When a labor dispute led the NBA to lock out its referees' union and hire replacement officials early in the 1995--96 season, it wasn't pretty. Foul calls, which typically average 42 per game, often ran into the 60s. Games that once ran a little more than two hours suddenly pushed three. "[The replacements] shouldn't be able to call a high school game," fumed Heat center Alonzo Mourning after one game. "They blew the whistle so much, I thought there was an echo in the building."
The NBA, having locked out the refs in another standoff with the union, is again turning to replacement officials—but this time it expects better results. While the '95 fill-ins were plucked from the CBA and college ball, most of the refs who began working preseason games last week were pulled up from the NBA D-League and the WNBA. And while a lack of qualified personnel forced the league to use two-man crews 14 years ago, games this season will be officiated by the usual three.
The replacements are also getting serious backing from the league. Last week the NBA expanded the use of instant replay to include shot clock violations and, late in games, out-of-bounds plays. And commissioner David Stern reminded coaches and players that he won't stand for criticism of officials. "The officials were good," Jazz guard Deron Williams said after Utah's loss to Denver last Thursday. "I thought they did a good job. They didn't look like replacements to me."
The 1995 lockout lasted 68 days, and though the league is prepared to start the season next month with replacements, there are signs this labor dispute will be shorter. The two sides have agreed on the parameters of a two-year contract, including salary terms. "They are not that far apart," says a source familiar with the negotiations. "This is a deal that could get done at any time."