Female officials Q&A Part 1: Path to the NBA
This season has seen a record 7 female referees officiate at least one game in the NBA.
Julia Adams & Mason Leib
This season, there have been a record 7 female NBA referees who officiated at least one game. In the first section of a two-part interview, each official shares their path to the NBA and the role that basketball has played in their respective lives. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What role has basketball played in your life and how did it lead to a career as an official?
Natalie Sago: Basketball’s played a huge role in my life. My dad just retired from basketball officiating last season and he refereed for 35 years. I’m 31 years old, so that’s my entire life. I’ve grown up in a gym. My brother and I both played basketball growing up and in high school.
I played college softball at the Division II level. Then my dad, as I got older, he really wanted me to get into officiating and try it. All he and his buddies would say, ‘You could be good at this. You grew up in the gym.’
I rode with my dad to a lot of his games. My mom would drag me and my brother to his games when we were little. Once I got old enough to understand what was going on and what his role was, I was like, this was really interesting. I loved going and watching him and all of his buddies, and all of the friendships that I watched him build – the comradery with one another, the relationships with coaches and table crews. It goes as far as the janitors that get them into the locker rooms and get them everything that they need.
After I got done playing college softball, I moved back home to St. Louis and finished my teaching degree. I finally was like, all right, let me just give this a shot. I tried it out and actually my first time doing it, I did not like it. There’s so much pressure. I got grandma yelling up here in the third row. I got all these moms wanting to jump down my back. I was blowing my whistle, which is the first step, but I wasn’t doing anything else. I wasn’t pointing. I wasn’t saying if there was a foul. This [referee experience] isn’t the same for me. I grew up watching [my dad], but it’s way different when you get out there and try to do [officiate a game]. I tried it again a few weeks later and something just clicked. I loved it. They couldn’t get me out of the gym and I just went from there.
I told my dad that I was serious about it and wanted to get my high school certification. I did [get high school certification] in the state of Missouri and I worked high school. Then, I just worked my way up college – D-III to D-II to D-I. I did a little bit of Division I, and that’s when the [NBA] D League wanted me to try-out. I worked there for four years, worked in the WNBA for three years, and now I’m in my third year as an NBA referee.
Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling: I’ve loved the sport of basketball since I can remember. I started playing as a kid and played up through high school. I played Division II college ball and then started officiating as soon as I was finished playing. Here I am 16 years later, still officiating from the time I started. Basketball has always been an important part of my life.
Ashley Moyer-Gleich: I started playing basketball at a very young age. My dad played basketball. He really was that role model for me and taking on the love of the sport at a young age. I first started loving basketball probably before I could even walk and I was going around the playground with him. I was just a toddler on the sidelines watching him play.
Basketball has always been in my blood. Played in high school, went to college, and played Division II. After I finished my undergrad studies, I went back to school and got my master’s degree. I was the graduate assistant for the women’s basketball team.
I always thought when I got done playing, I would coach. Never thought that I would turn into being a referee or it was never an interest of mine growing up anyways. A family friend who was a referee suggested that I get into officiating. I was pretty apprehensive at first. I kind of turned them down one or two different times and I was like, no, no that’s not what I want to do. He explained that even if I didn’t get into refereeing, I could just take the test and it could be a resume builder when I did start applying for coaching jobs. I went into the test, which had some on-court training stuff with officiating, and I just fell in love with it immediately.
At that point, I was 24 and had played basketball for at least 20, 22 years. I was learning the sport that I thought I knew all over again from a completely different lens that I absolutely loved. Being young and having a feel for the game, my progression in the officiating world – high school to college and then getting recognized in the G League program – happened pretty fast. That transition from playing my whole life into becoming a referee was very fluid and definitely fit. I felt very comfortable being out on the court and that’s just a testament to having always played.
Simone Jelks: Basketball played a very substantial role in my life. Basketball pretty much saved my adolescents because adolescents can be a very challenging time. Being on the basketball court was one of the few environments where I truly felt comfortable and actually felt accepted. I felt like it’s OK to be different. My strength and resilience was just really defined [by basketball] at an early age. I have a lot to be grateful for when it comes to basketball. It’s great.
Dannica Mosher: I don’t think you know the role until you start looking back at it. I look at growing up, playing YMCA, and then all through middle school and high school. When I got to college, [refereeing] kind of fell into my lap. I played intramurals and then somehow got into reffing for an extra $8 a game. You don’t know what it did until you look back at it, but it’s huge because I just love the sport. When I couldn’t play in college and I was able to pick up reffing as a side gig – that was awesome. It’s a huge role in retrospect, but at the time you’re like, ‘This is just a side gig.’ Now, it’s like, ‘This is what I do.’ You get to stay in the game you love. I’ve played it. I’ve loved it. I’ve watched it. Now, I just get to work at it – that’s great.
