Tampa Bay Sports Day

Flagler’s Jonathan Sterling Travels the Road to NBA as Referee

ST. AUGUSTINE – There are many roads to the National Basketball Association one can travel.

Many gifted athletes can apply their trade by being drafted, or perhaps applying their trade overseas and then make a roster. Others will get into coaching, scouting or perhaps an administrative job. Another is refereeing the game they love.

On Oct. 18, former Flagler College basketball player Jonathan Sterling, ’06, made his NBA debut, as a referee, at the Denver-Utah game. However, for Sterling, being a referee was not a chosen path. It was something he fell in to.

“My friend and Flagler alum Shane Livensparger, ’06, asked if I wanted to referee at the St. Augustine YMCA one night,” commented Sterling. “I had no desire to referee. I wanted to play. I decided to go out and work the three games that night and it gave me a rush that I had been missing since playing competitive basketball.”

Sterling transferred to Flagler for the 2004-05 season from Seminole Community College in Sanford, Florida. He spent two seasons with the Saints and helped the team to a 23-8 record in his first season.

Sterling played for head coach Bo Clark, who retired after a 31-year career at Flagler.

“Bo was one of the first people I called when I was hired into the NBA,” said Sterling. “He has been a great person to talk with and was a huge part of getting me started as an official. He is the one who got me in contact with my first college supervisor and I went to the supervisor’s camp and was hired into my first league.”

“I am really happy for Jonathan,” said Clark. “He was on the fast track and I know he will be a great ref in the NBA for a long, long time. Jonathan is an excellent communicator and humble enough to listen to coaches. He is a continual learner which will help him on his NBA journey.”

Clark has another former player, Brent Barnaky (1993-95), officiating in the NBA. Barnaky is currently in his eighth year as an NBA referee.

In 2007, Sterling began his refereeing career by working with the local high school association, the Southern Association of Basketball Officials (SABO), where he worked middle school, ninth grade and junior varsity boys and girls games in St. Johns and Duval counties.

The following year he began working with A1A Officials, another high school association in Daytona Beach, where he worked three FHSAA finals over the next three seasons. That same year, he began working collegiate games at the NAIA and NCAA Division II level, as well as junior colleges.

“On weekends,” added Sterling, “I would work youth tournaments and be in gyms from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. working a couple of games and then sitting one throughout the day.

“I’d drive to Orlando, Atlanta, Miami and Daytona Beach to work tournaments. I would plan with my referee friends, for these tournaments, and we would share a hotel room with 8-10 other referees over a weekend! The struggle was real, but it was a commitment and investment in myself to get to the goal I wanted to achieve.”

From 2008-10, Sterling worked in the Florida High School Athletic Association, the Sunshine State Conference and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletics Conference in NCAA Division II, and the Florida College System Activities Association (FCSAA).

In 2010 he was hired to work in NCAA Division I, for the first time, with the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

As soon as 2011 came around, Sterling made the decision to commit to refereeing professionally. He was selected, and hired that summer to the NBA Development League, now known as the NBA Gatorade League (G-League). He was certified as a USA Basketball and FIBA official.

Through the NBA G-League and USA Basketball, he has been able to work games across the country and the world. Sterling even had the opportunity to work in the 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, working with the NBA Celebrity Game and the NBA G-League All-Star Game. He spent six years in the G-League as well as three seasons with the WNBA.

“Getting into this business is not easy and you need the proper guidance,” quipped Sterling. He was shown the ropes by Marty McEachen who taught him the dos and don’ts about being a referee. Sterling was introduced to McEachen by another NBA referee, Eric Lewis.

“I was at a referee camp at Embry-Riddle University and Eric started running behind me up and down the floor during the game yelling at me and telling me to blow my whistle,” said Sterling. “He took an immediate interest in me and called Marty. I met a week later in St. Augustine and we drove down to work a pro-am league in Orlando, which had Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady amongst other NBA players. Mind you, this was 2008 and I had been working middle school games!”

As Sterling reflects on his time at Flagler, he thanks his business professors for helping him prepare for the job he has now. “The lessons learned in those classes helped mold me professionally. In this business, professionalism is very important.”

This is not just a personal journey to the NBA for Sterling. His wife, Lauren Holtkamp, is starting her fourth season as an NBA referee. She is the only female on the NBA staff.

“My wife is awesome,” exclaimed Sterling. “She is my biggest supporter. We have only worked one pro game together (NBA G-League), back in my first season.

“We can’t avoid talking shop,” added Sterling. “It’s our work and it’s our conversation. It’s great to have a partner who understands this job because it’s a difficult one to deal with, especially with all of the travel and pressures that is involved.”

For Sterling, the love of the game is ever-present, and he thoroughly enjoys what he does and the opportunities he has received.

“I get to run up and down the floor, see the game, be part of the game and meet great people,” said Sterling. “This job has allowed me to travel the world and experience different cultures, as well as see how the game of basketball is loved all over the globe.”