“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.