Meeting held to discuss tensions between refs, players

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After Lee Seham, the general counsel for the National Basketball Referees Association, had grown increasingly dissatisfied working with the NBA on contentious issues between game officials and players, he called the players association's executive director, Michele Roberts: Let's get together and talk, Seham proposed.

There had been a run of ejections and technical fouls involving star players. Cleveland's LeBron James, New Orleans' Anthony Davis, and Golden State's Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant were thrown out of games. Durant has been ejected three times this season.

A game official, Courtney Kirkland, was suspended for a week for his part in a head-butting incident with Golden State's Shaun Livingston. Tensions have been building, with common ground increasingly difficult to find among refs, players and the commissioner's office.

In a recent two-hour-plus conversation at the National Basketball Players Association's Manhattan offices, Seham and Roberts discussed several referee-player issues, including the NBRA's belief that the league office has become too lenient in allowing players' aggressive verbiage toward refs.

Roberts countered that players are overwhelmingly disconcerted by what they believe is the disrespectful manner with which refs address players on the court.

Across months of team-by-team union meetings, Roberts said players have consistently raised concerns with her and union staff about the dismissive tone of game officials.

"[In team meetings], the greatest issue of consternation is the officiating," Roberts told ESPN. "I could almost write the script. You'd bring it up, and there would be groans, groans and groans."

For example, players expressed frustration with referees holding up a hand -- like a stop sign -- when approached on the floor. "Our players also complained about being ignored, told to 'shut up,' told to 'move' or, in extreme circumstances, hit with a technical," Roberts said.

"There have been four or five occasions when a player has gone to say, 'Hey, what's up with that?' and the official holds his hand up like a stop sign, like, 'I don't have time to talk to you.' ... Lee [Seham] told me, 'That's what they're trained to do.'

"I think it's a horrible idea. I hope someone over in [NBA] basketball operations will maybe reconsider that because it doesn't serve to be a de-escalation of things; it really pisses guys off. I don't know whose idea it was, but I hope they revisit the wisdom of it. I mentioned to players who specifically complained, and they weren't happy to hear that it was a part of the training.

"This is more about where they came up to an official and asked, 'What's up with that?' and they've been given a technical for something other than an F-bomb."

The NBA says officials aren't taught to use "the stop sign" to de-escalate situations, but an NBRA source told ESPN that it had indeed been a device previously taught as part of the league's training program.

"That's not in their toolkit now," NBA president of basketball operations Byron Spruell told ESPN. "We teach them that gestures and words matter. What is in their toolkits is that we want to be humble, and we don't want to escalate situations.

"We're doing things differently. Our changes include Monty [McCutchen], who is balanced, has great communication skills and wants to enhance our [training] program. We're all over this, frankly."

Roberts and Seham agreed to put together an informal All-Star Weekend meeting in Los Angeles with a small group of top players and referees to talk directly about the state of referee and player relations.

"What is going to make a difference is to have our players sit down and discuss their grievances with officials," Roberts said. "They clearly can't do that on the court. We need to do it at a time when there's no game on the line, or you're not thinking, 'What's he or she going to do to me in the next quarter if I complain?'

"We need to sit down over a cup of coffee or even a can of beer and get some things off everyone's chests and hear the other side's perspective. We talked about this a couple of years ago. I thought it would be interesting. Now I think it's something that's necessary."

As the NBA has revamped its leadership overseeing referees and transformed management, judgment criteria and training under commissioner Adam Silver, the working relationship has frayed between the league and referees.

Under Silver, the league reshaped its referee management program: Spruell as president of basketball operations; Michelle Johnson as senior VP, head of basketball operations; and a longtime referee, McCutchen, as VP, head of referee development and training.

"It's all part of the ecosystem," Spruell said. "If the unions want to talk, I don't have a problem with that. They have their agendas and how they want to deal with things. We want to be part of the conversations too, and we've been doing that with Lee, Michele and David Fogel [of the National Basketball Coaches Association]."

In email exchanges documented between the NBRA and NBA in the past year, the union was shown to consistently challenge the league on several fronts, including what it alleged had been intimidating behavior on behalf of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban toward league referees.

The incident involving Kirkland and Livingston in Orlando earlier this month led to the Warriors guard being suspended for one game and Kirkland being removed from the league's officiating rotation for a week.

"I don't like anyone being punished," Roberts said. "We didn't celebrate, but it was evidence that someone other than the players had engaged in conduct that needed to be evaluated.

"I feel for the officials, but that allows for me to be able to turn to my guys and say, 'You're not alone.' I am not looking for the officials or players to be sanctioned. I want the conduct that leads to the misconduct to end. Let's be fair. If they're not acting like adults, they should all be sanctioned."