When Lauren Niemiera played her last basketball game for Bradley University in 2012, the reality was sobering.
"I sat there at my locker and just cried," said Niemiera, an Orland Park native who wasa star point guard at Marist High School. "I didn't want to take off my uniform. I didn't want that to be my last game."
Many athletes feel that profound loss when their careers end. Their sports, and the life that goes with them, were often all they've known for years.
That's why many become coaches, trainers, officials or even sports reporters. It keeps them close to the game.
"I spent all my time growing up playing basketball," Niemiera said. "I wanted to stay around basketball."
Since she graduated from Bradley, Niemiera has coached youth basketball teams, she has worked in game operations for the NBA summer league in Las Vegas, done public relations for the Chicago Sky, and officiated girls high school games.
Thanks to a pilot program by the NBA, the 26-year-old Niemiera is on a fast track to becoming one of the most successful young female basketball officials in the country.
Last year, in an effort to improve officiating and to find new talent, the NBA created an intensive officiating program called the NBA Referee Development Program. Eight trainees from around the country were selected, including Niemiera and former DePaul basketball player Kelsey Reynolds, Niemiera's roommate.
Niemiera left her job with the Sky to sign on to the program.
The eight students are full-time employees of the NBA and live in New York City so they can easily get to NBA offices for instruction. They can come and go as they please to accept as many officiating jobs in the area as possible.
"It's as if they created a job just for me," Niemiera said gleefully. "This is what I was trying to do all along, just concentrate on officiating. But that's hard for most people to do. Most people have other jobs and officiate on the side. This job is great because all I do all day long is focus on officiating. I read rule books and review tape and get myself to and from games. I do a lot of AAU games in New York and New Jersey, a lot of high school games, a lot of men's league games, which are big here.
"I had never been to New York before I moved here and I pretty much taught myself the entire subway system just by doing all the games I do."
Niemiera, who joined the program last June and has officiated more than 200 games since then, had her biggest game in March -- the McDonald's all-American game at the United Center in Chicago.
"I did the girls game and it was just a great opportunity," Niemiera said. "It was such an honor to get selected.
"I grew up a huge Bulls fan. It was so cool to be doing a game at the United Center. I mean, I had the chills."
Niemiera hopes to officiate games at the United Center in the next five years. She wants to make it to the NBA, which is a long way from where she started five years ago. In 2012, she was a middle school and intramural referee.
"I had also gotten an internship working the NBA summer league in Las Vegas. I was doing game operations, throwing shirts into the crowd, working halftime activities, things like that," Niemiera said. "That's when I met George Toliver. He asked me if I had ever thought about becoming an official. He said I had a great presence about me."
Toliver is a longtime NBA referee and is in charge of D-League referees. He was in Las Vegas observing officials when he met Niemiera. Toliver also happens to be the father of WNBA star Kristi Toliver, who played for the Sky and is now with the Washington Mystics.
George Toliver has remained a mentor for Niemiera.
"He always believed in me and he's always helped me out," Niemiera said.
One of the most interesting things about the NBA's program, which is designed to be two to three years in duration, is that it is an experiment to determine if it is possible to train new prospects from scratch or almost scratch.
"There are eight of us, four females, four males. All of us played at least college basketball and one guy played in the NBA, but of the eight of us, three have never even picked up a whistle as a referee, and pretty much the rest of us have done mostly just high school or even lower levels than that," Niemiera said. "They are training us basically from the beginning. And a year in, it's amazing how much progress we have all made.
"The whole goal of this program is to create a more diverse officiating pool and to improve officiating (by teaching good habits at the start)."
Speaking of diversity, Niemiera believes being a female gives her a leg up in the race to become an NBA referee.
There have been only three female officials in NBA history, and Lauren Holtkamp is the only female in the current rotation. Those numbers should go up soon. Of the 19 officials hired by the D-League last year, eight were female. And all NBA officials must progress through the D-League first. There are currently 15 female D-League officials.
"There is great opportunity for being a female official," Niemiera said. "And being in this program is also a great opportunity for me."
Niemiera will get a chance in May of 2018 to pass through a three-level testing process that could get her a job in the D-League by next summer.
"I really want to be an NBA official. Hopefully that will happen in five to seven years," Niemiera said. "I just love the game so much and officiating gives you the chance to help improve it."