Blanca Burns worked her first game as an NBA referee earlier this season, a clash between the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 27. Before the night was over, she found herself on the receiving end of several loud complaints from legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
For Burns, that potentially intimidating moment was offset by plenty of experience dealing with far more menacing nitpickers: parents of middle school athletes.
“They’re pretty fierce and they don’t hold back,” Burns told ESPN. “Putting myself in those intense situations at the lower levels [has helped in the NBA].”
The first Mexican-born female referee to officiate an NBA game, Burns understandably wants to go down in history as a solid pro. She also wants to officiate at the Olympic Games, fulfilling a lifelong dream of representing Mexico at the international level. However, she believes her ultimate legacy lies in being a trailblazer who can inspire the next generation, and hopefully, bring more Latin American women into the fold.
Burns’ own obsession with the game can be traced to her native Torreón, in the northern Mexico state of Coahuila. After her family moved to El Paso, Texas, then, Oklahoma, it only grew stronger.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I always had a basketball in my hand,” Burns said. “I played the game at every level in school.”
Her talent eventually took her to Mid-America Christian University in Oklahoma City, where she played two seasons of NAIA ball as a point guard. Later, as a way to make ends meet during her time in college, she began working games featuring preschoolers at her local YMCA in Oklahoma City. At 25 dollars a pop, Burns often worked four games a day to earn an even hundred.
As Burns began moving up the ranks as a referee, her focus eventually shifted from playing to officiating. Since 2018, she’s balanced NCAA commitments with regular officiating duties in the G League and earned her first NBA assignment this season.
Through her first handful of games, Burns has already received high-profile assignments featuring some of the league’s biggest stars. Two nights after her debut in San Antonio, Burns was part of the crew calling the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies. Though refs are expected to be stoic, Burns was not above relishing the moment, even if she did so internally.
“You see LeBron [James] and Ja [Morant] there, and to actually be on the court with them — it’s something I’m never going to forget,” Burns said. “At the same time, you realize you’re there to do a job, so you check your emotions.”
Naturally, Burns’ next goal is to become a regular NBA referee.
This season, she is listed as one of nine part-time officials who also have responsibilities in the G League. Within its group of 75 full-time officials working the 2021-22 season, the NBA lists six women, the highest number in league history: Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling, Ashley Moyer-Gleich, Simone Jelks, Natalie Sago, Jenna Schroeder and Danielle Scott.
According to the NBA, 42% of G League referees are women. Thus, it won’t be any surprise to those watching closely when more women show up to call NBA games in the near future.
“It does take time to develop officials,” said Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s senior vice president, head of referee development and training, in an interview with NBA.com. “So my predecessors recognized this and put those seeds into the G League. Now, we’re bearing the fruit of this.”
The added presence of female officials at NBA games is consistent with the expanded role women in general are having in other areas of the league.
During Burns’ debut assignment in San Antonio, Becky Hammon — the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces head coach who is also a Spurs assistant — sat at the front of the bench alongside Popovich, while analyst Holly Rowe (who works for ESPN as well as the Jazz) called the action on television.
“I would just say the NBA has done a great job of putting us out there. If that continues to happen, people won’t be surprised by seeing women as referees,” Burns said. “I can do just as good a job as a man can.”
The NBA’s efforts to expand into Mexico and the whole of Latin America could be an important tool to help Burns reach her goal of full-time status in the short-term. During the NBA’s last visit in 2019, commissioner Adam Silver announced the Mexico City Capitanes would become the first G League franchise to set up shop outside of the United States and Canada. The team made its debut in 2021.
“That would be the dream, for sure. When the Capitanes came in, I told my family members in Mexico City all about it. After COVID, they’re ready to go to games. That would be awesome,” Burns said.
In the meantime, Burns is dedicated to putting herself out there as much as she can to ensure the next basketball-crazed young girl can trace a path to the highest echelons of pro basketball — even if it means taking the road less traveled.
“I try to go to summer camps and reach out to girls at the high school level and tell them it’s possible for women to do this,” Burns said.
“I need to continue giving myself exposure, so that they say ‘Oh my gosh, if she did it — I can do it.’”