Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fear the NBA Replacement Officials

Fear the NBA Replacement Officials

Dennis RodmanIn case anyone has forgotten, the last time the NBA started a season using replacement officials -- 1995-96 -- it was not a pretty sight.

It was close to chaos.

With the league Friday officially notifying the union that the lockout has begun, it's a certainty that the exhibition schedule -- and likely the regular season -- will start next month with new officials calling the games.

The league has lined up officials from the D-League to come to a revamped training camp next week. The preseason games start Oct. 1. The regular season doesn't begin until Oct. 27.

"It is extremely disappointing that the (union) has ignored the economic realities, rejected our offer, and left us no choice but to begin using replacement officials,'' said NBA executive vice president and general counsel Rick Buchanan in a statement.

The NBA used replacement officials for more than two months during the start of that 95-96 season. During that time, players, coaches and fans -- more than ever -- were criticizing officials, who struggled to control games from getting out of hand."The level of play will be severely affected with replacements. Every fan knows that. We hope the NBA knows that. I don't think that's something anyone wants to revisit.''
-- Lamell McMorris

Injuries, ejections and fines all went up during that period.

"From our perspective, the door is still open to talk, but it sure doesn't look good right now,'' said Lamell McMorris, lead negotiator for the union. "With replacements, everyone should be concerned.''

It's one reason veteran Shaquille O'Neal, who played with replacements refs during his fourth and final season in Orlando in 1995 -- urged both sides Friday to come to a quick agreement. O'Neal spoke at a charity function near his home in Orlando organized by his mother that raises money to provide nursing scholarships at various colleges and universities.

"The refs have been vital to this league for a long time. They should be treated accordingly,'' O'Neal said. "We need perfection out there. The league needs to get this done.''

The two sides already have agreed on many parameters of a new, two-year deal, including salary terms. But they are still far apart over reductions to the pension benefits and severance packages paid to retiring officials.

O'Neal had his right thumb broken in a surprisingly physical exhibition game that was officiated by replacement officials in 1995. It happened when Matt Geiger karate chopped him across the hands before he went up to dunk.

Also early that season (with replacements still on the job), Chris Webber missed a month with an injured shoulder that he hurt during a fight with Luc Longley; the league suspended 16 players for their role in a fight that occurred during a Kings/Pacers game; David Robinson was ejected during a game in which 22 fouls were called in one quarter alone.

Players were fined a combined $202,500 in November of 1995. By comparison, player fines totaled only $147,000 for the entire 1994-95 season.

"The level of play will be severely affected with replacements,'' said McMorris. "Every fan knows that. We hope the NBA knows that. I don't think that's something anyone wants to revisit.''
All 57 NBA officials met earlier this week in Chicago, and rejected a proposal by the league. They met again Thursday morning to discuss a counterproposal before dispersing to various parts of the country.

They originally were expected to reconvene Sunday for their annual training camp, but that camp, which will be rescheduled, will start only with replacement officials.

The contract between the union and the league officially expired Sept. 1. According to the league's statement Friday, referees were getting retirement bonuses of up to $575,000 on top of pensions, which is something it is trying to change in its next contract.

"We've got serious problems now,'' McMorris said. "But it's not one we can't get over. We're not in a shut-down mode. There still is dialogue going back and forth. No one has turned their phones off yet.''

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