SI Vault
Frank Deford
May 19, 1975
American girls have traditionally looked up to and emulated their favorite motion-picture stars. The film stars led lives that seemed exciting and far removed from the humdrum activities of ordinary lives, and young girls dreamed of living similar glamorous lives. Now there is a new idol...and she's Billie Jean King .—FROM A BILLIE JEAN KING PRESS RELEASE
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May 19, 1975

Mrs. Billie Jean King!

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American girls have traditionally looked up to and emulated their favorite motion-picture stars. The film stars led lives that seemed exciting and far removed from the humdrum activities of ordinary lives, and young girls dreamed of living similar glamorous lives. Now there is a new idol...and she's Billie Jean King .

The added irony is that she is a more passionate person than any of the voluptuous femmes fatales who ever slinked across a silver screen and buried their heaving breasts in the wet cement at Grauman's. Passion—"the gale of life," Pope called it—is why, ultimately, it has all worked for Billie Jean. First, it is to her advantage that the female vessel holds raw emotions more preciously. But besides, men are afraid to show passion themselves, and those who do possess it are advised by their colleagues to keep it down—as they say on airplanes: for your safety and convenience. Men suffer each other only to be principled or kooky, depending on the viewpoint; but the fellas, as Billie Jean invariably refers to the other gender, permit women to retain passion—presumably because its bedroom dividends are shared and because its other excesses may be conveniently used to show women as quirky, unreliable characters in need of a shoulder to cry on.

Without her tennis, Billie Jean would still have been something; without her passion, nothing. Of course, she has a number of other things going for her: typical female guile, typical male aggressiveness, typical American get-up-and-go, typical California insouciance and real good ground strokes. The fellas simply cannot let a person run around with all those assets, plus a license for passion, and not expect her to put a dent in things. "Being a girl was not the only thing I had to fight," Billie Jean says. "I was brought up to believe in the well-rounded concept, doing lotsa things a little, but not putting yourself on the line. It took me a while before I thought one day: who is it that says we have to be well-rounded? Who decided that? The people who aren't special at anything, that's who. When at last I understood that, I could really try to be special."

Very likely Billie Jean Moffitt King will go down in history as the most significant athlete of this century. That is not said lightly. But then few athletes ever reach beyond their games to exert any dominion over the rest of society. Unfortunately, the end result of Muhammad Ali, for example, is that he is merely controversial. Arnold Palmer brought mass popularity to an upper-crust diversion, and Babe Ruth salvaged his game from scandal, but, by and large, neither has been more than a broad caricature. Jackie Robinson is the exception, a sportsman who was an important figure in the American saga, but even he did not make the imprint that the lady in glasses does.

Of course, neither would have amounted to a hill of beans had they not been escorted to the front by an idea whose time had come. Much more than Billie Jean, though, Robinson had to have doors opened for him. That was not his fault, but it was so nonetheless. And while his first years were a fire storm of historic "firsts," a political groundbreaking for 10% of the population, hers is a deeper and wider legacy: she has prominently affected the way 50% of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise. Moreover, like Palmer, she has made a whole sport boom because of the singular force of her presence.

Granted, women's tennis would have gotten off the ground by now without Billie Jean; and also granted, without her the revolutionary concept that exertion by American women is acceptable in pursuits other than childbirth would have begun to gain currency. Still, the fact remains that in the modern U.S., in the modern world, the promulgation and acceptance of sharp new attitudes—what are called movements or trends—utterly depend upon the emergence of a personality to embody the philosophy; or, when was the last time you saw two minutes of an idea on the six o'clock news? Billie Jean's closest cultural kin are not athletes, but people like Ralph Nader and Martin Luther King, even Hugh Hefner and The Beatles—men whose names are instantly associated with a movement, and, notably, one that effected great change. Billie Jean is foremost now a symbol, which is why, of all the athletes of our time, she is most misunderstood, both by those who detest her and those who adore her. And, as with most symbols, the real person has been appropriated; perhaps it is time to give herself back to Billie Jean.

She jams the sports car into gear and takes off, flashing around a corner, hurrying to catch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. "I love motion," she declares. Billie Jean offers little endorsements, value judgments, all the time. Her life is a daily shopping list of things she likes or, occasionally, doesn't. It is as if The Top 40, which her generation was raised on, also existed for all life, not just songs, and she went around regularly unveiling a new personal chart: chocolate ice cream with marshmallow topping drops to No. 4 this week, motion moves up to No. 6, shampoos rise to 16 and so on. Lost somewhere in all the hopelessly incomplete portraits of her (including her autobiography) is the large measure of girlish enthusiasm that she still displays. What fun she is!

At 31, Billie Jean has been a world champion, a controversial celebrity, abused by substantial elements of the population. She has been fat, is hopelessly myopic and often suffers pain in both her knees, where the railroad tracks run alongside the dimples. Her marriage has gone through some rough patches. She has suffered hard financial losses and the cruel ridicule which attends them. She has been required to endure hate mail and some of the most private scrutiny given any public figure, male or female. And yet, she remains unfailingly enthusiastic, youthfully optimistic and still sprinkles her vocabulary with a combination of 1950s slumber-party giggle chatter and restoration Beatnik lingo.

Get a load of some of the things that Billie Jean says without blinking an eye: "No sweat; way to hustle; party pooper; vibes; Tight City; get my act together; where they're at; stay loose; dear heart; ticked off; you got to love it; the little girls' room; el chubbo; el spasto; from Shinola; no way; right on; truly beautiful." That's her current favorite, truly beautiful, with you got to love it moving up fast on the charts. Also, both Billie Jean and her husband Larry especially favor the word trip, usually with the adjective attached: the gratification trip, the Hollywood trip. "The celebrity is a hard trip to put on anybody," Larry says.

She parks the car at an overlook near the Golden Gate. Sometimes she and Larry come here and climb the rocks. It is peaceful and secluded, which is important because there are so few places left where she can go without being harassed. And with Billie Jean, it is not just goo-goo eyes and autographs. The women especially are anxious to touch her, and she does not like that; it scares and repels her. She also feels guilty about this because for so long she labored so fruitlessly for any recognition for herself and other women athletes.

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