NBA G League referee Intae Hwang, a native of South Korea, is being promoted to the NBA’s full-time referee staff for the upcoming season.
The news is a major milestone for Hwang following an inspirational journey to reach this point. He becomes the first NBA staff referee from outside North America.
Hwang has officiated games in the NBA before — he served as a non-staff referee during seven games in the 2022-23 NBA regular season — but is now earning a major promotion ahead of the league’s new campaign.
“Officiating is a kind of addiction,” Hwang said, describing his first experiences in the profession. “After every single game, you feel so bad. People were yelling at me. What I read in the rule book, I forgot during the game. It was terrible. I wanted to get better and better. I want to be perfect, but now I’ve learned from my classes that we cannot be perfect. We can only be excellent.”
In addition to his experience in the G League (and small taste of officiating in the NBA), Hwang has experience as a referee in international competition and the WNBA.
In 2020, Hwang moved to Fort Lee, N.J. in hopes of becoming a referee in the U.S. He took his wife and children with him, going through the major life change so that he could accept an invitation to the NBA’s Referee Development Program.
The program, which is supposed to take three years to complete, only took Hwang 18 months.
“Not everyone is willing to dream big,” said Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s head of referee development and training. “Intae was willing to take a risk on officiating and on the collective happiness of his family. He had the courage to think he could accomplish big things.”
The development program paid Hwang a salary, but he wasn’t guaranteed a full-time job when he decided to move his family to the U.S. He took a gamble and is seeing the benefits now.
“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 one second. Am I dreaming? Life is completely different [in Fort Lee], but we’ve found a big Korean community.”
Life as a referee isn’t always easy, but Hwang seems to be embracing everything it has to offer.
“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 break out in ‘Refs, you suck!’ chants,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Ben Golliver. “His children, unaware of what they were saying, joined in. Hwang laughed at the memory, noting that his family has fully supported his globe-trotting professional path and that his children don’t think he sucks.”
The upcoming NBA season will begin on Oct. 24, giving Hwang some time to prepare for what’s ahead. NBA fans will certainly appreciate his mentality. He doesn’t want to be the center of attention — he simply wants the focus to be on the players.
“I’m not a star player,” he said. “I’m not the main actor. I’m not that special. After watching a game, I hope the spectators talk 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 game without any yelling.”
His journey as a full-time staff referee is just beginning and will certainly be worth keeping an eye on moving forward. His story is sure to get folks talking, but based on his comments, he’ll probably be happiest if he performs so well that he flies under the radar.