Jenna Schroeder: I started playing when I was about 10 years old. I played in high school. I had a college scholarship to play basketball, so thankfully I didn’t have to pay for schooling. While I was playing basketball in high school and college, I was refereeing on off days. I got into it, so that transformed into playing and refereeing.
Once I graduated from college, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life. I graduated in 2009 during the financial crisis. I started bartending. I didn’t really use my degree. I was slinging beers one night, refereeing the next night until I got to the point where I actually could make refereeing a career. From there, I was refereeing women’s college [games] and I got into the NBA G League, then the WNBA, and then the NBA two years ago.
Danielle Scott: Basketball has taught me a lot of lessons. It’s important to enjoy all the ebbs and flows of your journey. You’re going to make mistakes, but it’s how you recover from those mistakes and your talk when no one is watching that truly matters. My parents were both referees, so I’ve been around basketball my entire life. I’ve probably been in every gym up and down the California coast, at least at one point. I knew that I wanted to start my own career. So, I started officiating my freshman year of college.
What is the biggest challenge that you’ve had to face in becoming an NBA official?
Holtkamp-Sterling: I think that what is the biggest challenge to becoming an NBA official is also what is so rewarding about becoming an official. The training is just so extensive and it’s intense on the front end. I was part of the D-League for six years and I refereed in the WNBA for four years and I’m in my seventh season in the NBA. I think that because the game is always evolving, so is our training and that’s both the challenge of it and what is so gratifying about the work.
Sago: My path has been different. My path has been very fast because I’ve only been refereeing for a total of seven years of my life from when I picked up that first whistle to referee that AAU game and I didn’t like it. It’s been very fast. The most challenging part, especially getting in the NBA, is showing those guys – the coaches, players, owners, and general managers – that we belong out here, no matter race, gender, whatever. It is the abilities. If we have the ability to do the job, just like our male counterparts, then we should be out there as well. Just showing them that we belong as females. That’s probably been the toughest part, but I’m in my third year now. I’ve had great experiences so far, so it’s been great.
Moyer-Gleich: A lot of the people think the biggest challenge is the players or the coaches – that we’re not going to be accepted. My personal experience is it’s been quite the opposite. The players and the coaches when I came in – this is my third season now – they were literally welcoming Natalie [Sago] and me when we got hired together with open arms, and definitely seemed very supportive and encouraging. We’re backing the NBA, really trying to push the boundaries in hiring women, gender equality, and making those opportunities available for women to become professional NBA referees.
The biggest challenge for me, I think coming into this arena is believing in myself, because it’s so new, you know? [Former NBA referees] Dee [Kanter] and Violet [Palmer], Lauren [Holtkamp-Sterling], Natalie, and myself, and now with Jenna [Schroeder] and Simone [Jelks] as full-time referees, we’re breaking barriers and we’re kind of crossing that threshold of what’s the new normal. Sometimes when you’re doing new challenges, it can create insecurities and self-doubt. Going out on a daily basis and doing this job with extremely powerful strong-willed men – players, coaches. Ninety percent of the rest of the staff are management — it’s all male-dominated. Really being able to look in the mirror and tell myself I belong here, I deserve to be here and stepping out with that confidence. That’s been the obstacle from when I first started three years ago to now I feel like I can walk out on the court and really feel like I do belong here, even though I’m the minority and I’m not, ‘this is a female in a man’s world’, but I do genuinely think that I belong there as well, as well as my other counterpart female officials.
Jelks: The biggest challenge is just constantly reminding yourself that you are enough – being a woman, being Black. It’s a profession with constant criticism. This is a very thankless job, and so I think the biggest challenge is to every day realize your self-worth, remind yourself that you are enough and that you are capable.
Mosher: It’s just challenging to get to this level. I would say life was more of a challenge in deciding which path I want to take because I was focused on being a doctor at the time and then this fell into my lap. So, that was more of a challenge in life and deciding where I wanted to go. This decision became easy when it presented itself to me. As far as challenges on the floor, I haven’t really gotten there cause I’m kind of new, but basketball is just basketball. Life is the more complicated issue.
Schroeder: I don’t think people understand the work we do off the floor and actually what it takes to get into the NBA. I can just tell you my experience. From the time I got into the G League, I refereed the G League in the winter and I was still reffing women’s college. Summertime, you ref the WNBA all year long, then you do it [all over] again. G league [games] and college [games] all winter, W [games] all summer, college all winter, W all summer. I did that for three years straight. I was literally on the road for three years straight. I live in Detroit and I was never there for three years traveling.
It’s such a grind, but you could taste [the opportunity to become an NBA referee]. You’re so close and you can’t be like, ‘No, thanks.’ I’m not going to do that. You’re like, ‘All right, where do you want me to go next?’ I’m trying to get this job.
Scott: I tend to be pretty hard on myself when I make mistakes. It’s been an adjustment for me to give myself a little bit of grace because there’s always a learning curve when you’re entering into a new arena.
