Autism Fails To Deter Dreams Of Minor League Basketball Player
Johnny Dombrowski has defied the odds, working incessantly to play college ball and earning a roster spot with the Western Mass Zombies.
SPRINGFIELD, MA — In a 159-97 East Coast Basketball League victory last Saturday over the Lehigh Valley Flight, 10 members of the Western Mass Zombies scored in double figures. Among them was a young guard named Johnny Dombrowski, who made his minor league debut by coming off the bench to score 15 points, including a dozen in the final quarter. It may have been his first taste of success at this level, but it continued a trend which has seen him overcome the odds against everything thrown his way for most of his life.
When he was three, Dombrowski was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He began walking at an average age, but his motor skills and speaking ability were considerably behind normal levels. At four, he spoke his first word (for the record, it was “ball”), but academics and social skills were very difficult for him to handle.
The Leominster, Mass. native attended high school at the Dearborn Academy, a top special education day school in Arlington, six miles northwest of Boston. Not only did he begin to emerge socially, but his constant work on the basketball court made him a true standout.
As a freshman in high school, Dombrowski attended a camp at Basketball City in Boston, conducted by 2021 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinee Paul Pierce. Dombrowski earned Most Valuable Player honors at the camp and won a trophy and a pair of LeBron James headbands, one of which he gave away to a first-grader.
In 2017, Dombrowski enrolled at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, making the dean’s list with a 3.3 GPA. He also continued his prowess on the hardwood, leading the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region XXI in 3-point shooting percentage (49.0) and free throw percentage (92.4). The outside shooting specialist actually averaged better from beyond the arc than his overall field goal percentage of 48.5; he also grabbed an average of 5.3 rebounds per contest.
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Dombrowski averaged 20.2 points a game in his first season at QCC, reaching double figures in scoring in 24 of 25 games (he tallied nine in the other game). On Jan. 20, 2018, he canned 7 of 10 attempts from 3-point land, accounting for a school-record 47 points in a game against Quincy College. At the annual Worcester Area College Basketball Association banquet in 2018, he received the Patrick Oroszko Courage Award, which recognizes a person who has overcome obstacles, displays courage and has a love for Worcester basketball.
He moved on to Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass., majoring in social work and playing basketball for two seasons as a reserve guard. His high scoring output for the AmCats was 15 points in a Jan. 29, 2019 game at Pine Manor College.
After completing college, Dombrowski tried out for and made the Derry Rockets team in the semi-pro American Basketball Association, but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 canceled the season. He made his way to the Zombies as a tryout attendee in 2021.
“He came in with a lot of fire and heart from the first day,” head coach and general manager Brian Stasaitis said. “He has a lot of passion for the game of basketball.”
Dombrowski did not see any playing time in the season opener for the defending Mid-Atlantic Conference champions, a 116-105 overtime victory over the Philly Raiders, but did not let frustration get the better of him. He made his long-awaited debut a week later, full of the same vigor, fire and intensity which has become his trademark on the court.
“Johnny has an incredible work ethic,” Stasaitis said. “He always wants to learn and wants to do whatever is necessary to make his teammates better. He plays every possession with 100 percent. His teammates appreciate the hard work and passion he has for the game of basketball. This was evident on Saturday, when Johnny scored 15 points off the bench and they were cheering him on.”
His debut came in the presence of basketball royalty, as the legendary Rick Barry, special team adviser to the Zombies, was in attendance. Barry got off the bench and spoke to Dombrowski after he was called for a technical foul following an emotional display after a basket.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Dombrowski said in a postgame interview. “I love each and every one of these guys, I’ve been learning a lot from everybody, and my favorite part about being on this team is competing against more advanced competition.”
Barry interjected, “And the best part about tonight was I got Johnny to smile.”
With considerable depth at the guard position, finding a lot of playing minutes may not be easy for Dombrowski.
“It is still early in the season and we have a lot of guys who can provide meaningful contributions,” Stasaitis said. “I think that Johnny’s desire, work ethic and attitude will get him opportunities to be on the floor.”
In a 2019 interview at Anna Maria, Dombrowski said, “I struggled with social and learning issues. It was tough for me to make friends and I had my fair share of being left out and excluded by my peers. I want to send a message to people who have trouble learning, who have what I have. I want them to know if you have a passion, you have to pursue it. My grind has never stopped. My main mission is to finish the fight no matter how hard it is, no matter what the obstacles are. I’m going to keep pushing through this journey. It’s been a really, really good one.”