In a sportingyear of extraordinary achievement, the old truths that helped mold the mosthonored athletes were increasingly under question, oven if their records werenot. Three times an All-America player. UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden, now62, won his sixth straight college championship, an accomplishment dwarfinganything his sport has ever known. Billie Jean King swept the Big Three tennischampionships and. at 29, earned over $100,000 for the second straight year,the only woman ever to do so. Between their respective peaks, there seemed tobe a sizable gap. In some eyes, Wooden represented, if not the Establishment,at least some values to be protected to the end, while King stood for the newwave of individualism. As usual, both characterizations turned out to be toosnug to be true. Yet here the two of them manage to express philosophies thattypify the ongoing debate in sport. For their accomplishments and theirsymbolic importance, they are jointly named Sportsman and Sportswoman of1972.
This is an article from the Dec. 25, 1972 issue
Surrounded by theunmistakable colors and panoply of a college football weekend, basketball'sJohn Wooden and tennis' Billie Jean King met not long ago to discuss theirgames, their lives and sport. The setting was a quiet room on the UCLA campus,tucked away from the California bustle to which they have both becomeaccustomed. Wooden, a former high school teacher from Indiana, and Ms. King,the daughter of a Long Beach fireman, got on famously. She wore red andlamented what she supposed to be her own gain of weight. He said that hiswife's favorite color was red, complimented Billie Jean's slim look and showedpictures of his grandchildren. He spoke of Suzanne Lenglen and remembered oncehaving dinner with Henri Cochet. She said basketball was her favorite sport towatch and declared the UCLA team as her first love, even before it was winning.A baseball fan, Wooden inquired after Billie Jean's brother, Randy Moffitt, whopitches for the San Francisco Giants. Ms. King, in turn, asked about BillWalton's knees.
Shortly, Wooden(who last week was recovering from a mild heart condition that will cause himto miss a few weeks of the season) was asked what makes UCLA basketball sooverwhelmingly successful. "There is no easy explanation," he said."What we do is simple: get in condition, learn fundamentals and playtogether. I don't buy the proposition that UCLA has risen above the generallevel of college basketball. We've been more consistent, come closer to ournatural ability more often than others.
"We've had agreat run, and each season I can see this certain carryover to the new players.Subconsciously, they are almost afraid to fail. This encourages them to givemore in practice and accept some things in the way of discipline that theywouldn't otherwise. I get away with methods other coaches have trouble definingto their players, but I have no delusions. It's not me; it is because UCLA winsthat the players don't give me more guff."
Wooden spokeabout the college game. "There is room for improvement in several areas ofour sport. I advocate the 30-second clock to cut down on inactivity and thestall games. Jump balls should be eliminated, along with the offensive reboundbasket. A rebound should be passed off before another shot goes up. This wouldtake away the advantage of the unusually big player, cut down on fouls and makefor some pretty play around the basket.
"There aremore important changes to be made in college athletics," Wooden went on."Illegal recruiting is the bane. I know cynics question my stand, but Idon't like recruiting. That's why I've stayed at UCLA for a lot less money thanI could receive many other places. I can soft-sell in Los Angeles, which Icouldn't do in, say, Pullman. Wash. But I'm not in Pullman, and I would nevercoach there because of that. I say abolish all paid visits of high schoolplayers to campuses. Do not permit coaches or representatives of athleticdepartments to visit a youngster's home. Do not allow sports brochures,halftime introductions for prep players. In short, stop recruiting altogether.A high school athlete can get all the information he needs through academiccatalogs furnished by the school. Our universities should stand on their ownmerits.
"We have agood game," Wooden said, "but there are things like the redshirt andthe freshman-eligible rules that leave us open to the pros, who then feeljustified in taking away our players. Because of the money Bill Walton cancommand after his junior year this spring, I would never talk him out ofsigning with the pros. But I think it would be a mistake; I'd be verydisappointed. Had Johnny Neumann or Julius Erving or Spencer Haywood or RalphSimpson and the rest stayed in school they would be far better off today—betterfor their maturity, the learning of business sense, the educational values andtheir entire future. I've told Walton this. It all depends on which week I talkto him whether he thinks he will leave after this year."
