Intae Hwang’s groundbreaking journey from South Korea to NBA referee

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LAS VEGAS — Intae Hwang discovered basketball because the soccer field at his middle school in Masan, South Korea, was overcrowded with his classmates huddled in front of the goal hoping to get a shot. A single hanger, tucked away in a corner across campus, received much less attention.

This was 1993, four years before the Korean Basketball League (KBL) was founded and before NBA games were readily available on television in his small hometown. Although he could barely muster the strength to hurl the ball over the rim, he kept at it.

While a freshman at Busan University of Foreign Studies, he attempted and failed to dunk during halftime of an amateur game against a rival college. Kirok Shin, a senior, scolded Hwang for the ostentatious breach of decorum and decided to question him about the finer points of basketball: the length of the court, the circumference of the ball and the number of hooks on the edge of the net. Hwang opted out of the impromptu test, realizing he wanted to know everything he could about the game. Shin happened to be a local judge, and he helped inspire Hwang to pick up a flute for the first time in 2004.

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That look across the schoolyard and the chance encounter with Shin set Hwang, 43, on the path to becoming the first NBA staff referee outside of North America. To reach this point, Hwang moved his wife, Heejung Kang, and two children to Fort Lee, NJ so he could accept an invitation to the NBA’s Referee Development Program (RDP), which trains officials for the NBA, WNBA and G League. A fierce commitment to self-improvement has fueled his journey, which brought him to the United States in January 2020, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic.

“Being a cop is kind of an addiction,” Hwang said, describing his first experiences in the profession. “After every game you feel so bad. People shouted at me. What I read in the rule book I forgot during the game. It was awful. I wanted to get better and better. I want to be perfect, but now I’ve learned from my classes that we can’t be perfect. We can only be excellent.”

As Hwang worked Summer League games in Las Vegas last week, he signaled calls with unusual precision, which he credited to his background as a third-degree black belt in taekwondo. He leaves no stone unturned, rewatches tapes of his calls at least five times, skims over official guides and adheres to a strict game-day routine that includes stretching, weight training, a cardio workout and a meeting with his fellow umpires.

This devotion to his craft helped Hwang complete the three-year RDP in 18 months, and it earned him a job as a referee in G League matches for the past two seasons. Out of the 61 G League officials last season, Hwang was one of eight designated as a non-staff official, a designation that allowed him to play a select number of preseason and regular NBA games matches. This coming season, the NBA plans to fill all open staff positions with officials from its pool of non-tenured candidates like Hwang.

“Not everyone is willing to dream big,” said Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s director of referee development and training. “Intae was willing to take a risk in judgment and on the collective happiness of his family. He had the courage to believe he could accomplish great things.”

Before joining RDP, Hwang spent more than a decade working KBL games and refereeing FIBA ​​tournaments. While working the women’s finals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, he caught the attention of NBA referee administrators. The league has no mandate to add women or international officials, but McCutchen said his goal of developing the best personnel will inevitably cause the NBA to expand its demographics.

RDP paid Hwang a salary, but he was not guaranteed a full-time job when he made the decision to move 7,000 miles from home. As part of the program, he attended regular classes and video reviews while refereeing pro-am games at a Secaucus YMCA gym during the pandemic. Hwang was granted a work visa, which must be renewed annually and allows his family to stay in the United States with him.

“If any referee in the world gets a letter from the NBA, they would decide to come without even reading it,” Hwang said. “I didn’t hesitate for a second. Do I dream? Life is completely different [in Fort Lee]but we have found a large Korean community.”

Hwang came into RDP with more playing experience than many of his classmates — having called games on five continents — but knew he had to bridge cultural divides. His NBA instructors have stressed the importance of building relationships with crew members and players, and Hwang has kept mental notes about his colleagues’ families to make small talk over meals. He speaks five languages ​​- Korean, English and a little Chinese, Japanese and Turkish – but chooses his words carefully to avoid mistakes or miscommunication.

“The language and the culture is a shock,” McCutchen said. “It would be the same if we went to South Korea. Intae did a wonderful job of assimilating into the basketball culture.”

Hwang’s cultural adjustment is on the way: He’s bonded with his colleagues over his love of the Cheesecake Factory, a staple on the NBA circuit, though he’s still adjusting to the heavy travel schedule.

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His two children got a memorable first taste of the NBA when Hwang invited them to one of his preseason games, only for the crowd to erupt in “Refs, you suck!” chants. His children, unaware of what they were saying, joined in. Laughing at the memory, Hwang noted that his family has fully supported his professional globetrotting career and that his children don’t think he’s ugly.

From his father, Jungik Hwang, a retired small businessman, Hwang said he inherited his work ethic and quiet demeanor. From his mother, Jaeryeun Jung, a homemaker, he learned how a good meal can inspire warm feelings.

Hwang is steadfast in his impartiality: He refuses to name his favorite KBL team as a child, his favorite NBA legend or his favorite current referee, and he did not want to compare the rules of the NBA vs. FIBA for fear of expressing a preference that could damage the relationship with coaches or players.

Although Hwang understands he has made an unprecedented sacrifice to pursue a thankless job, he said he has never considered any other profession. He imagines that he will referee until he can no longer run up and down the field, and shrinks from the idea that he is a trailblazer.

“I’m not a star player,” Hwang said. “I’m not the main actor. I’m not that special. After watching a game, I hope the crowd talks about the plays, the dunks and the three-pointers. My goal is that they don’t mention the referee. I feel good when we finish a fight without shouting.”

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