Nazi Germany surviving grandma big part of Rebekkah Brunson’s life

MINNEAPOLIS — When she’s not going toe-to-toe with the WNBA’s best bigs, she’s knifing past one or two of them and providing the Minnesota Lynx yet another second- or third-chance possession. When she’s not muscling her way to two points in the post, she’s stepping out to the elbow and calmly draining a jumper despite a hand blocking half her vision.

When Rebekkah Brunson pulls that three-striped, Boost Mobile ad-adorned jersey over her sinewy, 6-foot-2 frame, finesse and force collide.

She is the most efficient rebounder in Lynx history and one of the best rebounder/defender combinations women’s basketball has ever seen. She takes a backseat to three Olympians and doesn’t care. She delicately combines reckless abandon with a cool, controlled persona.

Come what may during the course of a game, the high-powered power forward’s contributions — double-digit scoring and 8-10 boards every time out — rarely dip.

Her even-keel demeanor remains just as constant.

“Coaches will tell you, when you know exactly what you’re getting from somebody, life is wonderful,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “That is Rebekkah.”

Externally, she’s an enigma. Soft-spoken and reserved, she focuses most of her energy on an out-of-the-limelight, good-old-fashioned grinder’s role she embodied long before she starred at Georgetown in college, then Sacramento of the WNBA before landing in the Twin Cities.

She’s never merely accepted that bidding. From the beginning, she’s embraced it.

“That’s just who I am,” Brunson said.

It’s an oft-overlooked mentality forged on dirt courts in Oxon Mill, Md. alongside her twin brother and his friends. The inseparable siblings didn’t have it easy growing up; they were raised by a single mother, with stiff, physical athletic competition serving as their main outlet for avoiding trouble.

No obstacle has proven insurmountable for Brunson on her road to professional stardom.

Teammates call her a gladiator. Fans affectionately refer to her as “The Machine” during games. A workhorse, a warrior — take your pick of common want-to-related characterizations.

But Brunson’s germination into a relentless battler isn’t rooted solely in the streets of D.C.

It can be traced back much earlier, to a splash of blood and a makeshift bridge during one of humanity’s most horrific junctures.

***

Helma Brunson can hardly move without the assistance of a walker. An hour-long shopping trip wears her down to the point of exhaustion. It’s what happens to most folks that live long enough to see their late 80s.

But make no mistake: she is far from frail.

“I’ve got a lot of fire in me,” Helma Brunson said.

Any relevant crack she can find in a conversation, she’ll begin waxing politics and current events. Loves Obama. Hates the Tea Party. Adamantly insists George Zimmerman is guilty. She’ll chide neighbors at her Columbia, Md., apartment for not leaving her enough room to open and close her car door. She still has enough energy to maintain regular contact with her four grandchildren, who are spread out all over the globe.

Save for a feisty energy reminiscent of Rebekkah Brunson’s on-court personality, you’d never know the pale-complexion, full-blooded German was the basketball star’s grandmother.

Helma Brunson was born Sept. 30, 1927 and grew up in Stockstadt, Germany, a small, agricultural town along the Rhine River. While she grew in years, Adolf Hitler grew in power.

The Brunson family wasn’t Jewish. On the contrary, their blonde hair, blue eyes and Aryan bloodlines spared them from Hitler’s plans for ethnic cleansing.

But they refused to join the Nazi party, even while their friends and neighbors began pledging civilian sovereignty one-by-one during the rise of the Third Reich. Helma says her father was fired from his job after German officials told his bosses the factory in which he worked would be shut down unless they terminated his employment.

He began peddling cosmetics from France, secretly stopping at his home in Stockstadt to visit his wife and sleeping children.

Taking back roads to and from the open-border countries, he’d swing by in the middle of the night and throw pebbles at the house’s windows to gain his wife’s attention, quickly leave some money and gifts for his kids, and sneak back off into the night.

“Our mother wouldn’t tell my brother and I,” Helma said. “We’d find out a week later. We would be told, ‘Your father left something for you or sent something for you,’ but we would never see him.”

This lasted for four years. Hitler’s regime sent three draft notices to the family’s door, eventually informing his family he’d be shot on sight unless he stopped avoiding conscription. German officers would stop by from time to time and ask Helma’s mother where her husband was and how the family could afford to keep eating if he wasn’t around.

“My mother used to lie,” Helma said with a defiant laugh. “She’d say, ‘He’s in Hamburg. He’s on a private fishing boat, and I don’t know what the name of it is.’ They must have looked all over Hamburg for him and couldn’t find him. He was right under their noses.”

