In the history of United States high school basketball, only one team from a Jewish school had ever won a boys basketball State Championship—until Saturday, March 11, 2023.
That’s when the Denver Jewish Day School Tigers took the court at Budweiser Event Center and wrote their names in the history books with a dominant win over Belleview Christian. The final score was 55-42, ending the most successful season in Denver JDS history, and making the school home to the second Jewish boys basketball team in U.S. history to win a State Championship
In a twist worthy of a Hollywood screenplay, the win was the final game for the Tigers’ coach, Michael Foonberg. After 17 years at Denver JDS, Foonberg is retiring. Four days after the win, he had not yet returned to earth.
“I am still on cloud nine, and I think that feeling will last forever,” he said. “To win this championship for this school and for these kids—it’s a dream come true. It’s been a great run coaching Jewish kids and making them the best basketball players they can be.”
Keeping that Hollywood story going, Foonberg’s son, Gavin, a senior stand-out player who had averaged 18 points and 8 assists per game during the regular season, was named 1A Player of the Year. He said the team played for the championship with the goal of becoming the second Jewish basketball team to earn the trophy.
“We definitely had that in mind during practice and leading up to the tournament,” Gavin said. “We thought that winning this would be amazing for us, for the school, and for the Jewish community.”
Foonberg had coached four of the seniors on the team since they were in Kindergarten: Gavin, Jonathan Noam, Ilan Schinagel, and Andrew Zimmerman.
“I remember Kindergarten!” laughed Jonathan. “We were called the “Mini-Tigers,” we had red mohawks, and we would play during the halftime of the varsity game.”
The coach and seniors had trained for thousands of hours over 13 years, played hundreds of games, and finally, as Foonberg said, “got it done together.”
“Our fans and the entire Jewish community are our family,” Jonathan added. “That was the idea that kept us motivated—that we are doing this for our family.”
‘I need you to have a big game’
Foonberg’s tenure at Denver JDS started in 2006 with a casual conversation. The school was looking for a coach. Was he interested? Yes, he was. Basketball, he says, “is a passion for me.”
Seventeen years later, Foonberg felt like this senior class would be the one that could go all the way. What they lacked in size—Andrew Zimmerman is the tallest player at 6’2” and Gavin is 5’6”—they made up for with smarts.
“It comes down to fundamentals,” Foonberg said. “Do you play the right way, do you take care of the basketball, are individual players willing to sacrifice for the sake of the team? This team had the chemistry, the same values, the drive to win. Most important, they had the intelligence. They could play smart and overcome their lack of size by playing the right way.”
They were smaller players from a small school—but that may have worked in their favor.
“At Denver JDS, we have a tight-knit community,” said Ilan. “We are on the same page when we are playing all the time.”
The team also played the championship game with a lot of heart. Hobbled with a serious hamstring injury, Gavin had to change his offensive strategy. Instead of driving to the basket, he had to count on sinking three-pointers—so he did a little coaching of his own.
“Gavin told me that ‘I need you to have a big game, and I need you to score,” said Ilan.
“I told him, ‘If you take 20 shots, and we still lose, no one will blame you,’” Gavin explained.
By the closing buzzer, Ilan led all scorers with 25 points, and even injured, Gavin scored 14 points.
Their teammate Jonathan came into the final game after playing several games with a painful calf.
“Everyone thought it was cramping, so they were using a massage gun, and heating pads, and having me eat bananas and drink pickle juice,” he laughed. “But I just kept playing. I think it was adrenaline.”
When the pain did not subside after the game, Jonathan finally had it checked out. Turns out, he had been playing on a ruptured calf muscle—so all his post-game celebrating was done in an orthopedic boot.
‘We are a mishpacha’
In his years at Denver JDS, Foonberg has shared his passion for basketball with countless students. Of his three assistant coaches—Matan Halzel, Todd Tyrrell, and Sam Robart—two (Halzel and Rotbart) are alumni who played for him as students. In a high school of about 80 students, he estimates that roughly 30 of the 40 boys play basketball.
“To have the opportunity to play high school sports is unbelievable,” he said. “Whether it’s 6A or 1A, you get the camaraderie of being on a team, and that’s a great experience.” The love that Foonberg feels for his players is reciprocated. “Coach Foonberg is a phenomenal coach,” Andrew said. “At the end of the game, I gave him a big hug because he has helped me through a lot. He has a super good feel for the game, and he is good at motivating people to be their best selves.” Now that he won’t be coaching in the winter, Foonberg plans to do more skiing. He will miss the competition, he said, but feels confident that he has left Denver JDS with a solid basketball program, one where “if you play the right way and you believe, anything can happen.” “We feel great bringing this trophy back to Denver JDS because the school has given us so much,” added Andrew. “We are a band of brothers who will do anything for each other no matter what. We are a mischpacha.”