Sources: Ref agreement closer

The NBA's locked-out referees are on the verge of a return to work next week after an unexpected meeting Tuesday in New York headlined by commissioner David Stern and Lamell McMorris of the referees' union has led to a tentative labor agreement.

Sources close to the process told ESPN.com that the referees are scheduled to vote on the latest proposed agreement Friday after the sudden progress in negotiations, which comes weeks after both Stern and McMorris separately withdrew from the oft-contentious negotiations leading into the lockout.

Tuesday's agreement in principal, sources said, has the support of the referee union's executive board and is expected to be ratified with scant resistance after the NBA's 57 tenured referees watched replacements from the D-League and WNBA work the entire exhibition season. Ratification in New Jersey would then be followed by a weekend training camp for the refs to get them ready for the start of the regular season.

"A lot is happening behind the scenes," one source said.

"Things look promising," said another source.

League officials declined comment Tuesday night and will not officially address how quickly veteran referees will be ready to call games until after Friday's vote, but multiple sources close to the process said that the veterans will indeed be back at work in time for Tuesday's opening night even though their regularly scheduled September training camp was one of the early casualties of the lockout.

When apprised that the refs' union and league officials reached common ground on the differences that previously held up a deal, NBA Players Association chief Billy Hunter told the Associated Press: "I think it's great. We'd welcome them back."

Opening night is just a week away, with four games scheduled next Tuesday. Yet it was an undeniably significant sign that the executive board of the referees' union -- McMorris included -- met face to face with Stern on Tuesday at the league's offices in Manhattan. One source insisted Tuesday that it is "highly likely" that the veterans will be reinstated by Tuesday after using the rest of this week to get ready, with another source supporting that assertion as long as Friday's vote proceeds as expected.

The NBA thought it had struck a deal with its referees late last month, only for an 11th-hour reversal from the refs' executive board and a subsequent 43-14 vote against that proposal to prompt Stern to impose a lockout. Walking away from that deal was the impetus behind McMorris' pullout from the negotiations, as he had pushed for accepting the league's offer.

A rejection of the new offer by the rank and file, by contrast, is seen as highly unlikely by those close to the process, since it would leave veteran officials jobless in the face of a rough national economy and also encourage an increasingly impatient Stern to stick with the replacement refs after yet another public negotiating setback.

Assuming there are no snags this time, Tuesday's developments are likely to be widely applauded throughout the league, following the expected rash of complaints from coaches and players about how tightly games have been called in the preseason. Charlotte's Larry Brown, Memphis' Lionel Hollins and Orlando's Stan Van Gundy were fined this month for speaking out about the replacement refs, and tensions only figured to rise once games actually started counting.

Yet it appears that the fact that the sides had seemingly been close in negotiations at various points over the past several weeks enabled the NBA to avoid a repeat of the 1995-96 season, when replacement referees were forced to work into December until a new labor contract could be hammered out.

The previous contract between the league and its officials expired Sept. 1. The sides reached agreement on two of the three remaining issues in late September -- severance payments for referees who retire as well as the number of game assignments given to referees from the D-League and WNBA -- but stalled over the NBA's proposed reductions to the referees' pension plan.

Stern removed himself from negotiations in mid-September after McMorris publicly criticized him for his decision to abruptly end a negotiating session. The league, meanwhile, has complained on more than one occasion that the referees' union has reneged on previously agreed-upon concessions and informed its teams in a Sept. 30 memo that the "membership of the NBRA voted to reject" a new two-year collective bargaining agreement after the sides had "reached an agreement in principal."

Marc Stein and Chris Sheridan cover the NBA for ESPN.com.