It will cost the National Basketball Association about $600,000 next season to add a third referee. Now the question is: will the extra sets of eyes every game be worth the expense?

"It depends on how the third official is used," said Bullet assistant Bernie Bickerstaff about the role, which was approved Wednesday at the league meetings in San Diego.

"We may suffer for one year, breaking in 13 new officials, but after two or three years, I think you'll find that a third official will significantly improve the game," said Norm Drucker, NBA referee supervisor.

"It will stop the fighting," said Joe Axelson, the Kansas City general manager who headed the league committee that recommended the change.

Bickerstaff said referees "miss a lot of stuff out there away from the ball. If the third guy makes it possible to watch that stuff, then fine, I think it's a good move.

"But if they don't let the players play and there are a lot of whistles, then I don't know. It could hurt the flow. Too many whistles aren't good.

"There's no question that the two refs were being caught out of position a lot. The players are so talented and agile and quick it was hard to keep up with them. A third guy should help it."

Former Macquette Coach Al McGuire once said a third official would be "only human. He'd have to justify his existence and blow his whistle. If he didn't, people would wonder why he was needed."

But Drucker believes added foul calls is the price the league has to pay to keep violence under control.

"This is going to help cut down on the contact that leads to fights," he said. "We have the rules now we also have the eyes to enforce them."

The third official will have equal authority on the floor with the other two refs. Drucker said he is considering breaking his corps of refs into three-men crews instead of rotating them, as was the policy last season.

"The new officials will come out of four tryout camps this summer," he said. "Those who have potential will be placed in summer leagues and from that group we will take about 13 men." The league has 26 referees, who earn from $20,000 to $42,500 after 10 years.

The league had hesitated to add a third official because of the cost factor, but the increasing number of fights swayed the board of governors to approve the proposal this year.

In conjunction with that change, the board also approved stricter enforcement of the hand-checking rule. Contacts still will be allowed, but a foul will be called immediately "if the progress of the player is impeded."

"That's nice," said Bickerstaff. "But what is progress? In what direction." They should be able to touch each other. But if a guy rides Larry Wright, for example, to the sideline with a strong hand check, it should be called. If it is, then it's a good rule. But it's another judgement call.

"Once we get into the exhibition season, we'll find out how it affects things."

During the preseason, the league also will experiment with a three point basket, a move the coaches have favored for a long time.

"We'll use the exhibition season as an experimental period," said NBA Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien. "Then there will be an evaluation by the competition committee, which won't be finished until after next season."

The three-point play was a popular feature of the old American Basketball Association. A circle is drawn on the court approximately 25 feet from each basket and three points are awarded for a field goal made from beyond that line.

Bullet Coach Dick Motta is convinced the three-point goal is the major way the league can offset the growing-trend toward unofficial zone defenses, which the board of governors refused to legalize at its meetings.

If you hit enough from outside that circle, it will draw people from the zone," Motta said. "Otherwise, they can stack inside and let you fire away for two points all night."