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Refs could be back in time for NBA season

THE NBA's locked-out referees could be back on the floor in time for the season.

The league has made a new proposal, and a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press it will be recommended for approval to the referees on Friday. The person, who requested anonymity because the negotiations are ongoing, said it's "highly likely" they'll be on the court before next Tuesday's season opener in Cleveland.

The breakthrough in the labor dispute came yesterday, after a meeting between league commissioner David Stern and referees union negotiator Lamell McMorris - who had both previously withdrawn from the process.

Neither the NBA nor the National Basketball Referees Association would comment on their progress.

The contract between the league and the union expired on Sept. 1 and the sides have been unable to reach a deal, though they were close a couple of times. The league has been using replacements officials in the preseason, and they have been criticized for the high number of fouls called in the games.

After multiple breakdowns in the talks - one when the referees rejected a deal their negotiators had agreed to in principle days earlier - the NBA seemed set to open a season with replacement officials for the first time since the 1995-96 season.

But progress apparently came with the return of Stern and McMorris, who met yesterday in New York. Stern had removed himself in early September when McMorris criticized his behavior after abruptly ending a meeting the referees' negotiators had traveled to league headquarters for.

McMorris then pulled out late last month, after the union's executive board originally voted to recommend the approval of a proposal from the league, but the full membership rejected it.

The sides agreed long ago on salary issues, in which the referees would get a minor raise in the second of a two-year deal, but remained apart on the league's proposed changes to the referees' pension and severance packages, as well as a plan to develop younger officials.

Charlotte's Larry Brown, Orlando's Stan Van Gundy and Memphis coach Lionel Hollins all have been fined for publicly criticizing the performance of the replacement officials, who were mostly called up from the NBA Development League or WNBA.


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