Kevin Durant had just fumbled a behind-the-back pass from Golden State Warriors teammate Stephen Curry when an opposing player bumped him. Durant lost his balance and collided with a referee, the two of them crashing into a cameraman seated behind the baseline. Durant asked the ref, "Are you OK?" and she replied, "Oh my gosh, I am. Are you OK?" He was, and after a teammate helped him get to his feet, Durant did the same for the ref.
"It was just this really human moment," says Lauren Holtkamp, the referee. "There was this mutual concern for each other's well-being that you don't typically see game to game. Then we immediately moved on to the next play."
The harmless collision happened last year, Holtkamp's third as an NBA referee. It took her just 10 years to go from working middle school games in Springfield, Missouri, her first paid ref gig, to the pinnacle of the profession. At first, Holtkamp viewed refereeing as a fun hobby, a way to stay connected to the sport she played at Drury University. While getting her master's degree and working at Emory University, she paid to attend college referee camps. She caught the eye of supervisors and was hired in the Peach Belt Conference.Later, she earned an invite to the NBA Developmental League, where she received top-notch training and was hired into the D-League. Two years later, she was in the WNBA, and in 2014 she reached the NBA.
In a league where all the players and head coaches are men, Holtkamp, 36, is the only female ref and just the third whistle-blowing woman in NBA history. In her words, Holtkamp discusses her path to the NBA, how she maps out game day and the nuances of the job most fans don't realize.
When I do an interview about my job, there will inevitably come a question about the gender aspect because I'm the only woman. That, in and of itself, creates a unique dynamic because it's an opportunity for self-reflection that my male colleagues don't get. It's hard for me to say how I experience things differently than my male colleagues because I've never done this work as a male. I have had equal access to training, resources and opportunities right alongside all of my colleagues. I've felt supported in the work and it's been a viable work environment for me.
Getting in the game
At first it was a fun hobby. I was in grad school at Emory University in Atlanta getting my master's and working for the university when I paid to attend some college referee camps. I wanted to stay connected to the game. At camps, you work in front of supervisors who evaluate you and decide if they want to include you on their staff for the upcoming season. I was hired, first in the Peach Belt Conference in Division II. I also attended former NBA ref George Toliver's officiating school. That got me an invite to the NBA developmental league. There, I got the best training in the world, so I knew regardless of whether I got a job in the WNBA or NBA, I'd come out a better referee.
I got hired in the D-League and worked there at the same time I was taking classes and working for the school. I loved officiating but I was still uncertain which career path I would choose. I had to put a lot of money into it before I was really making anything. You've got to be able to have the resources to do that.
As I got more involved in the training and realized the opportunities that were out there, I became more committed to the process. I got hired by the WNBA after two years in the D-League and realized I wanted to pursue a career in the NBA. After six years of professional basketball officiating, I reached the NBA in 2014.
When you're a young referee trying to get hired or coming into a new league, you only know what you know. You have to learn quickly to be comfortable with constructive criticism. And you have to become your own toughest critic. In this line of work, if you're not on an endless pursuit of self-improvement, you'll fizzle out.
The NBA has a system in which every decision in the game is evaluated. In any given game, our crew will make thousands of decisions. Just one possession may have at least 10 decisions, which can occur whether we put air in the whistle or not. The league has stats on all of us. We get notes from our supervisors on our positioning and decision-making. In the locker room immediately after games, we as a crew watch tape of the most critical plays. Back in the hotel I'll break down the full tape by myself or with the crew chief. And once a month we each submit five or six written game breakdowns to the league. There are a lot of layers of evaluation.
Referees working youth games who want to move up or improve should have someone in the stands film them. The tape breakdown is going to lead to the largest jump in growth, especially if there is a veteran ref who can watch it with you and give you feedback.
We get our schedule a month in advance. We have to be in the city the night before the game, unless we're on a back-to-back. The day of the game, we have a morning meeting around 10:30 or 11. I may not have worked with either of the other refs for several months. We review rules, any memos the basketball operations office has sent out, and our "playbook," which includes our positioning on the court, our mechanics and our playcalling. After, I do a light workout and take a nap.
I'm at the arena 90 minutes before tipoff. In the locker room, we go over matchups. Knowing the style of play for the teams and players helps. If a team regularly uses its bigs to set screens, we cover our guidelines for the legality of screeners. A big thing now is early offense -- shooting only six seconds into the shot clock -- so that will affect my positioning.
