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TAMPA – Newlyweds Lauren Holtkamp and Jonathan Sterling wanted to do what many couples do on their day off.

Run errands, take their dog to the park, watch episodes of House Hunters on HGTV and Black Mirror on Netflix.

But Holtkamp and Sterling are not like any other couple. They are NBA referees, and on this late January day, it’s a rare instance when they are home together. Mostly, they are crisscrossing the country away from each other days at a time during the season. This was the first time they had seen each other in three weeks.

"We’ve learned it’s quality over quantity, and we manage expectations around quality over quantity in-season,” Holtkamp, 37, told USA TODAY Sports. “Quality is getting to have a night home together and just spending time with each other doing basic, day to day things."

“Running errands is quality time,” Sterling, 35, said.

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The season is one extended long-distance relationship, made manageable by finding days when they’re both home, utilizing FaceTime, meeting in other cities when their schedules allow it, text messages and leaving diary-like notes to each other in a shared email account.

“Part of the magic of making things work is being able to keep life going when you’re on the road and away from home,” Holtkamp said.

Said Sterling: “Each year since the year we met is a learning process – from a relationship standpoint to a professional standpoint. Each year we’re evolving and learning how to handle certain things differently and better.”

This month, they will see each other once for a few days over All-Star weekend. Holtkamp is scheduled to work All-Star events, and with the NBA world in Los Angeles for the spectacle, Sterling has time off.

The NBA sends referees their schedules a month in advance. When Holtkamp and Sterling receive theirs, they input their games into a master calendar and identify when they will be home together and when they can meet on the road. The calendar is essential to Holtkamp because it provides her a countdown to the next time she can see Sterling.

“You just cross your fingers when the schedule comes out and hope there’s going to be some overlap,” Holtkamp said. “But we don’t know.”

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Here is a snapshot of their time together in the final week of December and all of January:

Dec. 24-25: Home together for 30 hours before Holtkamp left on Christmas Day for a game in Miami.

Jan. 1-4: They each reffed games on New Year’s Eve in separate cities, and Sterling had a few days off after his Dec. 31 game so he flew from Phoenix to Los Angeles where Holtkamp was scheduled to work a Clippers game on Jan. 2 and a Lakers game on Jan. 3. They had three days together in L.A. before heading to their next assignment.

Jan 5-7: Following a Jan. 5 game in Portland, Holtkamp took a red-eye to Orlando where Sterling had a game on Jan. 6. They got to see each other after Sterling’s game, and he drove Holtkamp to the airport the next morning for her next game in Minneapolis.

Jan. 23-25: Home together in Tampa.

Any relationship requires effort and work. Theirs requires overtime, and Holtkamp and Sterling, who married on June 10, tinker with ways to make the long absences easier.

This season, it’s the increased use of FaceTime, and the shared email account, which they started in the past two months. That has made it easier for them to keep each other updated on their day to day activities, especially when travel and different time zones prevent them from communicating directly. It’s a place where they can share everyday experiences that most couples talk about at home.

“What’s special about a relationship is being part of someone’s everyday life,” Holtkamp said. “What’s going on today? How are things? We miss some of that. This is a way to bridge that gap.”

Sterling recently posted an entry detailing an unpleasant boarding experience after a long day. Holtkamp is reading Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road and a passage in the book resonated with her so she shared it with Sterling.

“This is also our time capsule,” Sterling said. “We can go back years from now and go back to 2018 and go back to my first year and go back to specific days. There’s a lot of things we can forget throughout the day, and it’s cool to capture moments that were significant that day that we might not remember years from now.”

They will make up for the in-season long-distance relationship this summer with a trip to Europe, and for the first time since they met, neither will work this summer in FIBA or WNBA games.

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Their relationship is not a secret, and their marriage is acknowledged in the NBA’s referees’ media guide. Some coaches, players and executives know; some don’t.

During a game this season, an NBA player addressed Holtkamp after she called a foul.

