Wishing a happy 73rd birthday to my hero – the legend, the pioneer and the visionary Billie Jean King!
A few years ago I was having a nice date with someone who happened to be a few decades younger than me who was very bright and educated and seemed mature beyond his years.
As we sipped wine by candlelight on my patio, he asked me about some of my favorite interviews over the years and when I mentioned Billie Jean King he said: “Who’s Billie Jean King?”
Oh. My. God. Almost spit my wine out.
Well, that’s what you get when you date someone who was born when you were in college.
BJK is my hero – my absolute hero. I read her autobiography when I was in high school and her attitude about achieving your goals, working hard and equality and fairness really shaped me moving forward.
The first time I interviewed Billie Jean, I told her about that and she said: “Oh I hated that book.”
I think it was because at the time of its release, she wasn’t being honest about her sexuality.
I’m not dating that young guy anymore but just in case there is anyone else out there who wonders “Who is Billie Jean King?” here is your history lesson:
1. Led the fight for equal prize money for women in pro tennis.
2. Decided to publicly come out as a lesbian (initially bisexual) in 1981 and lose all her endorsements rather than listen to lawyers and managers who suggested she not be honest.
3. Beat Bobby Riggs in the landmark 1973 Battle of the Sexes match when the pressure of the world was on her shoulders.
4. Founded the Women’s tennis tour in 1968.
5. Founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 during Wimbledon while managing to win the singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles that year.
6. Founded World Team Tennis so males and females could play together in a team format.
7. Won a record-tying twenty Wimbledon titles in singles, doubles and mixed.
8. Founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, a non-profit organization to advance the lives of girls and women through sports and physical activity.
9. Was one of the leaders in the fight for passage of Title IX which requires any educational institution receiving federal assistance to offer equal opportunities to male and female athletes.
10. She’s one of the few women since 1968 (beginning of Open Era of tennis) to win all four grand slam singles titles in her career (Wimbledon, US Open, Australian Open, French Open). The others are Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
11. Won 39 grand slam titles overall in singles, doubles and mixed.
12. Received of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.
13. Is the first athlete to be profiled in PBS’s American Masters documentary series.
14. Is the first female tennis player to earn $100,000 in a single season.
15. Is so well-regarded that the National Tennis Center in New York, site of the US Open, was renamed The Billie Jan King National Tennis Center.
16. Won the women’s doubles title as a teenager at her very first Wimbledon when she was known as Little Miss Moffit (maiden name: Billie Jean Moffit). Then at 39, she made it to the semifinals in singles and final in mixed doubles at her very last Wimbledon as a player.
17. Has raised millions for AIDS causes through her annual Smash Hits event with longtime pal Elton John.
18. Has served as a mentor to younger players including Chris Evert, Venus and Serena Williams, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova.
19. Wrote the terrific book Pressure is a Privilege.
20. The Elton John hit Philadelphia Freedom was written about BJK!
21. Was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.
22. Was the first female chosen as Sports Illustrated Sportswoman of the Year, sharing the honor with UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
23. In 2000, BJK received an award from the GLAAD for “furthering the visibility and inclusion of the LGBT community in her work.
24. She was among the first class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame last year.
25. At 73, Billie Jean is still looking to do ‘one more big thing.’