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The Man With Healing Hands

Finals 2008

Bill NorrisGetty ImagesBill Norris works on Goran Ivanisevic at Queen's Club in 2003.

Bill Norris, who retired earlier this year, was a much-loved and respected ATP Physiotherapist who endeared himself not only to the players he treated, but also as a mentor to his colleagues and as a friendly face in the ever-changing world of pro tennis.

It is well past midnight at the Ahoy Stadium in Rotterdam and Bill Norris has just finished treating a player from the last match on court. Soft music is playing and the smell of rubbing oil is heavy in the air. A few hours earlier, Dick Stockton had brought Bill a sandwich and it lay uneaten on a small table in the corner. The day's work done and now alone in the treatment room, Bill feels like he is in an extension of his home.

Players would go on record to say that Bill's treatment rooms around the world were like havens, refuges in the fast paced life of a professional tennis player. Exhausted and remembering the early morning appointment with Roscoe Tanner, Bill unwraps the sandwich and takes a few bites. Then he slips off his shoes and stretches out on the training table before dropping into a deep sleep. A few hours later Tanner arrives and rouses a sleeping Bill, who wakes with a grin, greets Roscoe good morning, and begins to work on his shoulder that is sore from his big serve.

It is because of stories like this one for the last thirty plus years that has so endeared Bill Norris to the tennis world. Todd Ellenbecker, ATP Director of Sports Medicine and Chairman of the USTA Sport Science Committee, recently wrote a letter to the International Tennis Hall of Fame recommending Norris for induction.

In the letter, Ellenbecker wrote, "His [Bill] caring manner, and true, genuine and sincere passion for helping others is immediately apparent to all players and coaches he has come into contact with during his incredible career. Bill treats and has treated all players the same regardless of their popularity or ranking, this includes the top seeds as well as qualifiers."

Alan Mills got the call at the 1985 Wimbledon Championships. Bill Norris was requested urgently. Escorted by Mills, Bill was summoned to an outside court to treat a young Boris Becker, who was playing Hank Pfister in the first round.

While Bill examined his ankle, an anxious Becker said, "Bill you know what happened to my ankle last year." Instantly, images of Becker being carried off the court with a severely sprained ankle during his first round match against Bill Scanlon flashed into Bill's mind. Calm and composed Bill gently moved the ankle in question around at different angles and determined that it still had a lot of strength.

"Bill," Boris asked, his blue eyes searching Bill for a trace of doubt. "Can I continue?"

Confident in his own ability to accurately diagnose the ankle, Bill took a deep breath and looked Boris square in the eyes. "Yes, Boris," he said. "You can play."

Swiftly, Bill put a taping on the ankle, picked up his kit and hurried off the court conscious of the potential consequences of his decision. Becker would win that match and each day during his run to the title – when be beat Kevin Curren 6-3, 6-7(4), 7-6(3), 6-4 in the final – they kept up a running dialogue, at times hour to hour treating the ankle from one day to the next.

Now fast forward five weeks later to the Davis Cup quarterfinals where the US team was to play West Germany in Hamburg. At the Atlantic Hotel for the official dinner following the draw ceremony, Norris, trainer for the US team, was sitting with captain Arthur Ashe and USTA Chairman Gordon Jorgensen.

Claus Stauder, President of the West German Tennis Federation, stood up and clinked his glass several times with a spoon. All eyes turned to Stauder and he proceeded to thank Norris for his excellent counsel and treatment of Becker during the Wimbledon Championships. As Becker had given much credit for his triumph to Bill, Stauder on behalf of the Federation wanted to present Bill with a trophy of appreciation for his contribution to German tennis. A roar of applause rose up from the table and both teams warmly embraced Bill.

"Being with the US team I had a lot of nationalistic pride," Bill remembered. "But it was a special feeling to be recognized by the opposing team. And even though I was there for the US team, I consulted with my German colleague on Becker's ankle throughout the week."