Fearing for his and his family’s lives, Helma’s father responded to the third draft notice and joined the German army. At the first possible chance, he and several of his comrades surrendered to American forces on the war’s Western Front.

Back at home, conditions for his family only worsened.

“I can write a book about the nastiness they did,” Helma said of the Nazi soldiers occupying Stockstadt.

Her family was booted out of its house. Relatives were snatched away and taken to concentration camps. Her grandfather was killed when Nazi soldiers heaved bricks at him through his window while he slept. An uncle was placed in a cellar full of cold water and made to swim for 24 hours before being released.

When he came out, Helma said, chunks of skin fell off his body.

After spending three years taking college classes in nearby Darmstadt, Helma’s school was shut down following a series of British airstrikes directed at the city. She returned to find her Nazi-occupied hometown overrun by starvation, thirst and disease.

Almost every able-bodied man had long since left to fight a war the Axis powers were starting to lose. The few resources made available went to the military guard present, not the 1,500 remaining German citizens.

Diarrhea outbreaks were common. A fight Helma and her family attempted to evade was slowly killing them.

One day, she decided she’d had enough.

Early in 1945, less than a year after D-Day, United States Army troops could be spotted building a bridge on the other side of the Rhine from Stockstadt. A citywide decree ordered all adults present — the vast majority of whom were women, children and elderly men — to ban together and fend them off.

Instead, Helma joined a group of roughly 500 women on March 23 and marched toward the Rhine, white towels and banners made from broomsticks and white bed sheets held aloft in a protest of surrender. When they reached the main square, a German lieutenant fired a shot into the air, stating the next one would claim a life unless the mob did as it had been instructed.

Everyone around Helma dove face-first into the ground, some covering their heads.

Not Helma. She stared the soldier, whom she remembers looking about 23 years old, straight in the face and asked, “What do you expect of us?”

“I was trying to reason with an idiot,” she said.

The lieutenant pointed a pistol at her face, paused long enough for Helma to realize she was about to die, and squeezed the trigger. The bullet grazed the top of her skull and sent a thin, red streak of blood sliding down her nose. “He was a good shot,” Helma said.

The next morning, German officers showed up at her mother’s front door to arrest Helma. When her mother protested on the grounds her daughter was only 17 and not yet a legal adult, they incarcerated her mother, too. The pair was dragged to the lieutenant’s quarters, where he sentenced them to be hanged for treason.

Helma still has the arrest warrant.

***

Rebekkah Brunson’s upbringing wasn’t as traumatic as that of her grandmother.

But growing up alongside four siblings in suburban D.C. without a father certainly wasn’t ideal. She was raised among fighters, with her twin brother Matthew and older brother both taking after their grandfather and joining the military.

Matthew and his friends weren’t afraid to push “Bekky,” as her family members call her, around during pickup games. While he helped construct her career-long toughness, Matthew and his younger sister by two minutes formed an unbreakable bond, one still honored in Brunson’s Twitter handle, @twin1532 (Matt Brunson sported No. 15 during his high school playing days, and she wears 32).

“There is no secret between them,” Helma Brunson said. “The twins are the closest of all.”

The pair spent a lot of time at the home of their “Oma” — “old” and “ma” fused together in a German slang-sounding term of endearment. It was Helma that encouraged Brunson to stay close to home and attend Georgetown after she tore apart the AAU circuit and dominated at Oxon Hill High School.

Even by then, she’d cultivated the frame of mind that she was simply going to outwork whoever lined up against her. She was the only girl present on those rundown, outdoor courts, and it didn’t take long for her to realize hustle and grit would pave her path to basketball survival.

“As soon as I started playing basketball, I had that same attitude,” Rebekkah Brunson said. “It didn’t develop later on. That’s just what I did.”

Taking her knack for successful completion of dirty work with her into the heart of the nation’s capital, she graduated as the Hoyas’ all-time leading rebounder — a title she still holds today. The Sacramento Monarchs selected her 10th overall in the 2004 WNBA Draft.

She’d officially turned her lifelong passion into a career.

Her closest companion, meanwhile, served six years in the Army and is now a chef in San Diego. He’s played on the Lynx’s male practice squad and continues to, of course, keep close tabs on Rebekkah’s hoops exploits.

During their younger years, Rebekkah and Matt’s Oma bombarded them with stories and lessons from her childhood days in Nazi Germany, sometimes to the point of annoyance.

But as her career has worn on, the 10-year WNBA veteran has learned to derive more and more meaning from them.

“I’m trying to listen to her more,” Brunson said, “because she has a lot to tell.”