“C’mon Lauren, I can’t believe it,” the player said according to Holtkamp.

“You want to talk about the play?” she answered.

“No, I can’t believe you got married last summer and didn’t invite me,” the player said.

After they had a quick laugh, they got back to work. “It was so unexpected,” she said. “It was a nice moment.”

Holtkamp and Sterling should have the rights to the sequel to 2000’s Love and Basketball starring Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps. Call it Love and Basketball Referees.

Holtkamp and Sterling, who both played basketball in college, met at an officiating conference before the start of the 2010-11 college basketball season. Holtkamp was officiating women’s college, G-League and FIBA games, and Sterling was starting his first season calling college games.

“We were at a banquet dinner, and I was sitting with my buddies," Sterling said. “I remember Lauren walking into the room, and I was like ‘Who’s that?’ ”

Holtkamp sat at a table that included one of Sterling’s friends, so Sterling sidled up to his friend hoping for an introduction to Holtkamp.

“Wouldn’t give me the time of day,” Sterling said.

He volunteered to take a picture of a group that included Holtkamp.

“Still no reaction,” Sterling said.

Later that night, a group headed out for nightlife. In the lobby, Holtkamp finally noticed.

“Who is this?” she remembers thinking to herself.

At the nightclub, Holtkamp asked Sterling to dance.

“Nah, I really don’t feel like dancing to reggae,” he answered.

“Crushed,” Holtkamp said. “Very crushed.

“He came back around, and we ended up dancing for several hours.”

They stayed in touch, and by the next year, they were dating long distance with Holtkamp living in Atlanta and officiating her third season in the D-League and Sterling just getting started with his reffing career after losing a job at the YMCA in a restructuring.

“This was a rough patch where Lauren was really there for me,” Sterling said. “She was great. I was down. I had to hustle, and the hustle was working basketball games. In a week’s span, I’d do a D-League game, do a JV/varsity game and Saturday morning doing YMCA youth basketball just to make money. On Saturday, I’d drive to Ocala (Fla.) to ref college basketball.”

At the same time, Holtkamp’s career progressed to the point where a full-time NBA job was realistic.

“It was hopeful uncertainty,” said Holtkamp who relied on Sterling’s support as she pursued a career goal.

Holtkamp’s first season was 2014-15, and this is Sterling’s first NBA season.

Just like teaching is a significant topic of conversation in a household with two teachers, refereeing is a regular part of their discussions. They have discussions about verticality and block vs. charge and textbook on-court positioning.

Sometimes, the talk is serious. Sometimes, it’s funny.

There’s one play that has become a running joke between Sterling and Holtkamp. It’s a play where Holtkamp makes a call, and Sterling has no idea how she saw the play.

“Her head was looking one way, and I said, ‘How can you even see that?’ ” Sterling said.

“My eyes were positioned that way,” Holtkamp countered.

They have created an environment of constructive criticism and compliments. When Sterling watches a game Holtkamp officiates, he sends a steady stream of texts that she reads after the game.

They read something like this:

“6:15 of the first quarter, great pickup.”

“7:32 of the second, I don’t know about that one. Look at your facial expression on this play.”

What is Holtkamp’s facial expression when she reads a text like that?

“I’m in my own locker room so thankfully no can see my facial expression,” she said. “I’ve come to look forward to it. One thing we’ve learned together is to lead with a positive first.”

“She taught me that,” Sterling said.

And she sends him similar texts.

“What’s special about our staff and Jonathan and I as a couple and as colleagues is that we just share information with each other,” Holtkamp said. “You learn to take constructive criticism and learn from each other’s experiences.”

They have not reffed an NBA game together and are not opposed to it. They have reffed the same G-League and pro-am games.

“The biggest thing with officiating is trust,” Sterling said. “When three refs hit the floor, we all trust one another. For us working together on the floor, our trust is there.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter. 

 

 

 

 

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