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A special interest (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday August 29, 2006 5:10PM; Updated: Sunday September 3, 2006 5:06PM
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Lorge goes back with King to 1968. Tennis writers and their subjects had a different relationship when she was in her prime; tennis media was this small club anyone could join. When Barry, still at Harvard, called The Boston Globe's venerable columnist Bud Collins to ask if he could tag along at some local tournaments, Bud insisted on picking him up.

Barry once traveled 21 hours on a train with Arthur Ashe, from Sweden to Italy, and later, when Barry was assigned to do a piece on Ashe for Tennis magazine, Ashe asked if he'd like to stay at his home. In the mid-1980s, Billie Jean would stay at Barry's whenever she went to San Diego. They were old friends by then.

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"That's the way it was in those days," Lorge said when I called him at home on Monday. "You traveled together, ate together, lived together. It's so different from tennis now."

We talked about that night again. It has stayed with me, because I've interviewed hundreds of great athletes, celebrities and politicians since. It's always about them, of course; and it should be. We all want to learn what makes the great ones tick.

But there's something in this dance that must be damaging in the end; because the conversations with coaches, agents and media are always about them, because the athlete's world is necessarily built around their moves, thoughts and motivations, it's easiest for them to see the world only from their point of view.

Really, it's impossible to imagine how it could be any other way. It would take a massive will for a second-string NFL quarterback, much less a living legend, to crack that construct. After all these years, Billie Jean has still been the only one.

I'm not unique, of course. King's great gift, intrinsic or self-created, is to be eternally, blazingly interested in the people tennis has thrown in her path, to ask Why? when everyone else is asking for seconds, to think big when everyone else is thinking small, to see even her opponents as partners in her quest to become better, to learn even more. There are few players, administrators, reporters she hasn't grilled, and her palpable need to know what the other person thinks and feels is the bedrock of her lifelong push for fairness.

"She's just the most naturally curious person I've ever known," Lorge told me. "She wants to know how everything works. She was the same way with me: The first time I interviewed her, she was interviewing me. I was just a college kid and she was a Wimbledon champion."

A lot of big concepts and words got thrown around that ceremony Monday night. There was a heartbreaking moment when they showed King's mother, Betty, tearing up; you thought about mothers and daughters and how strange it must've been for this woman to see 20,000 cheering her girl again, and how time hurtles on.

At one point, Billie Jean said, "You never know how another person is going to touch your life," and I remembered us walking along, her showing some mouthy kid how the world can be even more fascinating when it isn't just about you.

I didn't take that job. Lorge has had a long, distinguished career, some 40 years spread between Tennis, The Washington Post and The San Diego Union; few writers ever worked harder, more painstakingly, to find the right word, to describe the telling moment. He has a picture of King on his wall with his daughter Katie at a clinic, just after Katie nailed her first real volley: Billie Jean celebrating like Katie was her own. Last year he covered Wimbledon for ESPN.com, and two days before the tournament he went to dinner with King, her partner, Ilana Kloss, and TV commentator Mary Carillo.

"Billie Jean was just holding court," Barry said. "And it just reminded me of how exciting those conversations can be, how energizing she can be."

Lorge wasn't at Flushing Meadows on Monday night, much as he wanted to be. He's missing the U.S. Open this year, ending his streak at 39. He has spent the last eight months besieged by a particularly savage cancer, too many tumors, and watched this year's Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon on hospital TVs. Before this Open began, Bud Collins called and told Barry he'll just have to start a new streak next year.

Monday's ceremony, though, Barry was able to watch at home. After it was over, he e-mailed a note to Billie Jean. You can bet he labored over it, each word chosen with care. But she's worth the effort. Two decades later, I've learned enough to know that.

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