You’ve got the best spot in the arena, up close and personal with the world’s best players performing remarkable feats of athleticism and skill. The downside is every decision you make is relentlessly scrutinized and endlessly discussed. But Hwang In-tae, who is the first Asian staff referee in the NBA, wouldn’t have it any other way. Hwang has come a long way since he used to put on a show for his university friends back in South Korea by dunking the basketball.
An ability to dunk the ball isn’t a skill everyone possesses and Hwang’s display caught the attention of one watcher. Shin Gi-rok, who is three years older than Hwang and also attended Busan University of Foreign Studies, was impressed by the dunking show, but also spotted other areas for potential development. “A player needs to focus on the game, not how he looks. You need to play humble, but he was doing dunks to show off,” Shin told CNN Sport .
“I didn’t scold him, it was more like pointing out not to do that, that he should show his true hardworking self, instead of trying to look cool.”
Despite those flashes of athleticism and his love for basketball, Hwang’s dreams of playing proved short-lived. According to Shin, Hwang’s parents weren’t enthusiastic about a playing career and he also “wasn’t an elite player.”
So Hwang was forced to turn to greener pastures for a future career, and in Shin, he had an ideal role model, as he had already made strides in transitioning into a career as a basketball referee.
Since switching dunks and free-throws for whistles and ejections, Hwang has risen up the ranks of global refereeing and in this 2023-24 season, all his hard work will be rewarded as becomes the first NBA staff referee from outside of North America. “When In-tae left for America, I urged him not to come back midway and to come back after accomplishing his dream,” says Shin, explaining his pride in his refereeing protege. “I know it wasn’t an easy process for him.
He travelled with his family, so I know he had various hardships, like environmental [cultural] issues, financial issues and many complex issues that made it uneasy for him. I saw him struggle midway. But he became a full-time referee, overcoming all that. “When I read the article [about Hwang becoming full-time], I was proud that he has finally made it: the first Asian referee. It’s an incredible achievement. Amazing and proud,” added Shin, who says whenever he traveled abroad other referees would ask him about In-tae and his NBA ambitions.
Just like unearthing a future NBA or WNBA star, there is a scouting group to find potential standout NBA referees. According to nbaofficials.com , the goal for the NBA and WNBA is “to recruit referees from around the globe to become part of our team.”
Perhaps no one embodies that more than Hwang, who went from domestic amateur leagues to becoming a regular in the professional Korean Basketball League. He’s also taken part in the Olympics, officiating in the 2016 Rio Summer Games, including the women’s gold medal game between the US and Spain.
His excellence with FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) earned Hwang recognition by the NBA. He was inducted into the league’s education system before then refereeing in the G League – the NBA’s developmental league. Hwang’s journey to the NBA follows the prospective route mapped out by the league: 100 candidate officials are scouted from eight possible global basketball organizations and selected for evaluation events, eventually proceeding to the next phase, called the ‘officiating candidate pool.’
The top candidates are then hired by the G League, working preseason games, as well as undergoing further mandatory training.
Only then, will candidates be evaluated and recommended for hire into the NBA and WNBA. Hwang’s permanent promotion to the top of world basketball after two years in the G League – including last season’s Finals – and one season in the WNBA completes his remarkable career trajectory. “If any referee in the world gets a letter from the NBA, they would decide to come without even reading it,” Hwang, who also refereed seven regular-season games as a non-staff official last season, told the Washington Post . “I didn’t hesitate for one second.
Am I dreaming?”
Shin is now one of the leading officials in world basketball, traveling the globe to preside over international competitions as well as becoming a FIBA commissioner . Although Shin graduated from Busan University of Foreign Studies before Hwang, he continued to play basketball with the university’s basketball club occasionally while attending graduate school as a teaching assistant. As a result, he continued giving advice to Hwang as his compatriot began his journey to become a referee at the highest level.
Dealing with a fast-paced game is one of the many challenges referees have and 11-time All-Star Charles Barkley admitted that officials have a “tough job” on their hands. “See, this is what I hate about fans. Of course, you get it right looking at five replays,” Barkley told CNN’s Chris Wallace in a recent interview . “You got in any sport, you got tremendous players moving at warp speed. “You got 10 guys; they’re moving, running up and down the court.
They’re gonna miss some, but I don’t think any official goes to work and says, ‘Let me make a bad call that’s gonna change the outcome of a game,’ but also with replay now, I think it just made their job tougher.”
Hwang himself describes refereeing was like an “addiction” to him. “After every single game, you feel so bad,” he told the Washington Post. “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.”
Both Hwang and Shin are internationally recognized referees registered under the Korean Basketball Association and the pair has worked together occasionally. Shin remembers reffing games together with Hwang at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. And Shin believes that Hwang’s rise will prove to be motivation for others in similar positions to him. “I think it will inspire others,” Shin says.
“There are few new referees at the Korea Basketball Association right now saying that their goal is to become an NBA referee. “It’s not easy, but In-tae showed that it is possible. He gave hope that if you try and put in the work, you could do it.”
Although Shin admits the pair only chat once or twice a season nowadays, they continue to give feedback to one another when they can.
But through Hwang’s journey from Masan, South Korea, to the NBA, Shin knows one thing shines through from his work: his “biggest passion in refereeing.”
“He never falters during the game, avoids scandalous situations with team staffs and manages himself well. These are why he was always respected refereeing on the amateur [level] and the KBL. I think that’s why he was able to reach where he is today.”
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