Thursday, February 11, 2010


From Lovett Park to Wimbledon

He has been called "The Wizard of Gauze." Others call him "Billy the Banger" or "Bangers and Mash." He has spent most of his life in and around many of the most exclusive and glamorous tennis courts of the world. In his career, Bill Norris had mended scrapes, soothed strained muscles and counseled many of the world's greatest tennis players Of all of the places in the world, his career began right here in Dublin, Georgia at Lovett Park. From such a humble beginning, Bill Norris moved on to a career in professional basketball and found his life's calling as the world's most highly regarded tennis trainer.

William L. Norris was born on August 5, 1942 in Fort Myers, Florida. He grew up a baseball fan. As a perennial ritual of spring, major league baseball players invaded his homeland to prepare for the rigors of the upcoming seasons. At the age of 12, Billy Norris knew he wanted to be an athletic trainer. As a spring training bat boy for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Norris began to learn the scientific method of treating sports injuries. During his high school years, he worked as an assistant trainer for the Pirates while they were in town. Though he wasn't much of an athlete, Bill loved sports and wanted to be a part of them.

Bill began his studies in earnest in 1960 when he enrolled at Manatee Junior College. After two years of school, he was invited to join the Class D team of the Milwaukee Braves in the Georgia-Florida League. And so, for Bill, it was off to Dublin, Georgia and his first real job as a trainer. The Dublin Braves were a pretty fair minor league team that year. Four players, including Bill Robinson, made it to "the show" before their playing days were over. Bill learned the game under the guidance of veteran minor league manager Bill Steinecke.

After attending a training school, Bill was hired to work with the New York Mets, the worst team in baseball history. The Mets assigned Bill to train their minor league teams first in Columbus, Georgia and then in Auburn, New York. Bill's natural skills as a trainer didn't go unnoticed. Coach Eddie Donovan of the cross town New York Knicks saw something special in the young Floridian. When the last out was made, Bill began his conversion to basketball with a promise of returning to baseball when the grass began to turn green again.

During his six seasons with the Knicks, Norris saw to the needs of some of the game's greatest players, including Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Walt Frazier. While he worked with the Knicks, Bill also worked as a trainer for all performers in Madison Square Garden, including boxers, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.

In 1969, Bill again took another cross town job, this time with the New York Nets of the ABA. In the early years of the franchise, Norris worked with future NBA legend Rick Barry, leaving the team just before it signed the all time great Julius Erving. Bill continued to work for the Mets during baseball season during the off season. But after twelve seasons of professional basketball and several more in baseball, it was time for a career change.

In 1973, Bill was approached by the Association of Tennis Professionals. They needed a trainer for their members and Bill was a prime choice. The association wanted one trainer for all of their male tennis players. They needed a familiar face run out on the court to tend to an injury, one person who could know the players and their particular bodies and one who could get into their minds and relieve their aches and pains. Rarely does Bill see an injury. He has to rely upon spectator's accounts and those made by anguished players.

The highlights of Bill Norris's thirty three years in professional tennis come from his association with the United States Davis Cup teams. He has worked with four winners of the cup, led by a quartet of the greatest legends of the game, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi. He has also worked with Pete Sampras, Stan Smith and Ken Rosewall among hundreds of others.Norris also worked with international icons Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Ilie Nastase and Guillermo Vilas. At all times, Bill's job is to remain neutral and treat each competitor the same. Bill did become a close friend and drinking buddy of Bob Lutz.

Of all of the players he trained, Norris most admires the tenacity and determination of Jimmy Connors, despite his obnoxious behavior on the court. Some have compared bill to the incomparable fictional teacher Mr. Chips, who now after forty-five years of training looks back with fondness for the thousands of young men he has worked with and gotten to know and to admire.

Bill's job calls for up close and deeply personal contact with his athletes. Many of the game's greatest players would and could confide in him their deepest thoughts, triumphs and fears. Bill had to become a part time psychologist. As a trainer, Bill knew what to do to physically prepare his players for their next match, but he learned to observe their mental attitudes as an indicator of how they were going to perform after they left the locker room. From his position, Norris knows the players better than anyone, maybe even the players themselves. The players grew to admire and respect Norris, who once with his long hair and strong round glasses, bore an uncanny resemblance to the late singer John Denver. Their similarities were so indistinct that Bill used to sign Denver's name for autograph seekers and adoring fans who couldn't tell the difference. His likeness helped him to get free drinks and quite a few laughs. Jimmy Connors once got in on the joke when he traveled to meet Denver to ask for his advice, pretending that Denver was Bill Norris. All of that ended
after Denver's untimely death in an airplane crash.

Bill's expertise on tennis injuries drew the attention of amateurs as well. President Ronald Reagan called on Bill to work on is bad back. Princess Grace Kelly sought out Bill's comforting hands to cure her sore elbow.

Today, Bill's schedule has trimmed down dramatically. He now spends more time with his wife and family, a task which was once difficult to manage. Bill Norris loves the game of tennis and loves helping its players make it up off the court. Over his forty-five years in sports medicine, Bill looks forward to every new day. "No two days are the same," said Bill, who thrives on his relationships with every new generation that comes along. His favorite tournament is at Wimbledon. "It is like a big reunion," Bill said.

Bill Norris believes the soul of tennis lies within the amateur players across the country and the world, who have not been exposed to fame and adulation. He never plans to retire, telling a reporter for the BBC, "I want to die running out to the court trying to help somebody."

1 comment:

  1. nice article about billy. I had the honor of working with him in Delray beach Florida. great guy!