Idae Huang wanted to play basketball. His parents wouldn’t allow it.
He made it to the NBA anyway.
Huang took the ultimate leap of faith nearly three years ago: He moved his family halfway around the world, from their native South Korea to a new home in New Jersey, to pursue his dream of becoming an NBA referee. He’s getting closer to making it happen after working a few preseason games this month — including Monday’s Washington-Charlotte contest — and is expected to get some off-staff assignments during the regular season.
“The NBA was just my dream,” Huang told The Associated Press. “I saw it on TV, right? This is. I never, ever tried to get into the NBA on my own.”
Instead, the NBA found him.
Hwang has been official for nearly 20 years, and it hasn’t always been easy. he was hit by a trainer in 2014 and said it left him evaluating his future. However, he stayed in the game and was selected by FIBA - the sport’s international governing body – to join the refereeing corps for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. In the same way that NBA teams look internationally for talent players, the NBA is also looking for refereeing talent around the world.
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 truly began. The league continued to follow his career after he returned to South Korea, building a relationship, and eventually had to make a decision.
“Intae has shown tremendous ability to learn quickly, apply quickly,” said Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s senior vice president overseeing referees. “He had a dream to be a part of our program. He came here and was part of our referee development program, which we used as a way for him to learn the language and culture. He entered our pipeline on merit, not with any promises. He moved here without any promises.”
Hwang and his family moved to the US in January 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic hit weeks later. Huang, who oozes optimism, saw this as an opportunity – and during all those months without basketball he studied the games of the G League and the NBA, as well as continued to work on learning English.
He has been a G League official, now he has some experience in the NBA preseason and that path has led him to become a full NBA referee.
“All he did was work, day in and day out,” McCutchen said.
Referees have to make split-second decisions. So when the invitation came from the NBA, it didn’t take long for Huang to make up his mind.
“I was just worried about my family, my wife and my son and my daughter,” Huang said. “My wife sacrificed a lot because she couldn’t speak English at all. Now he can (say) ‘thank you, hello,’ things like that.”
But his family loves it here. He is grateful for the opportunity. And although his dream of becoming a basketball player never materialized – both his parents were athletes and wanted more from their son – he has found his way into the world’s top league anyway.
“I love basketball,” he said.