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Season Opener Up In Air as Jackson Puts Off Basketballing

Declaring that it was time to "set wins and losses aside," Phil Jackson said Wednesday that he would temporarily suspend the Lakers' 2008-2009 season and seek to delay the Lakers' season opener against the Portland Trail Blazers, so that he could return to New York to help to forge an overhaul of the NBA Referees Association, which has been mired in scandal since allegations of bribery against former official Tim Donaghy came to light last season.

Kevin Pritchard rejected the call by Mr. Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers' head coach, to delay the game, and Blazers officials noted that Mr. Jackson only made the offer after the Blazers reached out to their opponent asking them to issue a joint statement calling for increased transparency of the Referees Association's internal processes during the coming season.

The maneuvering came as the referee scandal continued to dominate headlines in the wake of Mr. Donaghy's reporting to a Federal holding cell in Florida on Wednesday.  Wednesday evening both Mr. Jackson and Mr. Pritchard, the Blazers General Manager, accepted Commissioner David Stern's invitation to meet with him on Thursday to address the issue.

Mr. Jackson's actions not only cast doubt on whether the highly anticipated game would come off, but also thrust an unpredictable new element into the referees scandal, with some Blazers officials warning that Mr. Jackson's intervention could derail progress being made by new czar of officials, former US Army General Ron Johnson.

Gregg Popovich of Texas, the San Antonio Spurs General Manager, said that Mr. Jackson and Mr. Pritchard should not return to New York and inject their decades-old rivalry into the realignment of the referees organization. "We need leadership, not a photo op," a statement issued by Mr. Popovich said.

But other team officials around the league, eager for cover from the wrath of Greg Oden and Jerryd Bayless, embraced Jackson's return. "The threat of referee malfeasance to our league, and our players, and our franchises is not specific to one team, and it won't be fixed by only one team," said Clay Bennett, owner of the Oklahoma City "Thunder," who called Mr. Jackson's attempt to delay the start of the 2008 season an "outstanding idea."

Explaining his decision to reject Mr. Jackson's call to postpone their game in Los Angeles, California, Mr. Pritchard cited the importance of continuing on in the face of adversity.  "It is my belief that this is exactly the time when the American people need to see the players who, in approximately 8 months, will be responsible for winning the NBA championship," Mr. Pritchard said. "It is going to be part of the champion's job to deal with the referees -- the good calls and the bad-- on their way to victory."

Mr. Jackson's decision seeking to postpone the first game was yet another unpredictable, daring step taken by the team over the last month: its earlier move to indefinitely postpone Kobe Bryant's finger surgery shook up the Western Conference title chase in early September, one day after the team signed a Chinese player nicknamed the "Monkey King," which freaked everyone out.  

In the midst of the confusion, officials with the Staples Center and the NBA said that they were moving forward with preparations for the season-opening game and that talks with the Lakers organization throughout the day had not persuaded them on Jackson's position. "We believe sports fans will be well served by having the season opener, and all 81 subsequent games, go forward as scheduled," an NBA spokesman said.

[much props]

-- Ben (