Billie Jean King’s first glimpse at her destiny was in, of all places, the family kitchen. At the age of five, washing dishes with her mother, Billie Jean shared a dream. As she recalls, "I had this flash come over me that I'd do something great with my life. I told my mom, and she just said, 'Okay, that's fine, dear, just keep washing.' And I said, in the way a five-year-old would say it, 'No Mom, you don't get it, I mean it.'"
More than anyone, King was the role model for the 1972 passage of Title IX, a piece of legislation designed to ensure women equal opportunities in sports. In 1971, one in 27 girls participated in high school sports. By 1997, that figure was one in three. Studies reveal that women who play sports enjoy a wide range of benefits, from increased self-esteem to greater academic achievement. The sport of tennis burst into a movement known as "Women's Lob." Life magazine would subsequently honor King as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century.
Yet for all her battle scars, in conversation King comes across, more eager to discuss the latest book on the best-seller list. "As a tennis player, I was a hothead. I'm pretty soft elsewhere."
Billie Jean Moffitt was born on November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California, a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. Five years later came a brother, Randy, who would pitch in the major leagues for 11 years. While Billie's father, Bill, a firefighter, displayed a voracious desire to win in his church basketball league.
Billie Jean was a natural athlete and big for her age, reaching her full adult size of 5'4," 125 pounds by age ten. Softball and football were passions, but Bill demanded she go for a more feminine sport. Swimming wasn't fun, so she decided to try tennis. Earning money from odd jobs, Billie Jean bought her first racket, complete with maroon strings, for eight dollars and headed for the local park. "That first day I really fell in love with tenni...