***

Helma begins to show her age when recounting all the details, jumping out of chronological order and dragging the listener on a tangent stream of consciousness that can take minutes to circle back to the story. Her eventual escape from the noose happened about 70 years ago, after all.

But what a tale it is.

Helma, her mother and another protester sat hunkered in a single-room jail cell the afternoon of their arrest, quivering as grenades exploded all around it.

The “Americans” — a company of Puerto Ricans, Helma later learned — had erected their bridge.

Helma and her mother began beating against the cell door with a stool, hoping they’d either break it down or cause enough raucous to capture some favorable attention. Both came to pass, as a family friend who braved the melee on his bicycle snatched the keys from the secretary guarding the cell and let them out.

When the door was opened, it nearly fell off the hinges.

“A couple more whacks and I would’ve knocked it down,” Helma said.

She and her mother avoided bullets sprayed from a nearby church steeple and fled to safety. Not long after they made it to the house they’d been renting, the gunfire stopped. Everything stopped.

It was over.

By this point in the war, the Allies had stormed northern France and pushed into Western Europe, well on their way to claiming victory. On their way into Stockstadt, these particular troops passed a grove of trees full of 14-, 15- and 16-year-old boys hung for refusing to fight, Helma said. A soldier told her a man in a canoe floating down the Rhine alerted them a group of women awaited the same fate just across the river.

All for opting not to “fight tanks with pitchforks,” Helma said.

“We are very much for justice,” Helma said. “I have a lot of guts.”

With their city in ruins, Helma and many other townswomen found jobs on the American military base set up there. Having studied English in school, Helma served as a translator and secretary.

She eventually fell in love with and married a sergeant who was 75 percent American Indian and 25 percent African-American.

For that, she encountered even more adversity as she attempted to follow Rebekkah’s grandfather to the United States.

It took five years for her to gain passport out of a rebuilding Germany into a thriving but still-segregated America. Just before she finally was able to leave for New York and join her husband, a United States Air Force officer — she’d since taken a job at an air base — told her, “If you get to Mississippi, we’ll tar and feather you” on account of her marriage to a black man.

“I’ll come with a machine gun,” Helma retorted.

“You’re a mean, fresh German,” the cadet replied, taken aback.

Helma still didn’t retreat. “I’m a mean fresh human. Take that to Mississippi with you.”

She eventually gave birth to Lucy, Rebekkah’s mother. Helma’s husband died 37 years ago.

***

Rebekkah Brunson had to pack up and move to follow her passion, too. Not across the Atlantic, but across the country.

It took her three years to crack the Monarchs’ regular starting rotation, but that growth period brought with it a WNBA Finals ring in 2005. She learned behind pioneer post Yolanda Griffith, the second-leading offensive rebounder in league history.

Two years later, she emerged as the Rebekkah Brunson devoted Lynx fans have come to revere.

From 2007-09, she never averaged less than 10 points and seven rebounds per game. Those first two Sacramento teams made the playoffs, both falling 1-2 to San Antonio in the first round.

But a franchise-worst-tying 22-loss campaign in 2009 was all the on-court evidence ownership group Maloof Sports and Entertainment needed to discontinue the team’s operations and funnel all their financial resources into a floundering Sacramento Kings organization.

The WNBA tried to find a relocation site for the original-eight member somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area, but there were no takers. Less than a month after news broke their team would be no more, Brunson and her teammates were placed in a dispersal draft.

“I think, initially, there was some shock there,” Brunson said. “I think that was a great franchise. They had a great fan base, and we were doing pretty well, so I don’t think anybody saw that coming.”

She fell into the lap of a group seeking to transcend its own struggles.

Minnesota had endured five straight losing seasons and brought in Reeve to replace Jennifer Gillom, who departed for the Los Angeles Sparks. In addition to selecting Brunson second overall in the dispersal draft — New York snagged Nicole Powell first — the Lynx traded for Lindsay Whalen and drafted Monica Wright. In 2011, they selected Maya Moore first overall.

The personnel resurgence to complement veteran forward Seimone Augustus brought the Twin Cities a title that summer.

It wouldn’t have happened without Brunson, Reeve said.

“Us being able to get her at the No. 2 slot was really important to our success,” said Reeve, who’s been in Minneapolis just as long as Brunson. “Had that not happened, you don’t know what this team looks like.”

In Brunson, the Lynx brought in a scrappy rebounder and defender to create extra possessions for their scorers and match up with opposing teams’ top post players.

She hasn’t disappointed. At all.

In just three-plus years in Minnesota, Brunson has moved into second on the Lynx’s all-time rebounding charts. She needs only 14 boards to eclipse Tamika Raymond’s career mark of 1,028.

