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Referees: We’re the scapegoats

NEW YORK – Whether Jeff Van Gundy is retained as Houston’s coach is up to the Rockets, but the league needs to do a better job of defending its game officials from criticism by coaches, the spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association said Tuesday.

Lamell McMorris, the lead negotiator for the NBRA, said the NBA’s response to Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy’s comments about league officials targeting Rockets center Yao Ming was unacceptable. However, McMorris did not call for Van Gundy’s job, as he did in a statement Monday night.

“Van Gundy is really not the issue here, per se,” McMorris said in a phone interview with the Associated Press. “Van Gundy and whether or not he’ll be retained is up to the Houston Rockets.

“The real issue is the culture that I feel has been created where referees are the easy scapegoat. Where it is easy to allege, easy to accuse and easy to attack the referees. Even easy and acceptable to question the integrity of the referees publicly.”

The league fined Van Gundy $100,000 – the largest assessed against a coach – after the coach said that an official who was not working the playoffs told him that Yao was being targeted following complaints by Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston’s first-round opponent.

On Monday, Van Gundy clarified his comments, saying when he referred to an NBA official, he was not talking about a game official and was intentionally vague when people inferred he meant a referee.

The NBA said it was satisfied with Van Gundy’s explanation and he would not be disciplined further. McMorris then put out a statement saying, “The matter will truly be closed only when Van Gundy is fired.”

On Tuesday, McMorris shifted his focus from Van Gundy to the league.

“One thing we should observe or note is that at no time during the last week did the NBA or Van Gundy come to the defense of the refs,” McMorris said.

Commissioner David Stern had said the league would investigate Van Gundy’s remarks and he threatened more punishment – perhaps even banishment – if Van Gundy did not cooperate.

Stern optimistic about labor

Commissioner Stern reiterated his confidence that a new labor agreement between the league’s players and owners can be struck in the coming weeks.

Stern said a large group of players will meet in Chicago today, and that another meeting with players and owners is scheduled in New York.

“We expect to have some informal discussions, staff to staff, in preparation of having a meeting on Tuesday in New York at which a significant group of owners and players, together with staffs from the union and the NBA, will get together,” Stern said before the Washington-Miami playoff game.

The current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on June 30. Talks have been held sporadically since February.

James drops Goodwin as agent

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James has dropped agent Aaron Goodwin, who negotiated about $135 million in endorsement deals for the 20-year-old in the past two years.

James sent a standard letter to the NBA players’ association on Monday saying he had terminated Goodwin, union spokesman Dan Wasserman said.

D’Antoni coach of the year

As reported Tuesday, Mike D’Antoni of the Phoenix Suns was rewarded as the NBA’s coach of the year.

“It’s an unbelievable honor,” D’Antoni said.