June 16, 2024

Tuesday’s NBA season tipoff includes a historic moment for Highland Park native Che Flores.

The longtime basketball referee announced their status as nonbinary and transgender in an interview Sunday with men’s lifestyle magazine GQ. Flores is the league’s first such referee and is believed to be the first out nonbinary and transgender official in all major U.S. and Canadian sports.

Flores, who uses the pronouns they and them, was not available for comment Tuesday. But their former coach Jim Couch, who coached Flores at Burbank’s Bellarmine-Jefferson High School and Los Angeles Pierce College, said he wasn’t surprised Flores “climbed their way to the top.”

Flores “was a special player whose passion and effort led to [their] success,” Couch said. “That success is not a surprise.”

Flores, who grew up in Highland Park, is starting their second season in the NBA after working as a non-staff official during the 2021-22 season. They previously worked 10 seasons in the WNBA and nine seasons in the NBA G League, according to their National Basketball Referee Assn. profile. Flores worked both association’s finals series in 2022.

Previously, Flores spent 13 years officiating several NCAA leagues, including the Pac-12, Big 12 and Mountain West. They also worked the women’s Division I title game in 2021 and the Final Four in 2019.

Flores, 44, told GQ they weren’t seeking any spotlight with their announcement. Instead, they said, this is a way to provide visibility for queer youths.

“This is just to let young kids know that we can exist, we can be successful in all different ways,” Flores told the magazine. “For me, that is most important — to just be a face that somebody can be like, ‘Oh, OK, that person exists. I think I can do that.’ ”

A starting point guard on Bellarmine-Jefferson’s CIF Southern Section Division IV-A title team — the school’s first — Flores played with future WNBA player Jaclyn Johnson. Couch coached Flores at Bell-Jeff as the senior upped their postseason play, averaging 18 points, 8.4 assists and seven steals, topping their average of 11.9 points, 6.2 assists and 5.6 steals in the regular season.

After graduation, Flores moved on to Pierce College before transferring and playing two seasons at Cal State Northridge. There, Flores played 27 games over two years, finishing with 26 points, 18 rebounds, 19 assists and 10 steals.

Couch, who retired as Pierce College’s women’s basketball coach, last saw his former player in 2010 when they were officiating a community college women’s basketball game between Pierce and Ventura College, which the latter won by a few points, according to Couch.

“It was a game where I could have used a couple of calls, but [Flores] wasn’t having it,” Couch said with a laugh. “I think I had more calls against me.”

Flores’ announcement comes at a time when legislators and governing bodies worldwide have restricted or banned the participation of transgender athletes.

House Republicans passed a bill in April barring transgender females from participating on girls’ or women’s sports teams in federally supported schools and colleges.

World swimming’s governing body, FINA, also banned transgender women from competing in female events in 2022.

Flores told GQ that “being misgendered as she/her always just felt like a little jab in the gut.” But since the announcement, Flores said they “can go through the world, and even my job, a lot more comfortably.”

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