The prospect of replacement referees calling NBA games for the first time since 1995 is looming larger by the day after the latest negotiating session between the current refs and league executives broke down Tuesday.
The NBA's most recent contract with its 60-plus referees expired Sept. 1 and Tuesday's bargaining session in New York was called to an abrupt halt by commissioner David Stern, according to one source with knowledge of the talks.
No further talks are scheduled between the sides with only 22 days before the league's first scheduled exhibition game Oct. 1. The likelihood that replacement refs will be needed for that game -- Denver at Utah -- has "increased dramatically," according to the source.
ESPN.com reported Aug. 25 that the league is seeking an across-the-board reduction of 10 percent to a referee budget that costs an estimated $32 million.
One source said Tuesday that the referees have proposed a reduction of $2.5 million -- roughly $700,000 away from the NBA's target -- but added that the refs are bracing for a lockout at this point after Stern "shut [Tuesday's] meeting down."
The source said: "We anticipate that there will be replacement refs."
"I think it would be accurate to say that we had the meeting, that we didn't make any progress and that there are no future meetings scheduled," Stern said Tuesday night in a telephone interview with NBA TV. "... Referees are a valuable part of our game and we've tried to treat them accordingly."
Lamell McMorris, spokesman and lead negotiator for the referees' union, declined comment when reached Tuesday. McMorris also represents Major League Baseball umpires, whose current contract expires Dec. 31, 2009.
One source with knowledge of the league's thinking told ESPN.com last month and reiterated Tuesday that he expects NBA referees, in this depressed economy, to ultimate agree to the additional reduction from $2.5 million to $3.2 million when faced with the reality of not working.
The same source had previously stated that one motivation for the NBA taking such a firm stance is to demonstrate the hard-line approach that some owners are pushing for in collective-bargaining talks with NBA players that began earlier this month. The NBA's labor pact with its players expires after the 2010-11 season, but the sides have opened negotiations much earlier than normal in a bow to a difficult economic climate that has prompted numerous teams to curtail spending.
The referees, according to the first source, will meet in Chicago next week to discuss their next steps. They typically convene for training camp in the third week of September, but it appears more likely that the league will have to begin lining up replacement referees for the first time since the 1995-96 season, when refs were locked out for more than two months before reaching an agreement to return to work in December 1995.
Two current veterans, Bill Kennedy and former NBA player Leon Wood, are notable examples of 1995 replacement referees who wound up working in the league full time.
The proposed cuts to the referee budget are believed to include reductions in travel costs, pension payouts and health benefits in addition to salary cuts.
The referees have argued against the sort of budget cuts widely imposed on team and league office employees by insisting the late hours they work and difficult travel conditions they endure -- in addition to the injury risks and daily scrutiny they're subjected to -- make them unlike any other group of NBA employees.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.