ST. LOUIS — It’s a long way from Farmington, Missouri to New York, Toronto, Los Angeles or any of the other cities with National Basketball Association teams.
Natalie Sago’s journey from a small town in Missouri to the NBA as a referee has been a blur. Just 7 years ago she blew a whistle in a basketball game for the first time, officiating middle schoolers.
“I did a sixth grade girls AAU game,” recalled Sago. “I hated it to be truthfully honest. I was like, this is not for me.”
Since Natalie could walk, she had seen her father numerous times officiating high school and college games. Dr. Shelton Sago, an optometrist, recently retired as a basketball official after 35 years. Her impressions about the job were not favorable because of the way fans treated her father.
“Everybody yelled at my dad and you know, I'm a big daddy's girl. So it like crushed me,” said Sago. “Like, he's out there doing the best he can, make the best decisions, and you know, it's a thankless job. And so I was like, there's no way I'm ever going to do this.”
Sago stuck with it, improving rapidly. She advanced from AAU, to high school, where she and her dad officiated several high school games together.
“We did get to referee two or three games together and that was super fun,” said Sago. “There'd be some times he was looking at me all up and down the floor and I've told him you can't just be watching me the whole time, you know?”
Who knew the NBA would notice a 20-something referee at a Division III women’s game?
“So I was actually seen refereeing a game at Fontbonne University, a Division III game on a Sunday afternoon, 1 o'clock, you know. There were probably 20 people in the stands and one of those people was an NBA referee scout,” said Sago.
Suddenly Sago was officiating WNBA games and NBA minor league games, what’s known now as the NBA G League. In 2018, Natalie was sitting on a plane about to take off to her next assignment when she got the phone call that changed her life.
“I was going LA to Salt Lake City. We're literally about to take off on the runway and I see New York, New York, 212 number pop up on my phone. And it was Michelle Johnson, one of our bosses, and she told me ‘all your hard work and everything has paid off and we'd just like to welcome you to the NBA staff as a full time NBA referee’” recalled Sago. “Well then we took off and I could not call my family for an hour and 15 minutes or however long the flight was. So it killed me.”
About an hour before the Memphis Grizzlies tipped off against the Golden State Warriors, Jane Sago, Natalie’s mother, Jane, was preparing to watch her daughter officiate after watching Natalie compete in sports for years.
“It’s even harder to watch her as an official,” said Jane Sago. “It’s very nerve-wracking.”
During her second season in the NBA, Natalie is making memories on a nightly basis. She remembers working the final game of Dallas Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki, as well as the last game of Miami Heat legend Dwayne Wade, both likely hall of famers. Among the well-wishes and handshakes from coaches and players, there’s one she’ll never forget.
“LeBron James,” said Sago. “He knew my name and obviously I knew who he was, but it was still awesome because he said, ‘Hey Natalie, nice to meet you. LeBron James’. I think that's really cool because obviously these guys are superstars and everybody knows who they are. So I thought it was a class act for him to still introduce himself.”
There are currently four female NBA referees with more on the way. Several times a month, Sago is required to officiate NBA minor league games, to work on her leadership skills as a crew chief. Several times her crew has been three women.
“The females are rising,” said Sago. “So it's, it's really fun to be a part of.”
It’s all part of Sago’s journey to fulfill an NBA dream.
“It gives me the chills cause I'm like, this is so awesome. This is my job, you know? Just being out there and doing what you love every night, it's just, I mean, you can't put it into words.”
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