Refs spokesman: Lockout appears 'imminent'

NEW YORK (AP) - The lead negotiator and spokesman for the NBA's referees union said Thursday a lockout appears "imminent and unavoidable" following the latest breakdown in talks.

Lamell McMorris said the officials made another $1 million in concessions in their proposal, but believes it's evident the league is not interested in further discussions. The officials then headed home after spending the last 24 hours meeting in Chicago.

"It's become evident that the league would not be interested in continuing conversation at this time," McMorris said.

The NBA had a similarly pessimistic view.

"I'm not going to handicap it, other than to say there's always time to make an agreement if the parties want to do that," NBA general counsel and lead negotiator Rick Buchanan said. "I'm not optimistic based on what happened today. We'll just have to see what happens."

The contract between the NBA and its officials expired Sept. 1 and the sides have been trying to reach a new two-year deal. McMorris said they largely agree on salaries, but the union has balked at the league's attempt to change retirement benefits.

Besides the severance and pension disagreements, the officials are resisting a league development plan for young officials.

Without a new deal, replacement officials will be used when preseason play opens Oct. 1. The NBA last began a season without its regular referees in 1995-96, when the caliber of officiating was roundly criticized.

"We're prepared to be locked out by the NBA but also remain open to ongoing dialogue," McMorris said, adding that negotiations have been difficult because the league "has made pretty clear they have a goal they are trying to achieve as it relates to these long-term benefits."

All 57 active referees arrived in Chicago on Wednesday, meeting for more than seven hours and unanimously rejecting a proposal the league made earlier that day. McMorris said the officials reconvened early Thursday morning to finalize the counterproposal they made to the league.

Talks previously broke down after NBA commissioner David Stern ended a meeting in New York, saying the officials had reneged on previously agreed to items. McMorris sounded hopeful of a deal Wednesday night, but little progress was made in Thursday's talks.

"I would say that the parties had discussions today. They made some new proposals, we made some additional proposals. We didn't make a deal," Buchanan said.

McMorris previously said the officials, sensitive to the financial difficulties the league is facing, agreed to $2.5 million in concessions, but the league sought further cuts in areas such as the travel budget and per diems. Stern said the goal was to bring the referees' budget in line with other departments.

But McMorris said the officials are unwilling to accept any further changes to their retirement benefits.

"We've given so many concessions in other areas, a line has to be drawn," he said. "It has to be fair and equitable for everyone in our group."

McMorris said the referees won't be in New Jersey for their annual training camp, scheduled to begin Sunday. He praised them for the efforts they made in Chicago at their own expense, even while struggling to remain optimistic they could eventually pay off.

"I'm extremely proud of the 57 individuals that we represent. Their unity, the good-faith nature that they have sought to negotiate with their employee," McMorris said. "We're quite proud and confident that we've given it our best shot, that we've put forth a good-faith effort."

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