Basketball has a rich and storied history of dynamic duos who are known on a first-name basis such as Magic and Kareem, Michael and Scottie, and LeBron and Dwyane. Now, a pair of rookies at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine are making a name for themselves through their volunteer efforts on the court.

While gaining a handle on their studies as first-year medical students, David Ogburn and Zach Johnson also assisted as partners on a Roanoke-based Special Olympics basketball team. Partners are individuals who play alongside the athletes with intellectual or developmental disabilities, establishing meaningful relationships and helping them gain court skills.

“It’s very rewarding personally, and it’s an opportunity to give back to a community that doesn’t always get the representation that it deserves,” said Ogburn, who previously volunteered with the Special Olympics in his home state of North Carolina. “During my tenure with Special Olympics, I’ve been able to help a child with autism get into the swimming pool and learn to swim. I’ve helped a team of individuals with lower support needs play in the national basketball tournament. It’s amazing to help people achieve their goals and bring some normalcy to a community where that’s not always present. It has changed me in so many ways.”

As partners, Ogburn and Johnson cannot shoot or influence the outcome of a game. Instead, they can play the role of point guard, bringing the ball up the court and directing teammates how to move around on offense and defense.

David Ogburn dribbles the basketball up the court during a Roanoke Grizzlies game.
As a partner, first-year medical student David Ogburn (wearing No. 24) helps to dribble the ball up the court for his Special Olympics teammates. He said volunteering with the Special Olympics has been life-changing. Photo courtesy of Gia Koehler.

Johnson, a Colorado native who looks more the part of a center at a lanky 6-feet-6, said being involved with the Special Olympics has given him a much-needed athletic outlet during the mental challenges of the first year of medical school.

“Sports were such a big part of my childhood, but once you get into college, sports aren’t really a thing for most people. That can leave a big gap in your life. It has been great for me to remain active playing basketball while having fun too,” he said. “After all the positives that sports have given me, it’s really cool to help a group of people who may not always have that opportunity get a chance at the same experiences I had.”

Ogburn became involved with the Special Olympics after seeing his mother work as an occupational therapist with clients who had physical and developmental disabilities. It led him to want to help also. When he relocated to Roanoke for medical school, he looked up the region’s Special Olympics teams and recruited Johnson to team up. 

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our ability to provide opportunities for athletes and teams has been a challenge. We are striving to increase participation in the next few years, and volunteers like David and Zach are a big part of that,” said Brooke Hall, who helps coordinate Special Olympics in the Roanoke Region along with her husband, Bo Hall, the area director. “With all they have going on as medical students, David and Zach have been amazing as partners.”

Zach Johnson joins the handshake line following a Roanoke Grizzlies basketball game.
Zach Johnson (second from left) joins the handshake line after a game with the Roanoke Grizzlies. He said volunteering with the Special Olympics has given him the chance to help others while staying active in sports and having fun. Photo courtesy of Gia Koehler.

Ogburn and Johnson played with the Roanoke Grizzlies team, which is part of the Special Olympics Virginia Area 8. The team’s coach was April Staton, the City of Salem sheriff.

“Zach and David provided a tremendous boost to our team this year. Both were very engaging and supportive of the athletes and have personalities that make interacting with them seem like we've known them for a lifetime,” she said. “They added so much joy to our team, especially our athletes. No doubt Zach and David will be tremendous assets in the medical field.”

The Grizzlies had the opportunity to play in two tournaments, including one at Cassell Coliseum, which is fitting because Virginia Tech is a Special Olympics Unified Champion School. In February, Virginia Tech became the first university in the commonwealth to receive national banner recognition for its efforts to provide inclusive sports for persons with and without disabilities. 

Also in February, Ogburn and Johnson were first-time players in the Docs for Morgan basketball fundraiser that the medical school hosts annually with co-sponsor Carilion Clinic. The event, which was held for the 11th straight year, pits medical students against residents and physicians in support of the Morgan Dana Harrington Memorial Scholarship fund. In a typically hard-fought game, the doctors defeated the students 48-44.   

“It got pretty intense, but everyone was there for a great cause,” Johnson said. “I will absolutely be back next year. The students will need to get after it in practice, though, if we want payback.” 

Players from both teams gather with the trophy after the 2023 Docs for Morgan basketball game.
David Ogburn and Zach Johnson joined the student team (in maroon) for the 2023 Docs for Morgan basketball fundraiser. The doctors team handed the students a tough loss, but David and Zach say they will be back next year to play for this worthy cause. Photo by Ryan Anderson for Virginia Tech.

The Special Olympics games may not be quite as fierce as Docs for Morgan, but they have given Ogburn and Johnson a way to connect with the community and meet new teammates. They both plan to continue playing as partners in the future, and are hoping to be involved with other Special Olympics sports that are available in the area such as swimming, youth soccer and bowling.

“My previous commitment with Special Olympics was pretty much year-round. I’d like to keep that up if possible and try to get more medical students participating too,” Ogburn said. “It would be very cool if by the time the next class enters, we have an affiliation that could help them become involved early on.”

As for the duo their game is most reminiscent of, Johnson said: “Shaq and Kobe!”


Share this story