Mendy Rudolph hardly remembers anything about the first NBA playoff game he refereed 24 years ago, only that he was "scared silly."

And so, he can sympathize with the plight of all those minor league referees now being asked to substitute for striking officials in the playoffs.

"Right now," Rudolph said, "those guys are going through hell."

There will be no easy way out for the new men in the striped shirts, Rudolph said, because they'd be 'better know what they're doing out there. Whether they do remains to be seen, but it'll be the toughest job they've ever had, I can tell you that.'

Rudolph, now a part-time analyst for CBS and a full-time advertising executive, can also tell you what it takes to be a competent official in the NBA. He served 23 years as a referee, and for seven of those he was chief of staff for the officiating crew. He was asked to describe the ideal referee.

"Obviously," Rudolph said, "you've got to have a complete knowledge of the game, knowing the rule book backward and forward and in your sleep. You have to know the mechanics of positioning -- where to go to get the best look at the play.

"A lot of guys can learn the rules, but they can't do the job. When I was scouting younger officials, I always looked for a take-charge guy, somebody with the ability to take over a game and call it confidently under any circumstances.

"I also wanted a man with a certain flair for calling his plays. Not a hot dog, but a firm guy who wasn't afraid of anything. You can't have a weak individual in there.

"As far as previous experience, well, I've seen guys come off the playgrounds and do a helluva job and I've seen guys with tremendous college backgrounds come into the league and fall flat on their faces.

"So much of it depends on the individual, and I can tell you after five or six calls whether the guy can do it.

"Once a guy makes the league it really does take a couple of years until he's accepted by the coaches, the players and the general managers. They'll always test you.

"They have to know that when you have critical situations you will always make the correct call. The big thing is respect, not liking you or disliking you. That's irrevelant."

A major problem the reserve referees will face is the concentrated abundance of super basketball talent on the court, Rudolph believes.

"Maybe they've watched the games on television or even gone to the arenas," he said, "but they've never had to call a game with that many great players on a 94-by-50 court.

"In college, usually the most they'll see in any one game is one or two great players on the court at the same time. At this level, every guy was an All-America.

"They're seeing shots, blocked shots, picks, screens and boxing out that they never saw in college. It's a totally different style of play.

"There's no zone defenses, the games are longer and faster, there's a 24-second clock. Add that in with the pressure from the finals and the players, and you've really got a problem coming in cold."

Basketball aficionados will tell you a bad official is easily swayed by a partisan crowd, that a clunker will give the home team the advantage rather than risk the wrath of the vocal majority in the stands.

"I agree with that," Rudolph says, "but you can't prejudge these guys. I've seen a lot of young referees go out in roughly similar situations and make calls that take a lot of guts. Again, its up to the individual.

"The most important thing to look for is the uniformity of the calls. That's always been the big complaint of the players and coaches, not just in one game, but on a game-to-game basis. They want the same call in New York that they'd get in Phoenix.

"The most difficult part will be the emotional toll this might take on these guys. I'm sure for the first couple of minutes both teams, players and coaches will try to be patient. But knowing the NBA like I do, the pride and the passion involved, it won't last very long. They'll go back to the normal way of hollering and screaming."

The NBA has been trying to pair the substitutes with veteran officials Richie Powers or Earl Strom, the two referees who chose not to honor the strike by 24 of their colleagues.

"About the only thing Richie and Earl can do is to install confidence in these guys," Rudolph said. "They can't blow the whistle for them. I'm sure there will be calls Strom and Powers will make that they shouldnt from out of position. They're going to have to work that much harder."

What advice would Rudolph offer to the new men?

"I'd tell them there are 10 basketball players out there and the ball still has to go through the hoop. Forget about names and personalities, just go out there as if you didn't even know who they are or what they're playing for."

And what about the fans?

"When you think about the reaction you'll get," Rudolph said, "you'll go right down the tubes."