Flagler College graduate Jonathan Sterling enjoying life as NBA official
Flagler College graduate Jonathan Sterling is in his first year as a NBA official. No one knows the grind better than his wife, Lauren Holtkamp, the only woman currently officiating NBA contests.
Their hoop dreams were not big enough to envision their basketball reality.
Jonathan Sterling and Lauren Holtkamp aspired to play the game at a very high level.
And they did. But, once their collegiate careers ended, the love affair with the sport did not.
“My dream growing up was player, player, player,” Sterling said. “That’s all I did. That’s all I wanted to do. I dreamt, slept and ate basketball. I wanted to be the best player in the county and the conference. I had a pretty successful career at Satellite. (I never dreamed of making the NBA) as a referee.”
It’s through the game, the two met each other. Basketball is also the reason the two NBA officials rarely see each other.
Welcome to the family
Sterling, 35, is a Flagler College graduate who is in his first season officiating some of the best athletes on the planet. Four months before Sterling officiated his first NBA game, he and Holtkamp married each other in Mexico.
Years of sweat equity in local gyms, the Peach Belt Conference, Division I conferences and the NBA G League led to the conversation with Mike Bantom, the NBA’s executive vice president of referee operations.
“When he called and offered the position on staff, we were actually out and about looking at some homes,” Sterling recalled. “I came back to Lauren and our Realtors with tears of joy on my face. They said ‘What happened?’ I said ‘I got the call.’”
Sterling’s first game was Oct. 18 in Salt Lake City. Utah beat Denver 106-96.
“Getting on the floor, throwing up the jump ball in a packed house in Utah, …that was the biggest pinch-me moment, getting that feeling of everything.”
Sterling has officiated 30 other games since that unforgettable night in Utah. Holtkamp has officiated 42 games this season and more than 150 in her NBA career.
“Ever since we started dating, we have been traveling for this work,” Holtkamp said. “It’s our normal. It doesn’t make it easier to be apart.
“We have learned some survival skills along the way. … Thankfully, with technology we have FaceTime and video chat. In season, our friends and family really understand that if we get one night home together, we’re going to spend it together.”
Those nights are few and far between.
Traveling more than three steps
The two spent Valentine’s Day a time zone away from each other. Sterling was in the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, while Holtkamp was in Chicago refereeing a game the Toronto Raptors won 122-98 to take over first place in the Eastern Conference.
Even the NBA All-Star break has not provided a respite for the two jet-setters.
Holtkamp spent her weekend officiating Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars game on Friday night as well as State Farm All-Star Saturday Night.
Holtkamp, 37, is in her fourth season as a NBA official. She is the third woman to officiate a contest following in the footsteps of Dee Katner and Violet Palmer. Currently, she is the only woman officiating NBA contests.
Her success meant she was in Orlando while Sterling stood between Denver’s Paul Millsap and Utah’s Rudy Gobert providing the first tip of the 2017-18 season.
“It’s pretty amazing. You see everything in a short amount of time,” Sterling said. “It’s a day-in-day-out routine of airport, hotel, arena, repeat and dragging a bag.”
Games in Florida are infrequent; but welcomed. Orlando and Miami are the two closest NBA cities to their home in Tampa.
No place like home
Sterling, the son of an Air Force veteran, grew up in Satellite Beach, while Holtkamp is a Missourian. Tampa, the couple said, has an international airport, beaches, weather and restaurants nearby to make it the ideal place to lay down roots.
While they enjoy Tampa, their love would not have blossomed were it not for their time in St. Augustine.
Sterling moved back to the Ancient City shortly after graduating from Flagler in 2006. A few years later, when he met Holtkamp, she lived in Atlanta. Despite the distance, their dates walking along St. George Street and afternoons on the beach were cherished memories.
St. Augustine is also the city where Sterling’s officiating career began.
His first job out of college was a corporate position with McDonald’s in Richmond, Virginia. His job was less about burger flipping and more about managing and leading people — attributes he said have served him well when officiating in front of 20,000 people.
While working at McDonald’s, a classmate in his sports management program suggested Sterling referee a trio men’s league basketball game at the St. Augustine YMCA. They could make $20 a game.