Brunson has finished among the WNBA’s top 10 rebounders each of the past six seasons, including top-three totals each of her years with the Lynx. Entering Friday’s game at San Antonio, her 9.1 boards per game rank fourth in the league.

She’s the WNBA’s No. 10 rebounder all-time, a result of ability and ample strength to clear out on defense and zealous ball-hawking on the occasion her teammates miss.

“You compare her and Kevin Love, you could arguably say we have two of the greatest rebounders in basketball here,” Lynx assistant Jim Petersen said. “Defensive rebounding is about technique a lot of times. Offensive rebounding’s about heart and desire.”

Said Reeve: “What I love about Rebekkah is she’s steady. She’s consistent.”

But the transition out of Sacramento didn’t lack growing pains.

While her tenacity in the trenches usually went unmatched, Brunson’s offensive game was one-dimensional until recently. Petersen, who works with Minnesota’s forwards and centers, forced her to develop a mid-range jumper to help stretch the floor — a crucial component of Reeve’s offense.A former professional big man himself, Petersen learned quickly that direct criticism wasn’t the route to take with a headstrong veteran like Brunson.

“She can be a little prickly sometimes when you bring up something about her game, about changing technique or something like that,” the coach said. “So when you realize that about her, you just can’t blurt it out to her. You’ve got to come at her when it’s the right moment.”

Or moments, in this pair’s case. The two regularly spent extra time after practice shooting, sweating and building a close relationship. Brunson still puts up jumpers for 10-15 minutes after nearly every workout and shootaround, and the results have shown in her near-automatic stroke from the elbow that has her scoring in double figures for the seventh straight season.

That’s even with Olympic-level scorers Whalen, Augustus and Moore chewing up plenty of point production and garnering most public-eye attention.

“I let them have their glory,” Brunson said. “They’re great players, and they deserve everything that they get.

“I don’t think that I could’ve chose a better place to be. I love every experience that I’ve had here in Minnesota.”

***

During one of Rebekkah’s games in Sacramento, Helma saw them.

A whole row of arena seats in front of her, each occupied by a man or woman rocking “Brunson” and “32” on the back of a jersey or t-shirt.

“I tapped and said to one of them, ‘How come you are wearing my granddaughter’s shirt?'” Helma recalls with a laugh.

The next thing she knew, those around her were telling her to stand up. She then heard her name over the public address system and saw her own smiling face on the ARCO Arena video board.

Helma could get around a little easier then, but she still ensures her path continues to intersect with that of her granddaughter. Rebekkah calls her on the phone after every game, and Helma tries to attend whenever the Lynx are in Washington to play the Mystics. When Minnesota won its first and only title two years ago, Helma went along for the honorary White House trip.

To Rebekkah’s teammates and coaches, she’s Oma.

“If you know Rebekkah Brunson,” Reeve said, beaming, “you know that Oma is a big part of her life.”

For without Oma, there would be no Bekky.

If she doesn’t stand up to the Nazis and refuse to take up arms, Helma likely never meets her husband. If the Allied army had invaded Stockstadt a day later, the story ends with a rope tied around her throat.

Helma Brunson and her family could have yielded at any point in time. Sworn allegiance to Hitler’s party in exchange for security and safety. Picked up a gun and fired at those hoping to stop him.

But if that was the family history, how would Rebekkah have come to put such value into doing what must be done, no matter the impending consequences?

It’s that outlook that helped her overcome her childhood hurdles. It grips her every time she steps on a basketball court.

“She has an amazing story,” Rebekkah said of her grandmother, just before recording her 60th career double-double in a marquee victory over Eastern Conference frontrunner Atlanta last week. “Before, you don’t really listen to her — it’s just a grandmother talking. But now, I have a greater appreciation for the things that she had to go through.”

And the Lynx have a greater appreciation for her.

“I don’t worry about her,” said Reeve, who will be borderline outraged if Brunson isn’t named to her fourth WNBA All-Star Game when the rosters are announced Thursday. “When I worry, it’s only, ‘Have I told her lately how much we appreciate her?’ That’s probably my only worry is have I done enough to help her understand how important she is?

“She’s just somebody that — again, because she’s so steady and consistent — can be taken for granted sometimes. So we never want to do that with Brunson, because she’s just so vital to what we do.”

It’s a thankless existence, carrying out what’s necessary instead of what’s popular.

But, thanks in large part to Helma, that is all Rebekkah knows.

“They have the flash, and that’s fine,” Rebekkah said of her teammates. “I know that I get what I get from working hard.”

Said Whalen: “She’s always been our rock.”

Sometimes, the most important battles aren’t fought.

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