At refs camp, a general takes charge

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JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) - It's still training camp, not boot camp.

But the NBA's referees are reporting to a general and he seems the perfect fit for the officials seeking a strong leader to guide them through the toughest times their profession has ever endured.

Ron Johnson, a two-star general who served 32 years in the Army, was hired over the summer as the senior vice president of referee operations. He has just started to meet many of his officials this week during training camp and has made an instant impact.

"I've never seen the morale higher," said Bernie Fryer, who attended camp for 28 years as a referee and is now the NBA's vice president and director of officials.

That's hard to believe coming from a group that's taken as many hits lately as the NBA's referees.

Since the refs arrived here for their six-day camp, Tim Donaghy began serving his 15-month prison sentence for betting on games he officiated and taking cash payments from gambling associates in exchange for information to help them win their bets.

The scandal exploded last summer, and just when Donaghy's former colleagues thought the worst was behind them, blew up again at the worst time, when his lawyer accused them of misconduct and bias during the NBA finals.

"That was a blow to our profession and we took it," veteran referee Joey Crawford said, "and the league was phenomenal supporting us and we supported one another and we got over it. We're getting over it and we're going to move on. We're going to be fine. It's in the past. We have to heal and we're going to."

An entirely new referees operations department is in place to help them do that. Besides the appointments of Johnson and Fryer, Joe Borgia became vice president of referee operations.

Johnson, a former deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was the most surprising hire. He admits to being someone who used to question calls he saw on TV, and joked that he was "uniquely unqualified for this job, (but) since it's a new department, I'm probably the right guy."

Johnson has been learning various officiating procedures and terms, but commissioner David Stern wasn't interested in Johnson's referee skills when he picked him for the new position. He wanted someone to develop and enforce better guidelines and regulations for the officials, such as the rules involving casino gambling that even Stern said had been mishandled.

"I've been in the Army 32 years, I don't tolerate noncompliance," Johnson said. "I mean, we've got rules, we'll follow them."

The sessions Wednesday included reviews of game footage and discussions of calls that were made and missed, quizzes involving rules interpretations, and reminders of areas the officials should focus on in the coming season. There are only three new referees, but even someone like Crawford, entering his 33rd year, said he benefits from some reminders.

"You're always trying to get better," he said. "You cannot believe that you've got this game made as a referee, because I don't even get 100 percent of the plays right in the first quarter. So I'm looking for perfection."

Fryer and Borgia ran most of those sessions, though Johnson, who goes by Ron but is referred to as "the General" by seemingly everyone in the league office, jumped in often.

"I don't think they're afraid, I think everybody is a little bit apprehensive about who the new guy is," Johnson said of the refs. "Am I really their leader, or am I just some guy who's coming in to be a police? No, I'm going to be a leader. Leaders give guys what they need, not necessarily what they want."

Johnson's crew is desperate to move past Donaghy _ Fryer said he was "no factor" and wouldn't even discuss him _ but reminders of the scandal will return soon. Former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz's report on the league's officiating operations, ordered by Stern, is expected sometime before the start of the season.

Whatever the findings are, Johnson expects the refs to move past them.

"I think they understand they really have to be on their Ps and Qs because people have made some false assertions about them, or false assumptions," Johnson said. "And we'll just perform our way out of this."

(Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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