NBA Referee Che Flores on Becoming the First Out Trans and Nonbinary Ref in American Pro Sports

“Once I was on the court, I fell in love with it,” Flores says. It felt like a natural way to earn some cash and stay involved with the sport they loved. And, increasingly, gender didn’t seem like a barrier to a career at the highest levels of the game. “I had no idea to what degree, but I do remember Violet Palmer being in the NBA and she was the only different one out of that entire staff,” Flores says, referring to the league’s first female ref. “And that was some sort of glimmer of hope, like, Oh, is the NBA actually a destination?

Despite their initial reticence, Flores immediately took to reffing, and their talent got noticed. It’s a long climb from high school games to the premier pro basketball league in the world, but referees share a special comradeship, and tend to look out for one another. (They also, it turns out, have lives off of the basketball court: Flores is a capable stick-and-poke tattoo artist, and in our interview revealed they were the “mystery ref” who gave soccer star Megan Rapinoe a tattoo during their final night in the Wubble, the WNBA’s pandemic campus.) They are bonded by a strange shared experience: fans usually only remember the officiating from a game if they really hated it. Veteran officials tend to look out for budding talent and establish mentor relationships early on to help them climb through the ranks. That summer, Flores started to get invited to camps, where refs get their “true training.”

“We would come in and then every referee would assess every other referee, and we would all decide collectively who would move on and who would literally get voted off the island,” Flores says. “It was like Survivor with referees.”

Billy Kennedy, the veteran NBA ref, remembers noticing Flores at those camps, where, he says, “the cream will rise to the top. Che is one of those that has risen to the top and has done it all on their own.”

By 2012, Flores was working a year-round schedule as a referee for the NCAA, NBA G League, and WNBA, a grueling grind they more or less kept up for 10 years. “I was working five days a week,” they say. “There was really no off-season.” They would work a game, then catch a flight to the next city that night or early the next morning. Professional leagues take care of referees’ travel accommodations, but NCAA refs act as independent contractors, and are responsible for making their own schedules and booking their own travel, which can make for some dizzying calculations. “If I work for four different college supervisors for any of the Power Fives, I’m getting schedules from all four of them, and I have to decide which games I’m taking,” Flores explains. “With that, I have to look at the next four months and make sure I don’t double book, [and that] I’m able to get to Billings, Montana, from Florida State.”

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