If it's a 7:00 game, we're typically off the floor by 9:30. We watch tape in the locker room for 30 minutes or so, clean up and head to dinner. We're back in the hotel by 11 or 11:30 and do a full tape breakdown for a couple hours before bed. When I wake up, I head to the airport, arrive in the next city and do it all over again.
Within our crew, we have a crew chief, referee and umpire, based on experience. The crew chief is the veteran, but when we take the floor all of us have equal responsibility for everything that happens. Our movement is designed like a triangle. The lead referee for a given possession is at the baseline on the ball side. The trail ref is at the 28-foot mark, on the same side of the floor. The slot ref is near the free throw line extended on the other side. To maintain our angles, we always stay in that triangle. The lead official sets us up for the most effective coverage in the half-court set. If the ball swings, the lead ref rotates to the other side of the court and the trail and slot refs switch places. Any time there is a foul and one ref reports to the table, we all switch places, so every member of the crew works all spots throughout a game. Next time you go to a game, for a few minutes, just watch the referees and how we move, and you'll notice the triangle.
There are technical aspects of the job, like learning to run and breathe with a whistle in your mouth. But there are very important intangible elements -- we call it court presence and command of situation. On the court, you are never not refereeing. When you're watching as a fan, you're paying attention to when the ball is live. It's just as important to referee when the ball is dead because there might be a bump or a taunt. And even if there's not unsportsmanlike conduct, I'm always taking in information about how players are interacting. Court presence is being able to have as much information in one moment as you can, as well as maintaining a sense of professionalism and calm. The "will to win" in an NBA game is a strong force. We want to bring a sense of calm to an otherwise high-energy, high-stimulation environment.
I interact a lot more with players in the NBA than I did as a college ref, when it was mostly with coaches. Communication is unique in the NBA not just because I am dealing with so many different personalities but because we have such a short time to talk. If there are two foul shots, I've got that time to hear a player's comment, respond if appropriate, have a good resolution, close it out and move on to the next play. That happens in a span of five to 10 seconds. And that's a long conversation. Many times you only have a couple of seconds to communicate. And often that means just listening. That's an important form of respect -- being able to listen and not needing to have the last word. Or maybe I'll say, "That's an important question, but I'll have to get back to you during the next dead ball."
Keeping up with world-class athletes
I've had to learn what works for my body so I can maintain the appropriate level of energy throughout the season. The travel is challenging. By the second half of the season it takes a toll. Physical fitness, eating habits and sleep are hugely important. During the season, I'll use an elliptical or treadmill and get to 10,000 steps a day. I'll do some light weight training and core work. The stronger my core, the better my back and knees feel. Most of this is done in hotel fitness rooms. In the offseason, I can play around a little more. I love to be outdoors, so I'll bike or swim, and I started paddleboarding since moving to Florida in April.
Most fans think the block-charge call is the most difficult. For me, it is an out-of-bounds call, especially on the baseline. If several bodies go after a rebound the ball can ricochet off fingertips, knees, feet, jerseys, all in a split second. Thankfully we can use replay during the last two minutes of the fourth period if we have doubt, because a possession is critical.
I also get asked a lot about traveling violations. The traveling rule in the NCAA is written differently than it is in the NBA. In the NBA, the player's motion to "gather" the ball does not count as a step. They get two steps after the gather. What is a travel in college is not always called in the NBA because the rules are different.
Thankless, but rewarding
It really matters why you're doing the job. As a player, I competed because I loved the game, I wanted my team to win, I wanted recognition from my coach. As a referee, it's different. Your motivation can't be about external gratitude. We'll never have a perfect game, but we're striving for excellence.
After my experience during my first year with Chris Paul, I just thought, "OK, back to work." Whatever noise is happening around anything else, to step on the floor is sort of that calming, comfortable, quiet space, which is kind of crazy because it's loud and stimulating.
There is something deeply rewarding about coming off the floor with my two partners and saying to each other, "Wow, we worked a hell of a game together. We gave the NBA and the fans a good product tonight." That internal satisfaction keeps you going when there are lows in this job. There will never be a point where I've got it all figured out. I'm always still learning, and that is so exciting.
Andrew Kahn is freelance writer. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn