With labor talks at a stalemate, the lead negotiator for NBA referees struck a conciliatory yet defiant tone Tuesday regarding commissioner David Stern on the eve of a crucial meeting in Chicago of the 57 NBA officials facing the prospect of a lockout.
The NBA's labor agreement with the referees' union expired Sept. 1, and no new talks have been scheduled since Stern angrily and abruptly ended a formal bargaining session last Tuesday. Referees are scheduled to attend their annual training camp in New Jersey beginning Sunday, although it is unclear if the session will be held if labor talks remain in limbo.
Lamell McMorris, lead negotiator for the referees, said the onus was now on the NBA to pick up the phone to restart talks and that Wednesday's meeting in Chicago would serve as a briefing for the membership and a chance for the union's executive board -- Steve Javie, Bennett Salvatore, Joey Crawford, Bob Delaney and Bill Spooner -- to plot the next steps forward.
"We remain wide open, as we have throughout this negotiation, to getting a deal done," McMorris told ESPN.com. "But any sensible person would have to agree that if someone throws you out of a meeting, it's probably up to them to call you back to the table. I didn't throw them out of the meeting, they threw us out of the meeting."
McMorris has described Stern's conduct as rude and unprofessional, and in response Stern accused McMorris of making the dispute "personal" as he announced last Thursday he would "absent myself from the negotiations."
"Hopefully we'll make a deal with the referees, or we won't, but it won't be on the basis of personality, it'll be on the basis of economics," Stern said.
McMorris, who has been representing the referees for nearly six years and negotiated their previous labor agreement, said last Tuesday's meeting was the first time ever that he and Stern had personally engaged in collective bargaining talks, though they had sat in the same room together for discussions on various issues, including the Tim Donaghy scandal, at least a half-dozen times.
"I respect David Stern like a son does a father, and I mean that, sincerely," McMorris told ESPN.com. "I've sought his counsel and advice on issues separate and apart from anything we're discussing right now, but sometimes friends disagree, sometimes folks who might generally like and respect each other disagree, and I see this as nothing more than a disagreement, and my end is just centered around his level of professionalism during what was a productive negotiating session."
The referees' union claims the sides are $600,000 to $700,000 apart in their negotiations after yielding $2.5 million of the $3.2 million in concessions the league was seeking. The NBA disputes that figure, saying the gap is more significant, and has made the case that it made a substantial concession in agreeing to the union's request for a two-year deal to bridge the league's economic crisis. Traditionally, the NBA has negotiated five-year labor pacts with the referees.
"We've negotiated in good faith, and all of them desire to get a deal done, but they remain firm that they're not just going to get any deal done. We realize the climate we're under economically in this country and in the sports industry, which is why we've been more than willing to help the league in their effort to promote cost savings," McMorris said. "But at the same time, the deal has to be fair for both sides, not just one side. That's the consistent feeling all across the board for our members. They don't mind cooperating with the league, but it can't be done at all costs."
Training camps open in two weeks, the first preseason game is scheduled for Oct. 1 in Utah. If replacement referees were used, it would be the first time that had happened since a lockout of the officials in 1995.
Wednesday's meeting in Chicago will also allow the referees an opportunity to express their level of support for McMorris, who is also currently negotiating a labor agreement for Major League Baseball umpires.
Last week's breakdown in talks came when Stern accused the union of reneging on an agreement regarding changes to the referees' long-term retirement benefits. McMorris has since alleged that the NBA is trying to purge older referees while asking for systemic contract language concessions that would shield the league from age discrimination laws.
"The only thing missing from reporting over last couple days is that I believe David Stern and I genuinely like each other and gave a genuine respect for one another and have literally taken quite a lot of time to get to know one another," McMorris said. "Unfortunately in the back and forth of the sound bite, that's missed. But I have the ultimate respect for him and what he's done."
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.