Who inspired you to become an official?
Sago: My dad. I’ve been in the gym since I was born. My mom would take us in our car seats and we would sit there and watch. Then, I went everywhere. When I got old enough to go by myself with him and sit by myself in the stands, I did that. So, yeah, my dad has been a very big role model for me in this business.
Holtkamp-Sterling: When I think back on my coaches as an early athlete, there were just some incredible coaches who are also women. Seeing their place in sport was really inspiring for me. I also knew that coaching was not what I was interested in. Knowing that I could have a career in sport in a way that they represented, their representation showed me that. Finding a path that I was more interested in than coaching, which was officiating. Early on, the opportunities to even get on the floor with a high school association came through the father of a teammate that I played with in college. He said, ‘Hey, come to our meeting, let’s see if you’d like this – and I did, I loved it.
I think back on both the early representation of women in sport, in my life, and coupled with the opportunity to show up and just try officiating at a time where there weren’t a lot of women represented in the same way that we’re seeing movement now towards that. That combination was magical for me.
Jelks: Life events inspired me because it was never a dream of mine as a child [to become an official]. It was just the way things kind of worked out in my path – going from being an official as a high school part-time job to retiring from playing as an athlete to picking up officiating. I just think it was God’s way of kind of guiding me to what he wanted me to do.
Schroeder: I would probably say Lauren Holtkamp – she was it. When I got in the G League, Violet [Palmer] had retired and Lauren was the only woman in the NBA at the time. I’m sure a few of the ladies feel the same way. She was doing what we all wanted to do. She was really great because she took a majority of us under her wing, showed us the way and was always there to help answer questions. That was really nice.
Scott: Both of my parents inspired me tremendously just seeing them in their careers as officials and how they impacted not only myself, but a lot of other people was awesome. At a young age, I knew that it was something that I was super passionate about. I tell them that I’m carrying the family torch now.
What is your fondest NBA officiating memory?
Mosher: This is my first year. At halftime [of one game], I was walking to the locker room and one player tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hell of a half.’ I was like, wow. They notice when we do a good job – that was just awesome. Knowing that it was one of my first games that somebody noticed that I was doing OK. That was pretty cool.
Sago: Having my parents and my brother and a bunch of my family and friends at my very first game in Memphis — I’ll never forget that. It was pretty surreal to walk out there and see all of them, especially for my mom and dad and my brother because we’re a very close family. I have one older brother and sports is our life. We eat, sleep, breathe it and talk about it all the time. So just to see all three of them up there in the crowd, it was really awesome.
My dad has been my biggest role model as a referee, but my mom and brother have been right there along the way, too. I probably don’t give them enough credit that I should because everybody always asks about my dad. My mom, she tailors my uniforms and makes me look good out there. And then my brother he’s always pushed me growing up and just playing in the backyard with him and all of his buddies. I can’t wait until they can travel again with me.
Jelks: It wasn’t a moment that happened on the court – it was actually a moment with my parents. My first NBA game was at Golden State. My parents and I happened to be connecting at the same airport on the same airline on the same flight. I ran into my parents coming off of the plane and just kind of looking at them en route to attend their daughter’s first NBA game was very sentimental for me.
Moyer-Gleich: My fondest NBA officiating memory is my first preseason game when I was non-staff. It was in Oklahoma City and a bunch of the girls – Natalie, Jenna, and several of the G League female referees – all came down to the game. I could hear them. I can remember walking out on the court and it almost brought tears to my eyes, seeing them in the stands and cheering for me. It was nice that we could hang out after the game and go for dinner, and just really get to celebrate. Having that memory of my first game and having those girls take time out of their busy schedules, away from their families to be there and support me, I’ll never forget that it was really truly incredible.
Schroeder: Obviously, the game with me and Natalie [officiating together] was the highlight of my professional career. Absolutely. There’s no doubt about that.
We knew we were going to work together when the schedule came out on Christmas Eve. … We were very surprised because we knew it had never been done before – then we just continue to work our [game] schedule. We have to focus. We’re in the season and we’re in a pandemic and it’s a lot going on.
I was in Orlando first because I had [to officiate] back-to-back [games]. I did my first game fine. Then, I wake up the morning of the game, do our game day meeting and all of a sudden social media just blows up. [ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski] Woj got a hold of it and he [tweeted the news]. It was a wrap from there. It was just absolutely blowing up.
That in itself was a really cool experience that I had never experienced. To be able to have somebody to share that with [in Natalie] – because I’m sure it would have been daunting if it was just something about me. It was cool to share that experience with Natalie as well.
Scott: It’s definitely when I was invited to be on the floor and work games this season. My mom was with me when I got the call. I was able to share the moment with her and that just meant the world to me. I looked back at that moment and it was like a new chapter in my life. It’s just been an absolute blast working with and learning from everyone. They’ve been super welcoming to me and I appreciate that.