For one referee, path from Korea to the NBA wasn’t easy

Intae Hwang wanted to play basketball. His parents wouldn’t allow it.

He reached the NBA anyway.

Hwang took the ultimate leap of faith nearly three years ago: Move his family halfway across the world, from their native South Korea to a new home in New Jersey, to follow his dream of becoming an NBA referee. He’s getting closer to making that a reality, after working some preseason games this month — including Monday’s Washington-Charlotte contest — and is expected to get some assignments as a non-staff official during the regular season.

“The NBA was just my dream,” Hwang said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I watched it on TV, right? That’s it. I never, ever tried to get into the NBA by myself.”

Instead, the NBA found him.

Hwang has been an official for nearly 20 years, and it wasn’t always easy; he got head-butted by a coach in 2014, and he said that left him evaluating his future. But he stayed in the game and was selected by FIBA — the sport’s international governing body — to be part of the referee corps for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Much in the same way that NBA teams scout internationally for player talent, the NBA also scouts all over the globe for refereeing talent.

And from those Rio Games came an invitation from the NBA to come to Las Vegas for Summer League in 2017. With that, Hwang’s journey really began. The league continued following his career after he returned to South Korea, building a relationship, and he eventually had a decision to make.

“Intae showed an enormous amount of capacity for quick learning, quick application,” said Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s senior vice president overseeing referees. “He had a dream to be a part of our program. He came over here and was part of our referee development program, which we used as a way in which he could learn language and culture. He entered our pipeline through merit, not with any promise. He moved over here without any promise.”

Hwang and his family moved to the U.S. in January 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic struck weeks later. Hwang, who exudes optimism, looked at that as an opportunity — and during all those months without basketball studied the G League and NBA games, plus continued working on his command of English.

He’s been a G League official, now has some NBA preseason experience, and that trajectory has him on a path toward becoming a full-fledged NBA ref.

“All he did was put in the work, day in and day out,” McCutchen said.

Referees have to make split-second decisions. That’s why, once the invitation from the NBA came, Hwang didn’t need long to make up his mind.

“I just worried about my family, my wife and my son and daughter,” Hwang said. “My wife sacrificed a lot, because she couldn’t speak English at all. Now she can (say) ‘thank you, hi,’ those kinds of things.”

But his family loves it here. He’s thankful for the chance. And even though his dream of becoming a basketball player never materialized — both his parents were athletes and they wanted more from their son — he’s found his way into the top league in the world anyway.

“I love basketball,” he said.