Friday, February 26, 2010


Raiders' Brantley makes living beyond 3-point line
by: Adam Rosenberg


NICEVILLE — At the most opportune of moments, Sherrard Brantley sneaks into the corner and waits.
As point guard Brian Bryant dribbles to the lane or Toby Veal handles the ball in the post, Brantley remains in his domain beyond the 3-point line. Then, in one quick motion, Brantley catches an outlet pass and sends a perfectly-arching shot toward the basket.

Almost half the time this season, those arcs have fallen for points. Brantley is, according to Northwest Florida State College men’s basketball coach Bruce Stewart, “the best catch-and-shoot shooter in the country.” It’s a scene that was repeated 94 times this season for Brantley, the 6-foot-2 shooting guard from Dublin, Ga., who shot almost 43 percent from beyond the arc for the Raiders. Brantley’s remarkable consistency and steadfast willingness to shoot in any situation made life miserable for opponents all season. Those qualities also led to Brantley being named the Panhandle Conference’s Freshman of the Year.

“It feels good,” Brantley said of winning the award. “We’ve done a lot of work starting when I first got here. It seems like it’s paying off now.”

In a conference where every NWF State opponent had the motivation and capability of knocking the Raiders off, Brantley routinely delivered daggers. When an opponent made a run, Brantley delivered a demoralizing 3-pointer to silence them.

However, it would be unfair to call Brantley a “big-time” or “clutch” shooter. The fact is, Brantley seems to be able to make shots in any situation.

“He has a knack for making shots, period,” Stewart said. “That’s a gift and he has it. Some people can shoot and shoot, but they’re never going to be a good shooter.”

Brantley averaged 14 points per game while playing extensive minutes for the Raiders in the regular season. While he may shoot as well or better than anyone in the league or the country, there are still holes in his game that he’s working to fill.

Stewart has already been getting calls from Division-I schools about Brantley, but both player and coach agree that Brantley needs some seasoning before he’s ready for the next level. The consensus between Brantley and his coach is that his ballhandling and defense must improve.

“The higher up you go, you have to guard better people,” Stewart said. “If he improves that and his ability to handle the ball and go to the basket, he’ll be a very good Division-I player because he already has the offensive ability.”

Beyond his tangible abilities, Brantley brings a hunger to the Raiders that could pay off down the stretch. Brantley won a Georgia Class 2A state championship with Dublin High, scoring 15 points in the championship game as a senior. He said that experience gave him a taste of what winning a title is all about, which could come in handy as the Raiders prepare for the FCCAA state tournament.

“When your season ends early in high school and then you make it to college, you don’t know what it feels like to play at this time of year,” Brantley said. “I think that’s why we’re so hungry right now.”

© Copyright 2010 Freedom Communications. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ben Smith plays big, lifts JU Dolphins

by Gene Frenette

If you haven’t made it to a Jacksonville University basketball game this season, put it on your to-do list this week because a player the likes of Ben Smith must be appreciated by being there.

The senior point guard might be only 5-foot-10, but he is, in fact, Big Ben.

I’ve covered or watched JU hoops for 28 years. I can count on one hand the players whose game, character and presence are so special, the total package literally uplifts a program.

Let me put this in a context most people will understand: Ben Smith is in a league with the school’s most famous Smith, Otis (now the Orlando Magic general manager), for overall impact. Not necessarily as an NBA prospect, but for his ability to ensure that a team maxes out its talent.

It’d just be wrong for Ben Smith’s last two home games at Veterans Memorial Arena — Thursday against Campbell and Saturday against East Tennessee State — to pass by without acknowledging the biggest difference-maker in a generation of JU basketball.

No disrespect to any of Ben’s teammates, especially fellow senior Lehmon Colbert, also instrumental in resurrecting a previously stagnant program. But if there’s one player that illustrates why the Dolphins are relevant under fifth-year coach Cliff Warren, it’s the smallest guy on the floor.

Smith is third on JU’s all-time scoring list (1,842 points), a nice statistic. But these numbers truly demonstrate what Big Ben means to the Dolphins: he’s been on the floor for 4,238 of a possible 4,805 minutes. Plus, JU’s Atlantic Sun Conference record is 51-21 during his four years as a starter, compared to 28-48 in four years before his arrival.

Warren recruited Smith out of Dublin (Ga.) High because his skill and work ethic captivated him, including a 96-84 Class AA state title win over Thomasville. The JU coach watched Smith account for 16 consecutive points (scoring or passing) in a second-half surge.

“Ben’s will to win that game was evident,” Warren said. “I said to myself, 'We have to get this guy.’ ”

What JU got is a player of more substance than style. He sets a strong example on and off the court, thanks in no small part to his upbringing from parents Curtis and Brenda Smith.

“I wish I could take credit for something Ben has done,” Warren said. “Everything was instilled in Dublin [Ga.].”

Ben’s mother nurtured most of his spiritual side at William Grove Baptist Church. His father, who played one year of college basketball and works in the Dublin recreation department, served as Ben’s basketball coach until junior high. That produced a gym rat who never strayed from his value system.

“Toughness, hard work, doing whatever it takes, those are the things my Dad taught me,” Smith said. “He said, 'Son, you’re little, and when you’re little in basketball, you got to be special.’ He wouldn’t allow me to get complacent.”

There’s not enough column space to fully explain Smith’s value to JU, which can clinch a share of a second consecutive A-Sun title by beating co-leader Campbell on Thursday.

All spectators will be allowed into the Campbell game for free. If you go, there’s a good chance you’ll come away feeling Ben Smith is worth any price of admission.

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."