Sago, Moyer-Gleich enjoy thrills of rise to NBA ranks

Rookie officials in midst of successful move from G League to big stage

When Natalie Sago and Ashley Moyer-Gleich are on the clock, they’re all about precision and focus and authority. Their hair is pulled tight, their uniforms are buttoned down. And the 100-yard stares they’ve developed serve them well when some critic or comedian in the stands gets a little too boisterous.

As first-year NBA referees, they’re all about the job. As first-year female NBA refs, they know they’d better be.

But then a coach calls a timeout, everybody exhales and the reality of where they are and what they’re doing hits both of them. If not for the whistles clenched between their teeth, you might even see them smile.

“I don’t find it intimidating at all,” Sago, 29, said recently about the big stage on which she’s working this season, after climbing the referees’ ladder from high school to college to G League games. “I love it. It really gets me going. It starts with the starting lineups, they turn the lights off and get the flames going. And during the game, when the home team goes on a run, everybody’s on their feet. And I’m like, ‘This is awesome.’

“I’m a big banners girl. During a timeout, I love looking at all the banners, all the history. You let it all soak in. I love the arenas, the fans. It fuels me. Bring it on. I want more.”

Said Moyer-Gleich, whose career timeline has paralleled Sago’s: “These four months have been incredible. So much more special than I ever thought it would be. Growing up playing basketball, I’d been a gym rat, all day, every day for most of my 31 years. But walking into those NBA arenas and putting on my uniform and standing on the court when fans are piling in … even 25 games in, it makes my heart flutter so much. How blessed am I that this is my job?”

Both got the call in November from Michelle Johnson, senior vice president and head of referee operations. Along with Mousa Dagher, Matt Myers and Phenizee Ransom, Sago and Moyer-Gleich were among the five G League referees promoted to full-time NBA status. Brandon Adair already had been added, giving the league six first-year refs for 2018-19.

So far, the “rookies” have done about as well as expected, an encouraging sign and a demonstration that the NBA’s budding minor league can be a reliable proving ground not just for players and coaches but for game officials as well.

“Our coaching feedback has been positive,” said Monty McCutchen, VP and head of referee development and training. “Your first year in the NBA, regardless of your gender, it can be a difficult league to gain acceptance in. We understand and take sort of a long view toward the growth of our officials. What our organizations and coaches and players want is accuracy and will and strength and courage. As we are finding out in many facets of life, those characteristics of life are not gender-specific.

“We recognized the need for the pipeline to grow in this way. Natalie and Ashley have shown the proper skill set, along with the intestinal fortitude, to take this next step. I’m hopeful that in a very few years it won’t seem out of place, it won’t seem special.”

McCutchen wants people to know that — as “progressive” as the NBA’s reputation is, and as willing to lead the way among major sports leagues in trends and social issues — Sago and Moyer-Gleich got this opportunity on merit. They are the fourth and fifth female referees in NBA history, following in the footsteps of Dee Kantner (1997-2002), Violet Palmer (1997-2016) and still-active Lauren Holtkamp, 38.

… Walking into those NBA arenas and putting on my uniform and standing on the court when fans are piling in … even 25 games in, it makes my heart flutter so much. How blessed am I that this is my job?”

NBA referee Ashley Moyer-Gleich

“Ashley and Natalie both earned their spots because they were among the best available for the spots that were open,” McCutchen said. “They happened to be women.

“We can’t sit here and talk about a program of integrity, and then turn around and not honor what it would mean to hire the best officials. I don’t want to be a part of that.”

A warm welcome league-wide

With Holtkamp still rehabbing after suffering a knee injury last spring, Sago and Moyer-Gleich are conspicuous on NBA courts for obvious reasons. But their experiences, like their reception by an overwhelming majority of players and coaches, have been almost by-the-book what newbie refs get regardless of gender.

This is, after all, 2019, not 1999 or 1979 or 1959. Neither spoke of any resistance related to being female. Quite the opposite in some cases, in fact.

“It’s really neat when some of the players come up during warmups, shake your hand and say, ‘Welcome to the league,’ ” Sago said. “That means a lot. It’s a stepping stone to have that player-referee communication. Just to get that started, talking and communicating with players, makes me comfortable that, ‘Hey, I can probably talk to this guy throughout the game.’ That’s really nice.

“The coaches have welcomed me. Those might be more heated interactions throughout my career and I’ve expected that and been ready for that. But so far everything’s been good. Lots of learning and growing moments, which is the beauty of this job.”

Both Sage and Moyer-Gleich advanced last season to the G League’s “enhanced” program for referees. That guarantees them work in at least 50 games, carrying a monthly stipend that serves as “salary” compared to the per-game compensation they get piecing together schedules of G League and NCAA games.

