For a referee, Korea’s path to the NBA wasn’t easy

NBA official Intae Hwang attends the 2022 NBA Summer League on July 12, 2022.

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

He still made it to the NBA.

Hwang took the ultimate leap of faith nearly three years ago: moving his family halfway around the world, from their native South Korea to a new home in New Jersey, to fulfill his dream of becoming a referee. of the NBA. He’s getting closer to achieving that, having appeared in a few preseason games this month — including Monday’s Washington-Charlotte contest — and is expected to get assignments as a non-staff official during the season. regular season.

“The NBA was just my dream,” Hwang said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I watched it on TV, didn’t I? That’s it. I never, ever tried to get into the NBA on my own.

Instead, the NBA found him.

Hwang has been a civil servant for nearly 20 years, and it hasn’t always been easy; he was given a whim by a trainer in 2014, and he said it left him assessing 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. the NBA are looking for talented players internationally, the NBA is also looking for refereeing talent worldwide.

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

“Intae has shown tremendous ability to learn quickly, apply quickly,” said Monty McCutchen, NBA senior vice president overseeing referees. “He dreamed of being part of our program. He came here and was part of our referee development program, which we used to help him learn the language and the culture. It entered our pipeline on merit, not with a promise. He moved here without any promise.

Hwang and her family moved to the United States in January 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic hit weeks later. Hwang, who exudes optimism, saw this as an opportunity – and during all those months without basketball, he studied G League and NBA games, and continued to work on his mastery of the game. English.

He’s been a G League official, now has some NBA preseason experience, and that trajectory is leading him to become a full-fledged NBA referee.

“Everything he’s done has been put to work, day in and day out,” McCutchen said.

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

“I was just worried about my family, my wife, my son and my daughter,” Hwang said. “My wife made a lot of sacrifices, because she didn’t speak English at all. Now she can (say) ‘thank you, hi’, that kind of stuff.

But his family loves it here. He is grateful for the luck. 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 still found his place in the best league in the world.

“I love basketball,” he said.

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