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Sportsman

Billie Jean King: In Her Own Words

Getting the Sportsperson of the Year in 1972 was so personal for me because of Title IX. That's what it meant for me, that times-were-a-changing, as Dylan sang in those times. Sports are a microcosm of society, so it was huge. I'm not sure SI even thought about it, but, boy, I sure did.

I always would read Sports Illustrated, but I never saw myself unless there was a woman's article. If you don't get enough exposure, people don't know who are. I was the first woman. I was thrilled that I finally could help make a difference in getting the door ajar. My life has always been getting the door ajar and then have the next generation blow it wide open. I knew for me to share the front of the magazine with Mr. Wooden would be a start for women. If I made it, you can make it. If I can do it, you can do it.

I was real nervous when we had our photos together. I was like "Oh God, it's John Wooden." I was like walking on eggshells I was so excited. I just admired him so much not just as a coach but as a human being, the total person and how he accepted responsibility. He really tried to help his athletes be the best they could be. I'm sure I saw myself through him in some ways.

Every time I get my name on something or someone gives me an award, that equals responsibility to me. I feel that I am an ambassador for my country, for this world, and for my sport and all other sports. It's a blessing if you perceive it that way. A lot of pro athletes today get so irritated when they have the microphones in front of their face. I have a problem with that. I say you're lucky to be recruited for college. You're lucky that people care about you. It's a privilege to have these pressures as a professional athlete.

When I started getting into tennis, it was like, excuse me? I see white people, white balls, white clothes, white socks. Hello? Where is everybody else? I thought about this when I was 12, so I kind of dedicated my life to equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls. But my whole life, women were so underserved, that that's where I went. I didn't have a choice.

Now it's better. Title IX had the most to do with it and I also think me playing Bobby Riggs with the exposure we got. Men come up to me in their 40s and 50s will have tears in their eyes in telling me they were 10, 12 or 15 when they watched that match. They will break down and cry in front of me, realizing that they insist that their daughters and sons have equal opportunities and rights. They say if they had not seen that match, they don't think they would've raised their daughters the same way.

When President Obama was 10, he and his friend would go watch me practice. I remember a child of color watching me. I did not realize this is who it was. I told him, "I wish you had asked me to hit with you." He said, "You wouldn't have hit with me anyway, would you?" I said I would've loved it. He goes, "Ah! Well, I think I was 12 years-old when you played Bobby Riggs." That really made me think. So, there's the President of the United States giving me his little thoughts.

I'm still working fulltime. World Team Tennis is the thing I care about. If you watch a World Team Tennis match, you actually see my philosophy on life. You see it in action, and that is girls and boys having equal rights and opportunities. That is my life.

Among athletes, to be Sportsperson of the Year, I cannot tell you how thrilling it is. Athletes will say to another athlete, Oh my God, you're the Sportsperson of the Year. That's unbelievable.

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