She was born Billie Jean Boffit, kicking and squealing on the way out of the womb and you just knew that here comes a rouser, all full of piss and vinegar. Make way, World.
She would rechristen herself Billie Jean King and that name change seemed perfect—she was a king indeed, one of the most distinguished female athletes of the century…no, scratch that one, and make it one of the most distinguished of any gender.
Her sport of choice was a little ball with which she could launch feathery lobs or whiplash cross-court winners or nail riveting backhands or slicing drop shots, but of all the weapons in her considerable arsenal, her hands-down favorite was the one where you got to knock the fuzz off that ball.
What, you were expecting something dainty, tea and crumpets and frills and lace. Ha! You’ve forgotten who you’re dealing with, Pilgrim. It’s Billie Jean and she’s come to clean your clocks.
Her rise coincided with the emergence of the Feminist Movement and she was quick to become not just a face to put on that campaign, but she had street creds, too. She has cross-over appeal, winner of more than 3 dozen tournaments, and a doubles partner for which the waiting line was long and eager.
Tennis World learned that Billie Jean doesn’t back down. She was the first openly gay and lesbian big name athlete to risk her reputation and her name. Her persistence would finally wear down her doubters and win from them grudging respect and even admiration.
The following is taken from a conversation between a couple of good ol’ boys, the kind who used to believe that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and/or the bedroom: “That Billie Jean, she’s one tough ol’ broad…you gotta give her that.”
“Yeah…she’s been around forever….”
One way to judge a career is duration. And the one they call Bee Jay has enjoyed a remarkable shelf life. Here’s the Litmus Test:
How many decades have been spent on the top of the name recognition list?
She started in the 60’s and has continued through the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s and, well, keep adding them up because there she is, still, beating the drums for another season of her baby, World Team Tennis.
And still full of pee and vee.
In 1973, in the sold out Houston Astrodome, and before an unprecedented live prime time television audience, Billie Jean King entered to thunderous applause…and across the way, to the sound that made Philadelphia famous: Boooooo, Bobby Riggs, the original Bad Boy and vehement epitome of male chauvinist pig.
The Libber versus The Lobber, a match made at the box office—Riggs was a notorious hustler who feasted on pigeons, playing just good enough to win and allowing the opponent to think he could take a rematch.
Bobby knew all the angles and all the odds and how to weigh them in his favor, nor was he averse to taking a dive as long as it was well rehearsed–to quote the modern NBA philosophy…Tanking.
Billie Jean, of course, was interested only in giving a cocky little oink-oink a public flogging.
Which she did.
Billie Jean moved Bobby all over the court and began to wear him down. He ended up with just enough spring to jump over the net to shake her hand. Millions of women filled the heavens. It was not just another curiosity. It was the launch of a movement, the start of a revolution, with this as its anthem: “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar.”
Title Nine was born, revolutionizing women’s sports at all levels. Little girls were told: “You have picked a good time to be born.”
Billie Jean rode her celebrity-hood into a resurgence of her game—tennis was big, and those Playing The Stars charity thons became all the rage.
Leaving no potential donor unturned, she chatted up Big Pocket CEOs’ and raised enough money and interest to start up a spanking new professional sports league: World Team Tennis.
In Philadelphia, welcome the Freedoms
Frankly I remember having my doubts. Think your reach may have for once failed to exceed even your ambitious grasp, Old Girl. Too many teams, pro, college and high schools, too much competition.
She hit the ground running, of course—the captain, Mother Freedom, and just to prove this was serious stuff, just like the Big Boys play, they did something that produced one of the all-time hilarious headlines in Philadelphia sports history: FREEDOMS SELL THEIR MOTHERS
You know you’ve arrived when they sing about you. So hello there Sir Elton John, and take it away Billie Jean…Philadelphia Freedom…still going strong….