The biggest, most life-changing phone call Jenna Schroeder has ever received did not exactly come at an opportune time.
The Clio native spent more than a decade doggedly working her way through the basketball officiating ranks, starting with youth games and progressing to small college, major college, the NBA G-League and WNBA.
Her pursuit of the profession’s pinnacle – the NBA – was relentless.
Finally, Schroeder was essentially afforded an audition in 2019 when assigned to officiate games in the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas which features recently drafted and other younger players.
Watching intently was NBA Vice President for Referee Development & Training, Monty McCutchen, who was tasked with hiring the league’s next group of officials.
Schroeder completed her assignments, returned to her suburban Detroit home, and waited. Was the call she had been envisioning for years going to come?
In early fall, during an evening out with friends, Schroeder glanced down at her ringing cell phone. It was McCutchen.
“Of course, I was really excited it was Monty, but I had to focus because I was with a group of my best friends and the wine was flowing,” Schroeder laughs. “He called to say I would be the (NBA’s) next full-time referee. My dream had come true, and it was really special that I got to share the moment with people close to me.”
Schroeder and McCutchen agreed to talk again the next morning so they could discuss details of her promotion under calmer circumstances.
“I cried like a baby when the call ended,” she recalls. “There was so much emotion because I had worked so hard for it, grinding away and traveling all over the country to officiate games for years. I was also proud to be someone from the Flint area achieving this.”
“One day, somebody looked me dead in the eye and asked if I’d ever thought about making officiating my full-time job. I was like, ‘You can DO that?’”
In fact, the only two current NBA referees from Michigan both attended Genesee County high schools. Besides Schroeder, there is Flint Northwestern graduate Courtney Kirkland, who has worked three NBA Finals and is in his 23rd season overall.
At the time of her hiring, Schroeder was one of only four full-time female NBA referees and just the sixth in league history since the gender barrier was broken by Violet Palmer and Dee Kanter in 1997.
McCutchen was elated to make the call to Schroeder. It’s one of the most satisfying aspects of his job.
“We have a set of standards when it comes to promoting referees from our G-League involving knowledge of rules and skills on the court and Jenna showed us she had met those standards that go beyond just calling plays,” he says. “NBA officiating is kind of a solitary thing and you must be self-motivated, always striving to grow and improve through love of the work. That’s what Jenna has done.”
Now in her fifth NBA season, Schroeder remains humbled and in awe of how far she has come.
“Not many careers allow you to interact with some of the world’s best athletes on a regular basis,” she says. “I have more than a front-row seat. I’m right on the court with them. That’s the goal of anyone wanting to officiate basketball full-time and it’s a very thrilling experience.”
Still, most of those world’s-best athletes tower over the 5’6” Schroeder, which can be intimidating, along with the glare of coaches, fans and, at times, media.
Making correct calls usually receives little notice outside of the profession. Making what players, coaches, media or fans perceive as an incorrect call, of course, is a different story.
“The pressure is the biggest challenge,” Schroeder concedes. “At times, I feel the full weight of teams, coaches, and their fans to get calls right. It’s important to be as self-confident and professional as possible to handle challenges because while the goal is to be perfect with every call, we all know that’s not realistically possible.”
Helping ease that pressure for Schroeder is the NBA’s growing roster of female officials. It has doubled to eight since her first season along with two part-timers the NBA classifies as non-staff.
“The fact that there were just a few women among NBA officials when I started was a unique challenge,” Schroeder shares. “With more and more of us, it feels more normal now. People are more used to seeing us.”
Schroeder officiates roughly 50 games a season, spending countless hours off the court preparing for games and evaluating her performances through watching video and studying (and re-studying) the NBA’s 60-page rule book.
“I have probably read the rule book about 25 times to see if there are any small details I missed while asking myself ‘what if this happens, what if that happens’?” she says. “Sometimes, it’s crazy stuff like what if a little kid runs on the court and runs into a player? I watch all my games while asking myself things like, ‘Am I in the right position? Is that the right call?’”
The 38-year-old Schroeder also undergoes physical training to remain nimble enough to race up and down the court, when needed.
Schroeder indeed wasted little time proving herself physically. Not long into her first NBA season, a video of her sprinting down the sideline, keeping pace with a fastbreak, appeared on the Twitter feed of ESPN’s Sportscenter.
“This ref’s got wheels,” read the caption.
Easily the most significant moment of her career thus far came less than halfway through her second season when she and longtime friend Natalie Sago were both assigned to the three-person crew for a game between Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic on January 25, 2021.
It marked the first time in NBA history two women officiated a game at the same time. Schroeder and Sago learned of the assignment about a month prior, but the information was not released publicly until the morning of the game. Not surprisingly, the media jumped all over the story and their phones began blowing up.
“It was kind of shocking in a way when Natalie and I saw that because we had refereed together before at different levels, starting with an (NCAA) Division 2 game about ten years ago, so it was such a full-circle moment for us,” Schroeder says. “Hands down, the best experience of my career.”
From McCutchen’s perspective, it was simply time for such a milestone.
“We really didn’t make that assignment just for Jenna and Natalie to make history, but because they had earned it through the quality of their work and we felt comfortable having them work together,” he says. “Our goal is to make something like that the norm, not the news, and the day is coming when we’ll see an all-woman game crew.”
Schroeder’s path to officiating history began while she was in the midst of a highly productive high school career. She was asked to referee grade-school girls games one weekend and came away with $100.
“I felt like that was a better way to earn money than working at the mall or flipping burgers, so I did it again the next weekend and my love of officiating took off from there,” she said.
Soon, Schroeder enrolled in a Michigan High School Athletic Association program for high school students interested in becoming an official. By her senior year, she was working middle school and AAU games.
Meanwhile, she completed her prep career as Clio High School’s all-time leading scorer with 1,430 career points, finishing ninth in voting for the state’s Miss Basketball Award.
Schroeder signed with Oakland University and spent a season there, then transferred to Saginaw Valley State and topped the team in scoring (15 points a game) and assists (4.1) during her two seasons with the Cardinals. She continued officiating in the offseason before graduating from SVSU with a communications degree in 2009 – the midst of the Great Recession.
“I thought maybe I could do sales or marketing with my degrees, but it was hard for most college graduates to land a decent job then, so I took what was my college summer job and tried to expand it,” Schroeder says.
She gravitated to women’s college basketball, beginning with the games of Mott Community College and other Michigan Community College Athletic Association teams before moving on to small, four-year schools in Michigan.
“I’ve probably worked games at every Michigan college with a women’s basketball team other than Michigan Tech (in Houghton) because it’s so remote,” Schroeder says. “One day, somebody looked me dead in the eye and asked if I’d ever thought about making officiating my full-time job. I was like, ‘You can DO that?’”
Schroeder eventually landed major college officiating gigs with the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Atlantic 10 and other conferences while spending summers from 2011-15 as a Comerica Park bartender.
She was finally able to concentrate solely on officiating after joining the G-League prior to the 2016-17 season before spending the following two years working G-League games in the fall and winter and WNBA games during summer.
“That was a grind because I was doing G-League games with almost 30 teams in 30 different states and then, jumping right into the WNBA with 12 teams (then) in 12 states,” Schroeder recalls. “I was never home, which was very difficult because my daughter was born during that time. The NBA job, really, could not come soon enough.”
Schroeder has always been goal-oriented and several remain for her to pursue, like working playoff games, encouraging more young women to choose officiating for their profession and, perhaps, making more history.
“Seeing a woman officiate the NBA Finals would be amazing,” she says. “That’s never happened.”