outstanding high school basketball players I observed as a student and fan and covered as a sportswriter for four daily newspapers over a period of 50 years, two who stand out are Grunwald and Russell Cross.
I'll always wonder how good they could have been, if they could have achieved the Hall of Fame stature of George Mikan or Harry Gallatin or Andy Phillip or Isiah Thomas or Dan Issel or Cazzie Russell or Jerry Sloan or Don Nelson or, upon his retirement, Kevin Garnett.
They never had a chance.
Grunwald, the only four-time All-State selection in Illinois history, was recruited out of East Leyden by Indiana coach Bob Knight. He chose Indiana over North Carolina and Kentucky. But he suffered a severe knee injury during the summer prior to his freshman year and never was able to fulfill his enormous potential.
"Sure, I'll always wonder how good I could have been," he once told me. "It was tough not to succeed in basketball after high school. But I was part of a good college program and happy to be part of its success, however small. When you are injured, you feel you can get better. But the gradual realization is that it won't be the same."
He was co-captain of Indiana's 1981 NCAA championship team that was led by Isiah Thomas. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the fifth round of the NBA draft but never played in the NBA. Instead, he focused on his education, earning a law degree, an MBA and an Honours business degree in marketing. He was a successful corporate attorney for major law firms, including Winston & Strawn in Chicago, before joining the Denver Nuggets.
Cross was the Bill Russell and Anthony Davis of his time, a 6-foot-10 center with great athleticism and the wingspan of a 747 jumbo jet. A two-time All-Stater, he had a feared reputation as a rebounder and shot-blocker and led Manley to the state championship in 1980.
Under the guidance of coach Gene Keady at Purdue, Cross was Big Ten Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-Big Ten selection. He led Purdue to the NIT finals as a freshman and sophomore. As a junior, his team lost to Arkansas in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Afterward, he declared for the NBA draft. He was selected by Golden State as the No. 6 pick in 1983.
But his professional career never took off. He was slowed by a knee injury that he suffered during his senior year at Manley, when a Simeon player charged off the bench and tackled him to prevent him from scoring. The injury was never completely repaired and his knee got progressively worse, despite surgery during his sophomore year at Purdue.
He was traded to Denver but was released. He played in the CBA, then went overseas and played in Italy and Spain for seven years. He retired in 1991 after doctors told him that he couldn't play another year on his damaged knee.
"From a physical standpoint, I never played well in the NBA. I never played up to expectations and my potential," Cross said. "My skill level wasn't quite the same. I wasn't able to run as fast or jump as well, things that were part of my game that helped me to dominate."
But Cross, a very religious man, has no regrets over his experience. "I am appreciative of what I got done in high school and college. There was some disappointment but no regrets for not playing in the NBA," he said.
"It was a blessing in disguise that I was able to play overseas and see other countries and learn new languages."