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Monday, April 29, 2002
Updated: April 30, 11:29 AM ET
Thank you, Billie Jean

By Chris McKendry
Page 2 columnist

I floated into the newsroom on a personal high. "I just interviewed Billie Jean King!" I told a guy I work with.

Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King, coaching at the Fed Cup on Saturday, was instrumental in getting Title IX passed.
"Cool ... if you're a tennis fan," he said.

I crashed down to earth. What if I had just interviewed Muhammad Ali? Would the response have been, "Cool, if you're a boxing fan"?

I stood there shocked. I don't know if I was shocked with anger or sadness, or by his ignorance. But one of sports' great humanitarians had just been dismissed by one of my colleagues in the supposed sports capital of the world. I have listened to men here give John Vander Wal's value as a pinch hitter more thought.

As upset as I was at the moment, he could not ruin my day. Nobody could. It was such a good day that only one feeling lingered. I felt lucky. Lucky to live in a time when a great athlete whom I admire can also directly touch my life. King opened the door for all women and girls to participate in sports. Although she was an elite athlete, she fought for the average woman.

She fought for me.

To me, meeting her was no different than a black ballplayer meeting Jackie Robinson. I sat there looking at the person who made my opportunities possible. And she was looking back at a living example of her vision. Our meeting made me think of one of her favorite quotes, "The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself."

I was eager to hear, first-hand, her experiences from the 1960s and '70s. And I wondered how they would compare to my own, decades later.

At 11, King realized that she was discounted because she was a girl. She was watching a minor-league baseball game with her younger brother Randy Moffitt, who would go on to be a big-league pitcher.

("Good slider, no curve," Billie Jean succinctly summarizes. She is so proud of her brother. She loves it when people introduce her as Randy Moffitt's sister.)

  When King enrolled in college, Cal State Los Angeles, she had already won a Wimbledon title. She was the most famous person on campus. But she did not receive an athletic scholarship. It had nothing to do with King being a pro player, because she wasn't ... tennis players were still amateurs. 
  

Anyhow, she recalls turning to Randy and saying, "You can be a big-league ballplayer and I can't." He asked why. "Because I'm a girl."

"Because I'm a girl" was too often a theme in her life. When King enrolled in college, Cal State Los Angeles, she had already won a Wimbledon title. She was the most famous person on campus. But she did not receive an athletic scholarship. It had nothing to do with King being a pro player, because she wasn't ... tennis players were still amateurs. Athletic scholarships simply weren't available to women. Her ex-husband Larry King -- a supremely mediocre player -- received scholarship money for playing on the men's team. This inequity, she explains "woke her up" to life as a "second-class citizen."

And so, she "went to work."

In the early '70s her work began to really pay off. In 1972, King was instrumental in seeing that the Education Amendment, especially one portion of the Bill, Title IX, was passed by Congress. Title IX bans sex discrimination in schools, whether in academics or athletics. The following year, 1973, she made an even louder political statement when she beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes.

She also led other women tennis players in a break with the tennis establishment. Signing contracts worth a dollar apiece, they founded the WTA. King was a prime draw. She had the most to lose financially ... and did. During this time, King also fought for and won equal prize money for men and women at the U.S. Open. (Of course, the fight is far from over -- 30 years later Wimbledon still pays men more.)

King's accomplishments could not change her past. But she can live with that. As she says, "It's each generation's job to push the next."

I was the next. And boy, are things different!

Like King, I grew up with brothers and loved team sports almost from birth. I can't remember a time when I didn't know which teams were in the AL or NL. I can't even remember who taught me; it's like trying to remember who taught you English. Some things you just know.

King and I were both public parks kids, as well. But our experiences differ greatly. First of all, in my time, it was considered cool for a girl to be athletic. I had girls' teams and leagues to play on. We, like the boys, were the Somerton Spartans. But for every age group, if there was a boys' team there was a girls' team. And I never thought twice about it.

King actually took up tennis because there were no teams for her to join. She loved the constant movement of the game and it was at least "feminine," which was important in the 1950s. I took up tennis because there was a co-ed tennis team at our playground.

When King told me she did not receive a free college education, I felt a little guilty. I received scholarship money ... for playing tennis, no less. And nowhere near her level. I've never been to Wimbledon, even as a spectator. I never took the money for granted, but I never viewed making women's tennis being a scholarship sport as some great leap of faith on the part of the Drexel University athletics department.

I was wrong. While it wasn't a leap of faith, it was progressive on the school's part. Too many universities are still not in compliance.

Billie Jean's priority now is World Team Tennis. She calls the co-ed format, "the future." Building women's sports remains important to her, but her next goal is to foster co-ed teams that cooperate with and respect each other.

Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King crushed Bobby Riggs in straight sets (6-4, 6-3, 6-3) in 1973's "Battle of the Sexes."
King was as thought-provoking and passionate as I had imagined she'd be. And while she's still fighting for equality, she does enjoy the progress women have made. (For the record, she "loves" Venus Williams' $40 million deal with Reebok.)

Microphones off, Billie Jean began interviewing me. She had read my bio. She knew I played tennis in colleges. "I see you went to Drexel. Division I. Good. Scholarship money?"

Me: "Yes, I wasn't very good but the education sent me on this path."

"Great", she said. "What's next?" We talked then about jobs that are becoming cliché for women in TV. And how best I can avoid those. It was just another little push from one generation to the next.

On my way out, I asked King, the history buff, one last question. How would history remember her? She scoffed, "Maybe I'll get a line in a book somewhere, Chris."

I hope and expect that will not be the case. As King says, "The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself." Without knowing her history, future generations of women will never know their own.

I thanked her. For everything.

SportsCenter anchor Chris McKendry is a regular columnist for Page 2. For more on Billie Jean King and other prominent women athletes, watch ESPN's Women & Sports Weekend on ESPN, ESPN 2 and ESPN Classic June 21-23.