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Agreement could have refs back in time for season opener

By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Oct 21 2009 7:47AM

An agreement in principle was reached in New York on Tuesday between the league and its veteran referees on a new two-year contract that will end the lockout of the NBA's 57 regular officials and get them on the court in time for next week's regular season opener, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions.

The agreement came after the referee's union indicated to the league that if it would accept the officials' latest proposal, the union's five-member executive board would recommend to the rank and file to ratify the deal, and that the union could assure broad support among the membership, the source said. The NBA agreed. The executive board will recommend passage of the new contract on Friday in a meeting of the officials in New Jersey, with the expectation of approval that would lead to all referees reporting to a brief camp on Saturday before the start of games a week from today.

"I think it's great," players' association director Billy Hunter said. "We'd welcome them back."

Tuesday's meeting included NBA Commissioner David Stern and the union's attorney, Lamell McMorris, who hadn't met face-to-face in more than a month, since acrimonious negotiations between the two led to each recusing himself from further negotiations between the sides. Also at the meeting, according to the source, was deputy commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA's president of league and basketball operations, Joel Litvin, and the league's executive vice president and general counsel, Rick Buchanan.

McMorris was joined on the referees' side by officials Steve Javie, Bennet Salvatore and Bob Delaney, all members of the union's executive committee.

The New York Times first reported the tenative agreement between the two sides.

The source did not detail what concessions the officials made in their latest proposal, but the league had sought significant reductions in the referees' retirement packages and for the union to agree to allow, for the first time, the use of Development League and WNBA officials for NBA games.

The league had asked for reductions in the severance packages that officials who retire receive from the league. The NBA wants to eliminate severance checks that retiring officials receive in addition to the pensions they get from the NBA if those officials do not have 10 years of service, or for any new officials that are hired from this point forward. It seeks to reduce the severance amount for officials with more than 10 years of service. Currently, officials with 20 or more years of service can receive severance checks of up to $575,000. The referees are the only NBA employees that receive severance pay on top of their pensions.

The union had balked at this before, believing that the NBA was seeking the changes to force older officials to leave, without leaving itself vulnerable to age discrimination lawsuits.

The NBA had also asked that it be allowed to use D-League and WNBA officials during the first three months of the NBA regular season, for up to 75 assignments. Previously, D-League and WNBA referees worked the league's summer league schedule, but did not do NBA regular season games. Those officials would not be eligible to work NBA playoff games.

The league also wanted the referees to convert their existing pension plan to one that more resembled a traditional 401(k) retirement account, with vested referees that transferred their accounts able to contribute to them by deferring some of their salaries, the way that other NBA employees have their retirement accounts set up.

The two sides had already agreed to freeze officials' salaries for the 2009-10 season at their current levels, with a small increase for the 2010-11 season, along with cuts in the referees' per diem payments and travel budget. The union asked for a two-year deal instead of the usual five-year deal so that it might be able to get back some of its givebacks quicker if the economy brightens in the next 48 months.

An agreement would end the use of replacement officials that have worked every game of the preseason since the league locked out the regular officials on Sept. 18. The league tried to convince both fans and teams that these officials were much more prepared to referee at the NBA level than the replacement refs the league used the last time there was a referee lockout, early in the 1995-96 season. Those referees were roundly criticized by players and coaches alike.

The league backed up its refs this time with heavy fines. It docked Charlotte's Larry Brown $60,000 for verbally abusing officials and criticizing them afterward. Orlando's Stan Van Gundy was fined $35,000 and Memphis' Lionel Hollins was fined $25,000 for criticizing the officials as well.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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