The person who made the suggestion was Shane Livensparger, a professional baseball umpire who made his major league debut in June 2017.
“It gave me a rush I wasn’t able to find after playing competitively,” Sterling said.
Working at McDonald’s afforded Sterling the opportunity to officiate more games. He traversed Northeast Florida refereeing middle school, high school and junior college levels. The grind of working in the morning, leaving for his game and officiating in the evening led Sterling to seek a position with more flexibility.
He found it as a membership director at the Ponte Vedra YMCA. It’s a position that would intrigue Holtkamp when the two met at a basketball banquet.
As Sterling tells it, he was sitting with some friends and Holtkamp walked by. He asked his friends at the table who she was. His eyes followed her and realized that she was seated at a table with Steve Anderson, a friend of his from Jacksonville.
“I try to be cool and say ‘Hi’ to my friend,” Sterling recalled chuckling. “Nope. Lauren’s head (was) straight forward and ready to get the dinner over with.”
Later, Sterling, Holtkamp and others went dancing.
Like so many married couples, the details diverge depending on one’s perspective. Sterling said his future wife asked if he wanted to dance. He responded: “I don’t dance to reggae.” Holtkamp couldn’t hide her chuckles as he told the story.
One thing they do agree upon is they remained in contact.
“Jonathan and I started talking and he said he was working as a director at the YMCA. That piqued my interest because I had grown up at the YMCA every day after school, either for swimming or basketball,” Holtkamp said. “The YMCA had a special place in my heart. I had just finished grad school and worked at the (YMCA) during grade school. I really appreciated that (he) was someone who was doing that career-wise.”
Joining the team
Swimming was Holtkamp’s first love growing up. When she was in eighth grade, the basketball bug bit her and she has been devoted to the sport ever since. The theory of being a part of a team intrigued her.
She started her collegiate career at Missouri State then transferred to Division II Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.
Sterling never had to fall in love with the sport.
“I had a basketball in my hand since I was a baby,” Sterling said. “I was drawn to athletics. Growing up, my parents gave me an opportunity to play as many sports as possible.”
Recently, a childhood friend of his posted a picture of Sterling and others when all of them attended DeLaura Middle School in Satellite Beach. He was holding a basketball. It was pure leather, Spaulding basketball.
Nearly a quarter century later, he still has that basketball.
He doesn’t shoot as much. That hasn’t changed Sterling’s mentality: Basketball is life.
These days, life is workouts, weekly rules study, reviewing film, conversations with colleagues and more. The two hours Holtkamp and Sterling spend on the floor are just part of their jobs.
“There is a lot of mental focus that goes in those two hours and it takes a lot of energy,” Holtkamp said. “It took me two seasons in the NBA full-time to figure that out.”
Along with the mental stamina required to officiate some of the best athletes on the planet, Holtkamp and Sterling said rest and a workout routine are paramount. Sterling said he put a fitness tracker on his leg during a game and found he runs, on average, 4.5 miles in a game.
From a distance, Sterling and Holtkamp’s job may appear easy and their journey a simple one. The reality is one may officiate games for years at the amateur level before being monitored for consideration for a position.
“Lauren and I, we met at a college meeting,” Sterling said. “My first-ever game was at the St. Augustine YMCA working the men’s league. Then, it was breaking into junior high school, high school and college. There was a lot of time and stresses. You get identified. Once you get identified, you go through a series of levels and camps to see if you can make it just into the G League.”
Sterling spent six years officiating in the NBA G League, the level of pro basketball just below primetime. His final game was an April 27, 2017 contest at the Hershey Center in Mississauga, Canada. A crowd of 4,824 people watched Raptors 905 beat the Rio Grande Vipers 122-96.
Six months later, he was in an NBA arena.
It’s an honor and privilege neither Sterling, nor Holtkamp, take for granted.
“It’s a blessing that Jonathan and I share both a home and career,” Holtkamp said. “For us, it strengthens us on both fronts. … I’m honored and I take it as a deep responsibility as a family member with this larger group of staff and league-wide. There is a responsibility to each other as family members that carry over.”