He's just glad to be back

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By ROB BRADFORD

LOWELL Uri Grunwald plays basketball without a trace of fear, perhaps because he's got quite enough of the stuff already waiting for him in the real world.

Since arriving on University Avenue from Haifa, Israel, in 2000, the UMass Lowell guard has made the Duracel Bunny look downright sluggish. As far as the 6-foot-3 junior is concerned, collegiate hoop success is a simple equation: Speed plus relentlessness added to fearlessness equals success.

"His speed is unbelievable," said UML forward Elad Inbar, who first played against Grunwald as a 13-year-old in Israel. "It's crazy how fast he is."

The philosophy has already earned Grunwald the title of Northeast-10 Co-Rookie of the Year in his freshman campaign, and a 14 points-per-game average last season.

If only some of the 24-year-old's other concerns were so easily figured out.

This past summer Grunwald was slapped with a not-so-subtle reminder that stress doesn't begin or end with learning an offense, adjusting to a new coach or worrying about the Costello Gym's scoreboard. Sometimes all it takes to start the sweats is a simple trip home.

"I was afraid. I was really concerned," remembered Grunwald.

Grunwald's anxiety stemmed from what used to be a simple decision: whether or not to return to Israel. The most pressing problem about making the trip this past summer revolved around who might be waiting for him upon exiting the plane.

"Worrying about whether or not the Army was going to call me was my biggest concern. They know from the computer when I'm in Israel so they can call me as soon as I arrive, and if they do call me I'm in their hands," explained Grunwald, who already served a mandatory three-year stint in the Israeli Air Force before coming to Lowell. "If it was a war situation, I couldn't have gone back."

But the military didn't call and Grunwald did go back. Yet, once he boarded the plane that July 1 morning the doubts didn't stop.

Grunwald has always known he can usually out-run any opponent, find a way to get off his shot, and even play at such a level that a professional career playing basketball in Israel will be waiting for him whenever he's ready.

What he wasn't so sure of, however, was what his home was going to resemble upon his latest voyage home.

"It was emotional going back," said Grunwald. "I wanted to see with my own eyes what is going on. And what I saw was that it wasn't too bad. It is worse because now there are guards everywhere you go."

Once settled into his old digs, Grunwald made the most of his summer vacation. He lifted, he ran and, most importantly, he fine-tuned a game that had earned him third-team, All-Conference status in his second season with the River Hawks.

Helping Grunwald motivate himself while playing for his hometown club team was the memory of what had been a sometimes uneasy sophomore season. Although most of his numbers were again at the top of the UML stat sheet, the challenge of learning a new style of basketball under first-year River Hawks' coach Ken Barer sometimes altered the player's usually unwavering confidence.

"It took a long time to get adjusted last season," said Grunwald. "That's why I worked so hard in the summer, to get (Barer's) concept of the game. Now I realize what it's all about. My freshman year I liked the system, and then they changed the system, which was OK. It just took me a while, but now I'm ready."

Despite the adjustment, Grunwald still was a key component to a UMass Lowell team that finished 20-9 and earned a berth to the Division 2 Northeast Region NCAA Tournament. In the River Hawks' 29 games, he never played less than 25 minutes.

Now, with the graduation of point guard Eyal Leib, Grunwald is being counted on to not only supply point production, but also a much more valuable element leadership.

"Almost more important than Uri's skill development is that he is in a focused state of mind," observed Barer. "There's a big difference in his game from last year. He has a much more mature game and is playing more with a purpose."

Suddenly, Grunwald's sometimes upside-down world couldn't be more rightside-up, and the River Hawks figure to be a much better team because of it.