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Friday, September 18, 2009
Refs reject NBA's final contract offer

ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- The NBA will hold training camp next week with replacement officials, saying the referees union has rejected its final contract offer.

The National Basketball Referees Association has been bracing for a lockout since talks first broke down last week, and lead negotiator Lamell McMorris called it "imminent and unavoidable" after no deal was reached Thursday.

A statement from the NBA on Friday made it clear the lockout was under way.

"It is extremely disappointing that the NBRA has ignored the economic realities, rejected our offer, and left us with no choice but to begin using replacement referees," executive vice president and general counsel Rick Buchanan said.

McMorris said the referees didn't view Thursday's negotiations as a final offer, yet wasn't surprised by the NBA's decision.

"I predicted that a lockout was forthcoming and yet it does not mean that both sides cannot continue to talk and work through some of these issues," McMorris said.

Training camp was scheduled to begin Sunday, but will now be pushed back into sometime next week to give the NBA time to line up the replacements and get them to New Jersey. The league did not say how many referees would be at camp. There are 57 active NBA officials.

The league began contacting replacements last Wednesday, the day after the last face-to-face meeting between the sides in New York, which commissioner David Stern abruptly ended because he said the officials reneged on a previously agreed to proposal.

McMorris said he "absolutely disputes" that, insisting replacement officials -- including some who had been fired by the league -- were contacted well before the last session.

McMorris told ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan that one referee who had been contacted was Michael Henderson, who created a flashpoint between the refs and Stern early in McMorris tenure when referees wore their jerseys inside-out with Henderson's number stenciled in as a protest after Henderson was publicly rebuked for a blown call during the 2003-04 season.

The contract between the NBA and its officials expired Sept. 1, and the sides had been trying to reach a new two-year deal. They largely agreed on salaries, which would have held steady this year and given the refs a slight increase in the second year, but the union balked at the league's attempt to change retirement benefits.

The league also sought to lower costs through reductions in areas such as the travel budget and per diems, and the union also fought a league plan to develop younger officials. But the biggest difference was in the referees' pension and severance plans.

The NBA's statement said the previous deal gave the referees retirement bonuses of up to $575,000, on top of pension benefits that could exceed $2 million. It said that came on top of salaries of nearly $150,000 per year for entry level referees and more than $550,000 annually for the most senior referees.

McMorris was upset the NBA included salary information in its release, calling it a "distortion of the referees current compensation", since he contends the NBA gave raises and bonuses to the three men in the league office who oversee the referee operations department.

"I just thought that was an unfortunate low blow that they're attempting to do in order to create media spin and I guess to try to get fans to not sympathize with our plight," McMorris said.

Stern has said the league is trying to bring the referees' budget in line with other departments.

"The proposals we have made to the NBRA are extraordinarily fair and reasonable, given the current economic circumstances," Buchanan said. "Since late 2008, the league and our teams have made far deeper cuts in non-referee headcount and expenses than we are asking for here."

The first preseason game is scheduled for Oct. 1 at Utah. The NBA hasn't used replacement referees since early in the 1995-96 season.

"We're the ones who have given back money, put money back on the table," McMorris said. "I just don't know what else we can do."

Information from ESPN Insider Chris Sheridan was used in this report.