They both still work a few games each month in the minor league, serving as crew chiefs there and mentoring even less experienced officials who are vying for similar careers. As of late February, each had worked about 20 NBA games this season and seven or eight in the G League.

Sago, from Farmington, Mo., got her start as an amateur athlete whose father was refereed high school basketball. He would take her along to his games, and her window into the NBA began as someone who watched the refs as much as most fans focus on the players. She has pinch-me moments now feeling like a peer to veteran officials such as Mike (Duke) Callahan or Ken Mauer whom she used to notice on TV.

Moyer-Gleich, from Harrisburg, Pa., led her Millersville University team to the Division II “Sweet 16” in 2010 before working five years of high school games in Pennsylvania. She was an adjunct professor at Messiah College teaching a sports-wellness course when talent scouts for the NBA’s officiating program noticed and sought her out.

That was her door into the career she cherishes now, one supported and easily understood by her husband Johnee Gleich, who referees men’s NCAA games.

As with Sago, the next bit of pushback will be her first. Whether withstanding an in-the-moment critique from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or telling Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green exactly why she called what she called, Moyer-Gleich hasn’t had to flinch.

“The players have been fantastic. The coaches have been fantastic,” she said. “No one has said anything derogatory in any way about being a female. I’ve had several players come up to me saying, ‘It’s about time. I have daughters…’ It’s a testament to our league and the players we have to be so professional, and accepting and open.

“I’m sure at some point the honeymoon will be over. It will wear off when there are tough games and tough plays, but that’s part of our jobs. But for the first four months, they have been amazing.”

True sense of belonging

Chicago Bulls coach Jim Boylen has had both women work his team’s games. He’s a coaching lifer who came across stylistically as part throwback, part dinosaur when he replaced Fred Hoiberg earlier this season. But not in this area.

“They’re both excellent young officials,” Boylen said. “Great attitudes and work ethics and eye contact. And toughness. You can get on ‘em and they take it.

“I don’t think gender plays a role at all. It’s basketball, y’know? I see an official out there and I respect that. I know that person has worked their ass off to get here, just as we all have.”

Boylen did admit to one gaffe involving the two newcomers. “I’ve called them the wrong name,” he said, laughing. “I called Ashley ‘Natalie’ and Natalie ‘Ashley.’”

That’s OK, though. Sago said, for example, when asking a player to tuck in his jersey, she’ll hear a reflexive “Yes sir” occasionally. “I’m always around the guys. It doesn’t hurt my feelings,” she said.

The logistics of accommodating female referees is old news for the NBA, with dressing rooms and privacy readily available in the wake of Kantner, Palmer and Holtkamp. It’s a pretty enlightened group of colleagues, too, to hear the two tell it.

“We’re new hires,” Moyer-Gleich said, “and a lot of the guys probably feel a little protective over us, whether it’s in a sister way or a daughter way. Guys who we didn’t have a relationship with went out of their way at the start to text me after games saying ‘Good job’ with this or that. It makes you feel a sense of ‘I belong here.’ And that perception, if that’s the aura you’re giving off, the players and the coaches will buy into that.”

There are no special rules regarding physical skirmishes between players, either.

“Really, it comes down to safety,” Moyer-Gleich said. “I had a scrum in December with the Bulls and OKC. It’s scary — these are big guys, so me trying to separate them is not going to do too much. But I also feel when players hear a female’s voice, sometimes that calms them down a little bit.”

It’s the same, too, when the heat is restricted to verbal exchanges. Sago considers herself a “peacemaker.” So even if the goal is for men and women referees to be essentially interchangeable, she wonders if a little less testosterone in the moment can have some benefit.

I don’t think gender plays a role at all. It’s basketball, y’know? I see an official out there and I respect that. I know that person has worked their ass off to get here, just as we all have.”

Bulls coach Jim Boylen, on Moyer-Gleich and Sago

“Some males, they go right back at [a player or coach]. They want to go head-to-head sometimes,” she said. “I feel like, being female, we can defuse things a little easier and quicker.”

Ultimately, the story of Sago’s and Moyer-Gleich’s first NBA seasons is little different from any of the other rookie refs. Same stripes, same whistles, same orientation process to the speed, skills, arenas, travel, personalities and oversight that’s as rigorous as anything air-traffic controllers face. The proof mostly is in the reffing, where it should be.

As for feeling like pioneers here in 2019?

“We were so lucky to have Violet and Dee and Lauren pave the way,” Moyer-Gleich said. “For this next generation where having female referees in men’s games won’t be a shock, they may consider us pioneers. I don’t, [but] I definitely want to inspire the next generation of females and leave a legacy.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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