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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Head of NBA referees' union makes call, on himself

Union members have voted down two agreements negotiated by Lamell McMorris, who has withdrawn from talks. A lockout is still possible, but sides do not appear to be far apart.

October 04, 2009|MARK HEISLER | ON THE NBA

How does an NBA referee go from being a blind, arrogant !@#$%&! to Solomon the Wise, without whom the game of basketball is lost?

This heartwarming development happens every 10 or 20 years, when the !@#$%&!s are locked out and replaced with schnooks who have never officiated an NBA game.

Replacement officials worked last week's exhibition opener in Salt Lake City without incident. This was good news for the league, since the Jazz was playing the volatile Denver Nuggets.

Talks with the National Basketball Referees Assn. broke off last week, after union members rejected the second league proposals that their leaders had agreed to.

Now the issue may be as much among the referees as between them and the league.

This is the referees' first negotiation with Washington lawyer Lamell McMorris as union head, and it's looking like a short run. With two agreements shot down, McMorris announced last week he was turning over future talks to his general counsel and the five-referee board of governors.

A source close to the union says McMorris has actually withdrawn altogether, leaving the referees on their own.

Last week, senior refs began calling outside lawyers, asking for advice on how to proceed.

McMorris didn't return phone calls, or respond to an e-mail request for comment.

Happily for all concerned, whether that includes McMorris or not, the season is still 24 days away . . . amid suggestions that despite all the screaming in negotiations, the sides are actually close to a deal.

Last week McMorris took the latest agreement to his members, with a 3-2 majority in favor among his board -- Joey Crawford, Bennett Salvatore and Bill Spooner for; Steve Javie and Bob Delaney against.

During the ensuing discussion, or uproar, Spooner reportedly switched his vote. The membership then voted down the proposal, overwhelmingly.

So, let's have a big NBA welcome for the new replacement referee corps!

With the Nuggets about to enter this brave new world last week, Kenyon Martin, one of the real referees' bigger burdens, became nostalgic for his old pals.

"I'm going to get suspended in the first month of the season," Martin told the Denver Post's Benjamin Hochman of a lockout that would last into the regular season.

"I'm going to have 15 technicals in the first month just for the simple fact they [replacement officials] don't know how I run my mouth."

At this rate, Martin may have trouble getting to the regular season. The league may or may not fine you for complaining about referees, but it goes completely bonkers during labor talks. The last time Stern locked the players out, he set the fine for any owner who commented at $1 million.

Not surprisingly, everyone is being pretty quiet.

"We're looking forward to it . . . observing and studying," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said, smiling.

Jackson, a longtime critic of the league whose unvarnished opinion of anything it does could cost him $1 million, was asked whether this was sarcasm.

"Irony," he said, merrily.

For all the rancor, the sides agreed on the basic pay package. The league is graciously offering a two-year deal, so the referees can come back in 2011, ideally in a happier economic climate.

The outstanding issue is capping pension costs, and the lavish severance package that gave $575,000 to 20-year veterans over age 55.

With defined pensions becoming a thing of the past in all sectors of the economy, the league's offer isn't unusual.

The problem is, the referees don't understand the new plan. A senior ref, trying to explain the issue last week, acknowledged he didn't really understand it.

The severance is an anomaly, more like a golden parachute top management gives itself, but never anyone in labor, explaining the league's zeal to get rid of it.

Once the referees were considered management, gray-haired veterans like Earl Strom and Mendy Rudolph were venerated, and it didn't seem outrageous to give them a bonus.

Now the league prizes obedience to its directives above the senior guys' throw-the-book-away instincts, in the tradition of Rudolph and Strom, who might have killed the first league executive who called the next morning to give them the results of his video replay of their work.

(Rudolph might have polished him off with a look. Strom would have gone right for his neck the next time he saw him.)

Suggesting the union is either split or just confused, some of the referees who are most affected signed off on the league's proposal. The proposal Crawford and Salvatore backed would have cut the $575,000 severance they thought they had already earned to about $300,000.

At least, they can't pin this on Lamell McMorris anymore.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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