Natalie Sago scanned the latest NBA officiating schedule around Christmas Eve last year and stopped on the Jan. 25 game, Charlotte Hornets at Orlando Magic.
She assumed the assignment was a typo. Next to her name, the schedule read “Jenna Schroeder.”
“I texted her and was like, ‘We have a game together,’” Sago said. “She was like, ‘What? No freaking way!’ I mean, there might have been some profanity in there.”
Sago, a University of Missouri–St. Louis education alumna and Farmington, Missouri, native, made history when she walked onto the court that night. It was the first time a three-person NBA officiating crew featured two women.
The excitement swelled the day of the game, particularly after the officials were announced at 9 a.m. Sago’s phone buzzed continuously throughout lunch, and as she walked through the Amway Center, everyone – COVID-19 testers, ushers, security guards – had words of encouragement for her and Schroeder.
“Both coaches, Steve Clifford and James Borrego, they came up to us at some point early in the game and congratulated us and said it was an honor to be part of the night,” Sago said. “James actually told me he had a daughter at home with his wife, and she was actually going to watch just because the two of us were on the game. It was just a really cool day. It was surreal, and to do it with not only one of my colleagues but a friend, that was really neat to have that day with her.”
Sago comes from a sports-obsessed family. Her father, Shelton, officiated football and basketball for more than three decades and coached her in basketball from the time she could dribble until she entered high school.
At Farmington High School, Sago was a standout in basketball, helping lead her team to the state championship game her senior year, as well as in softball. Though basketball was her first love, she was a more versatile softball player.
The ability to play most positions on the field led to a college softball career, first with Jefferson College and then with Drury University. However, after her last season at Drury, she decided to make a change.
“I wasn’t playing sports anymore because I’d already done all my eligibility after four years,” Sago said. “I was like, ‘Man, if I’m not playing, I would rather just get back home and be closer to my family.’”
Sago enrolled at UMSL and finished her physical education degree in 2013. Her father is also an UMSL graduate, a member of the first graduating class in optometry, though that didn’t affect her decision to attend the university.
After graduation, she worked as a paraprofessional in the special education department of Farmington Middle School and then taught physical education at North Country High in Bonne Terre. It was also about the time that she first tried officiating AAU basketball games.
That, her father did have a part in.
He pointed out that she practically grew up in the gym, knew the game and had watched him officiate for years. It didn’t click immediately, though. Sago hated the first few games she called and hung up the whistle for a little while. But her desire to be around basketball brought her back.
“I went out and did it again,” she said. “I did a middle school boys game on a Saturday afternoon, and I was lined up for six games in a row. Something that day just clicked, and they couldn’t get me out of the gym. I was like, ‘All right, when’s the next weekend? When can I work again?’”
The experience motivated Sago to get serious about officiating.
She obtained her Missouri State High School Activities Association certification and started calling prep games. After a year, a friend suggested that she look into a nearby college officiating camp, which opened the door to working junior college, NAIA and NCAA Division III games.
Gradually, Sago started working her way up the ladder, garnering attention along the way. Improbably, an NBA officials scout happened to be among the 15 people attending a Fontbonne University game one February weekend.
“I didn’t even know that NBA referee scouts existed,” Sago added with a laugh.
Two months later, another big break came.
“I got invited to work the McDonald’s High School All-American Game in 2015,” Sago said. “That’s kind of where I was seen because it was on national TV. It was on ESPN, and shortly after that McDonald’s game is when I got the phone call to come try out for the NBA D League, which is now the G League.”
Sago traveled to Hampton, Virginia, to compete with other hopefuls for a spot in the league. After beating out dozens of others, she was one of 10 – a group that included men and women – to advance to the final round of tryouts. The NBA hired her and four other women to officiate in the G League that year.
It wasn’t long before Sago was promoted to the WNBA, where she worked for three years. There was no special secret to moving through the ranks. She just tried to do the little things right: hustle up down the floor, learn from her mistakes and study the game.
The league took notice.
A call came while Sago was sitting on a plane bound for Salt Lake City. There on the runaway, she received the good news: The NBA wanted her to suit up.
Her first game was a preseason contest between the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies. Luckily, the game was in Memphis, which made it easy for her whole family to attend. Sago said it was unforgettable walking onto the court and seeing them in the stands.
The pace of the game, even though it was preseason, was incredibly intense. Sago did what she could to get ready, but it’s hard to simulate the frenetic energy of an NBA game.
“You think you can prepare for it, but I’m telling you when you get on that NBA floor it’s run and gun,” Sago said. “You have to settle your eyes down. You just have to have a lot of positive self-talk up and down the floor because it’s fast. My first several games, I’m all over the place like 10 eggs in a blender.”
Over the last three years, she’s become more comfortable and confident on the court. Nonetheless, there are still moments that seem surreal.
“He comes straight to me, and he stuck his hand out and said, ‘Hey Natalie, LeBron James. Nice to meet you. So glad to have you, congratulations,’” she said. “I just thought that was very professional, very classy because some of these guys just expect you to know who they are. I just thought that was so professional of him because I wanted to say back to him, ‘No, duh. I know who you are. I’ve been watching you as I grew up.’ I thought that was really neat, and he talked about how he has a daughter and how he’s so glad that she can see my presence out here on the court.”