First International Referee in the NBA is announced
Hwang In-Tae is the first non-American referee within the National Basketball Association.
On Oct. 24, the National Basketball Association released its Official Guide for the 2023-2024 season. Among the 82 officials listed, one man stands out in particular: Hwang In-Tae. This would be Hwang’s first ever season as an NBA referee. But this personal milestone is something much greater. This season would be the first time the NBA had a referee from outside of America.
Hwang’s roots can be traced back to South Korea, where he had already developed a strong passion for playing basketball. Hwang had always dreamt of playing professionally, yet his parents disapproved, saying that he simply “wasn’t an elite player.” That didn’t deter him from playing at college. At Busan University, Hwang would play for his club team, often attempting flashy dunks that would spark the crowd into a frenzy. His style of play would catch the eye of one spectator, Shin Gi-rok. Unlike the others in the crowd, Gi-rok wasn’t as fazed by Hwang’s style of play. In fact, one could say he was a little annoyed.
“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,” Gi-rok told CNN.
According to CNN, after scolding Hwang personally, Gi-rok quizzed Hwang on the more intricate details of basketball such as the length of the court and the circumference of the ball. Although Hwang had failed this impromptu quiz, he was determined to know more. This hunger for knowledge became a stepping stone on his journey as a professional referee.
Gi-rok, who happened to be a local basketball referee, would be the mentor who Hwang would learn from. Hwang started training as a referee for the Korean Basketball Association in 2004. Later, he played in the Korean Basketball League (KBL) from 2008 to 2019, which included over 496 league games, 22 KBL playoff games, eight KBL Finals games and the 2019 KBL All-Star Game.
Hwang’s officiating had also gained the attention of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). He was selected to referee some international games, one of which was the women’s tournament of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Hwang’s success on the international stage impressed NBA scouts. In 2020, Hwang received an invitation to participate in the NBA’s Referee Development Program. Despite not being guaranteed a full time job, Hwang bet on himself, and moved him and his family to the United States without any hesitation.
From that point on, Hwang started to referee games in the G-league (the NBA’s developmental league) where he gained some more experience, a major highlight being the 2023 G-League Finals. Hwang also officiated one season in the Women's National Basketball Association. In 2023, the NBA announced that Hwang would serve as an official member of the staff. Hwang will alternate between G-league and NBA games, as all referees with fewer than four years of experience are required to do so.
To Hwang, refereeing is more than just his job. He calls it an “addiction.” Hwang’s constant hunger for knowledge motivated him to be better each game. “After every single game, you feel so bad. 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,” Hwang said, according to the Washington Post.
Hwang’s precise hand signals on the courts is also a testament to his personality: Hwang refuses to answer questions such as his favorite basketball player of all time nor his favorite league in fear of sparking controversy amongst the players and coaches that he officiates.
Others have also noticed Hwang’s excellence. “Not everyone is willing to dream big. Hwang 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,” said Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s head of referee development and training, as reported on by the Washington Post.
For many professions, standing out may be essential for people to showcase their excellence. But when it comes to referring, Hwang prefers to stay out of the spotlight. “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.”
According to the NBA website, one of its missions is to “to recruit referees from around the globe to become part of our team.” While Hwang may be the first person to embody that spirit, one can only imagine the potential for others to follow in his footsteps after seeing Hwang’s success.
“I think [Hwang] will inspire others,” Gi-rok, now an internationally recognized referee, said. “There are few new referees at the Korea Basketball Association right now saying that their goal is to become an NBA referee.”