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A special interest

Sense of others puts Billie Jean in class of her own

Posted: Tuesday August 29, 2006 5:10PM; Updated: Sunday September 3, 2006 5:06PM
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Tennis legend Billie Jean King was honored Monday night as the USTA renamed the National Tennis Center after her.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King was honored Monday night as the USTA renamed the National Tennis Center after her.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This was more than 20 years ago. I was 23 then, full of a 23-year-old's experiences, opinions, perspectives. I knew nothing, in other words.

I got a call. A sports editor in San Diego wanted to talk to me about a job. His name was Barry Lorge, and his voice rumbled softly, and  it felt good to feel wanted. I flew down from Northern California, and Lorge picked me up at the airport. He is a big bluff man, sort of bashful, no airs. We're going out to dinner, he said, with my wife and a friend. We walked into the house and I met his vibrant wife, Claudia.

Huddled on the phone against a wall, a woman was talking. Her head was down. Barry walked past and waved a hand, murmured a name. I didn't catch it. Then she hung up and lifted her head. I thought, We're going out to dinner?

It was Billie Jean King. This was 1985, so she'd already done it all by then: won her Wimbledons, started the WTA, thrashed Bobby Riggs and become a feminist icon. They'd talk about all that over dinner, I figured, and I vowed to be smart and listen quietly. But Billie Jean wouldn't leave me alone. In the car, across the table: She kept asking questions. Where was I from? Why did I like writing? Where did I go to school? What was my family like? Why?

I remember us walking along a sidewalk in the soft California night, Barry and Claudia 10 feet ahead, me and Billie Jean strolling along. She kept asking why, the unavoidable question, the one that can't be answered with a mere yes or no. I nattered on, puzzled. She had talked to hundreds of sportswriters. When were we going to talk about her?

It has been two decades. On Monday night the U.S. Tennis Association had a ceremony honoring King. They trotted out Diana Ross and a choir to sing, and Venus Williams, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and John McEnroe to rhapsodize about her role as a teacher, a beacon for women's sports, a "revolutionary," as Andy Roddick put it, and then they rightly renamed their showcase in Flushing Meadow "the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center."

King then took the microphone, and whooped and joked and urged people to play tennis and talked soberly about the underrepresented people of the world, people of color, people stuck in wheelchairs. She spoke of growing up on the public courts of Long Beach, the daughter of a fireman. The big screen showed black-and-white pictures of her in cat's-eye glasses, lunging for the ball, playing in a time when tennis, when sports, was so much smaller.