Bill Norris did not start his career in tennis, but in baseball. As a boy he grew up in Fort Myers, Florida and spent time around the professional baseball teams there on spring training.

"The Pittsburg Pirates trained in my hometown. I was 12 years old when I got my first experience with pro sports. I unloaded the trucks that had all the bats and balls and uniforms. Then I began helping the trainer and learning how to bandage. And I remember thinking that this would be a great way to earn a living."

According to others who worked with Bill, he would go on to do much more than earn a living. Doug Spreen, who was an ATP Physiotherapist before working with Andy Roddick, spoke about Norris.

"Bill Norris was much more to the tennis world, or to the sports world for that matter, than just an athletic trainer," Spreen said fondly. "For many of us, he was a mentor, a father figure, a great friend and someone that you could always count on to be there when you needed help the most. To say that he is a legend does not do justice to the impact that Bill has had on so many lives. His contribution is too great to put in words."

As a young boy, Bill would spend holidays at his uncle's cattle ranch in Arcadia, Florida. There he would lie for hours on his stomach emulating the stretches that cows were doing. And then he began studying cats.

"I was curious," Bill said. "And I thought that in order to better help humans, I might learn something from animals. I got the cow and cat stretches to help with treating the back and then there were stretches from other animals that I applied to other muscle groups."

After finishing the Gus Mount School of Athletic Training, Bill's career began to blossom. The New York Mets hired him full-time, and after just one season with the Mets, the New York Knicks came calling. Early in his career, Bill Norris developed a reputation among athletes for caring for his players. It would be the beginning of a legacy.

It is an early spring morning in Augusta, Georgia and a 20-something Bill Norris is fighting mad. His baseball team had driven through the night and they were hungry and now the colored players were not allowed into the restaurant.

"We stopped at a little diner for breakfast, and they would not allow our colored players into the restaurant," Bill recounted. "I grew up in a segregated community, but I never liked that, so I told them that if they will not allow the entire team then they would get none of the team. From then on I began calling ahead and asking hotels and restaurants if they would allow the colored and Latinos. I just hated to see anybody humiliated like that. Especially so, since we were a team."

Bill was very happy working with both baseball and basketball and he worked tirelessly for both, that is until the tennis boom.

"Lamar Hunt had a vision and he needed someone to take care of his 'Handsome Eight' as they were called then," Bill began. "Players like Drysdale, Roche, Laver, Newcombe, Pierre Barthes, Nikki Pilic and later on Ashe, and Stan Smith. Lamar asked me to set up medical care for the WCT."

Today athletic trainers are under a microscope like never before, as allegations of unsportsmanlike conduct by players who use medical timeouts to stall an opponent's momentum increase.

"I can remember when there was no medical time-out and I would have to take the shoe off and tape an ankle within 90 seconds. Is there abuse of the medical time-out today? Yes. I believe that it is how you lead and show the players and teach them the right way by not letting them be bigger than the sport. And we might have failed in that. But then you see guys like Federer and Nadal and they are true sportsmen in every sense of the word. Ultimately, it goes back to the relationships, that sense of fair play and professionalism.

"I have always loved my players to the point that I became very protective of them," Norris continued. "Sometimes a player was not injured physically, but was hurting in other ways. Maybe they were having family problems and I would have to be strong for them. They became my family."

Now Bill Norris has retired from the ATP Tour and he knows that there will never be another urgent call from the chair umpire requesting his presence on court. No longer will he be needed courtside to strap an ankle, stretch a back, or stay up late in the treatment room counseling a young man who is having marital problems. For he has spent a lifetime watching athletes rise, peak, fall and retire and he knows that all good things eventually come to an end. Now it his turn to step aside and let the younger generation of athletic trainers take over.

With his wife Sherie by his side, Bill is happy. Although he still misses his 'boys'. Few men can say that through their work they transcended their profession, but Bill can. For those that knew him and follow in his footsteps Bill Norris will always be remembered very simply as a kind and generous man who treated everyone he met equal.

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