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NBA, players differ on use of replacement refs

THE NBA's president of basketball operations is confident replacement officials will perform well if they are needed when the season begins.

The players aren't so sure.

The NBA and its referees union have failed to reach an agreement on a new contract, so the league will begin training replacements this week. Without a new deal soon, those replacements would be used in games starting on Oct. 1.

The officiating was criticized during the last lockout in 1995, but Joel Litvin said yesterday it will be better this time because the replacements are from the WNBA and NBA Development League and familiar with the NBA program.

"These referees are sort of part of the extended family, which is what makes it different from '95. The vast majority are either D-League referees, they're WNBA referees, they've been to our summer leagues and been trained by our managers," Litvin said. "They've been to our tryouts.

"So unlike in '95, when we were selecting more or less strangers to be replacements, these are people that we know and have been working with for several years, which is a reason why we feel pretty good about how they will perform when they're on the floor."

But Lakers guard Derek Fisher, president of the players' association, said the NBA's referees are the best in the world and called for a quick resolution, saying not having them on the floor is "unacceptable."

"Players throughout the league are concerned that the use of replacement referees could compromise the integrity of our games," Fisher said in a statement released by the players' association the day before they were scheduled to meet again with league officials for negotiations toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

"Our fans deserve the best product that we can put on the court and that includes having the best referees. Anything less is unacceptable to our union and our members."

However, the league and the referees' union are still far apart on proposals involving changes to the referees' pension and severance packages, as well as a plan to develop younger officials. No further talks are scheduled after they broke down last week.

"Our preference is always to have our regular referees on the floor," Litvin said. "They're the best in the world. So whether that happens remains to be seen."

Training camp opens Thursday, and the league hopes to emerge with 50-60 officials to comprise the replacement roster. Most - perhaps all - will come from within leagues the NBA oversees, a key difference from the heavily criticized officiating during the previous lockout.

The league has had some success with replacement officials. There are currently 17 on the roster, including recent NBA finals referees Joe Crawford, Danny Crawford and Ken Mauer, who began their careers as replacements during work stoppages.

The NBA also confirmed that Robbie Robinson and Micheal Henderson, former NBA refs who were fired by the league, are among those expected at camp.

League officials have taken great steps to praise the work of their officials, particularly since the betting scandal involving former referee Tim Donaghy that brought their profession under scrutiny, and won't pretend the replacements can truly take their place.

"We're not telling anyone that our referee staff are anything other than the 60 best referees in the world. They still are," Litvin said. "No one here is saying that the replacement referees will be as good as our 60 referees, because they won't be. But they're pretty close to being the next best 60 in the world."


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