Before the Whistle with Lauren Holtkamp
Four seasons ago, the NBA welcomed its third-ever female official, Lauren Holtkamp. Like many of her peers growing up, Lauren had no idea she was going to officiate in the NBA. In fact, she says the question still makes her laugh because, even as a collegiate basketball player, she thought her studies would lead her down a very different career path. As a student of theology, Lauren’s passion was in service, which helped to guide her to the chaplaincy early on. We sat down with Lauren and asked her about her experience as a chaplain at a women’s prison, and what motivated her to take a leap of faith towards a full-time officiating career.
Q: When did you start officiating?
The first time I officiated was when I was playing in college at Drury University. We worked summer camps as part of our scholarship requirement. That’s where I picked up my first whistle. I had no idea what I was doing but I knew that I loved it. When I finished my playing career, I went to a high school association meeting, and started (officiating) middle school games on Saturday afternoons as a way to stay connected to the sport and make some extra money while I was in grad school, and it grew from there. I ended up moving to Atlanta and worked Division II and then Division I Women’s NCAA games. Then I got hired in the D-league (currently the G-league) officiating for six years in addition to working in the WNBA for four of those six years. I got FIBA certified back in 2006 or ’07, so I was refereeing those games as well, and got hired in the NBA four seasons ago.”
Q: Did you have any inclination growing up that you would end up officiating?
L: “That question makes me laugh because I didn’t consider being a referee when I was a kid. If you would have asked me 20 years ago when I was playing AAU ball, would I see myself as a professional referee, I would have said ‘no’ just because it wasn’t part of my professional landscape at the time. I didn’t know any other professional referees growing up. I will say there are a lot of qualities as an athlete that translate into officiating like the love of sport, leadership, team-building, and having the willingness to prepare and then evaluate the work afterwards to move forward.”
Q: Did you have another career in a different industry before becoming a full-time official?
L: “I moved to Atlanta to go to a Master of Divinity program at Emory University, so I became a full-time student again while continuing my officiating. At the time I really thought that I would want to go on and get my PhD and teach. I thought officiating would end up being part of the matrix of what I was doing. Not necessarily the primary thing, but I knew I wanted it to be part of my life. As part of the theological studies program, they required us to go work and serve different communities. So, the first year I served as a chaplain at a women’s prison, and then my second year I served as a chaplain at a mental health facility and then at a hospital. I realized through those experiences, I was drawn more toward work on the ground versus in the classroom. So, I started exploring certification as a chaplain. All of this was happening while I was advancing in my officiating. I was working in the D-league the same year I was serving as a hospital chaplain, and I remember that year my mid-season evaluation phone call was going to be coming while I was on a shift at the hospital. I remember telling George Toliver that ‘I might be in a hospital room with somebody. I will call you back if I can’t answer my phone!’ After that year, I started considering the possibility of being hired in the NBA. I decided that was the path I wanted to take instead of pursuing the chaplaincy.”
Q: What was it like making the decision to pursue officiating instead of the chaplaincy?
L: “It was a difficult decision. I did my best to weigh the consideration of vocation up against who and how I wanted to be in the world, which I think is an ongoing task of anyone willing to be engaged in the process of creating a life that is fulfilling.
“I grew up playing sports and my identity as an athlete has been an important part of who I am and how I relate with others. While I was serving as a chaplain, refereeing was such a nice balance because being in a hospital room with somebody or being in a prison was very much head and heart work. With officiating, I could integrate the head and heart work with physicality and competition and it was just such a good balance for me. I think one of the tipping points for my decision was when I thought about it, I would feel really alive and inspired by the challenge of the work. I also believed I could integrate elements of chaplaincy — care, companionship, presence — into how I approach my work as a referee.”
Q: What piece of advice would you give to someone looking to make a career switch of that magnitude to officiating?
L: “Recognize that if your passion is officiating, it requires a great deal of commitment and a particular form of sacrifice. A good deal of that is being willing to take on the lifestyle that comes along with the work because we’re on the road a lot and away from the people we care most deeply about. My husband, Jonathan, is also an NBA referee and we are always looking for ways to be there for each other across the distance in a rigorous work environment. NBA referees are always working on our craft, which takes a lot of commitment. If that person is willing to put the time and energy in, and it’s her or his passion, I’d say go for it.”