Billie Jean Kingbroke in here, wanting to know the difference between amateurs andprofessionals. "I have trouble interpreting college basketball players asamateurs," she said. "No matter how small it is, if they are givenfinancial aid for excelling at sport, calling them amateurs is incorrect. As anamateur tennis player, whether they gave me $10 or $4,000 under the table, Istill considered myself a professional and I didn't like being called anamateur. The amateur ideal is ridiculous; I think finally we have realized thatamateurism in the Olympics is a farce. Well, tennis was like that for athousand years. The word always has been that amateurs play sport for the loveof it. Listen, professionals love it just as much, probably more so. We put ourlives on the line for sport."
She spoke ofwomen in tennis, of tennis itself. "The crux has nothing to do with Women'sLib. We don't want to compete against men. We just want the opportunity to getinto sports programs at all levels. I think there should be more women's golfand tennis teams at the college level so girls could make a choice. The onlyway I made it in tennis was by chance. My family didn't participate. I wanted asport where I could still be considered feminine. That hasn't been easy.Hopefully, no longer are we regarded as musclebound, Amazonian jerks.
"The growthof the game has been phenomenal," Billie Jean continued, "but tennishas a long way to go. The game is caught up in tradition, trivia and etiquettewhen all that really matters is the caliber of play. We need to move away fromour clubby, rich and white atmosphere and touch the masses. We need morecolors, more noise, a better scoring system and improved officiating.
"Tennisplayers have been pampered for too long, also. The whispering and silences thatgo on during a tennis match are absurd. I say let the people yell, scream,shout, boo, do whatever they feel like doing. They paid their money. I've beenbooed. So what? More crowd noise would be hard on the players at first, butthat's only because we aren't used to it. If you're a pro, you learn tocope.
"The samething applies to the tiebreak scoring system," she said. "When thatcame in, the players went crazy. 'Oh, no, we can't play that!' We could anddid. WCT hates sudden death, but in truth it makes tennis. The men hate thepressure, but that's what sport is all about. Now, let's take the Van Alensystem all the way. Let's score games 1-0, 2-0 and so on. A game should be fourpoints, no deuce-ad, forget it. That will put a time limit on matches and makeeasier scheduling."
What irritatesBillie Jean the most is the disparate purses awarded men and women at majortournaments. "We do not want equal pay for equal work," she says."We only want what we're worth. For two years we've out-drawn the men atForest Hills by whatever criteria they've used, but this year the men's moneywas 2½ times the women's, and at Wimbledon it is twice as much even though Iknow we draw at least as many people there as the men every year. We think ourtournaments should be apart from the men's so we can be judged. If we don'tdraw as well, we shouldn't be paid as much."
Billie Jeanpaused. "Many people ask me if it hurts to see the youngsters, EvonneGoolagong and Chris Evert, get so much recognition," she said. "Theirstardom and all that attention are my dream for tennis. What did hurt was Christurning down all her money last year to remain an amateur. She would have wonat least $40,000 and often I told her to go ahead and take it. I've put in 15years so the day would come when somebody like Chris would be able to win suchamounts. Then when she refuses it, it just destroys me."
The growing waveof commercialism in sport, the odor of big business, drew mixed reactions fromWooden and Billie Jean. "I used to be on the players' side indisputes," Wooden said, "but I think players' unions have become thetail wagging the dog. I was disgusted with the baseball strike. Management hastoo large an investment not to have the absolute right to run its business asit pleases. Athletes aren't taken advantage of; their salaries are way out ofline. Why should they receive retirement income after 10 years of work thatdwarfs the money teachers get after 40 years? Certainly their income isshort-lived. But their education hasn't been lost. What do they do the rest oftheir lives, sit around? The fact they have played pro sports opens many doorsto athletes that are closed to others who have more ability."
Billie Jean feltsport does not deserve "this pastoral aura. We're in big business, anduntil people face reality we'll be dabbling in nonsense forever. Salariesaren't out of line, not even on moral grounds. We happen to be in theentertainment business at a time when that is in demand. If we can get themoney, we deserve it. If management can't afford salaries, they are the firstto say so. The fact they do pay out so much means it is worthwhile to someone.Of course, contracts should be honored. But when a Vida Blue becomes afantastic draw, and packs them in by himself, concessions should be made. I'mnot in favor of all this jumping teams, but we must face that, too. It's all inFuture Shock by Toffler—life is more temporary. People don't remain in one jobanymore; they'll have six or seven jobs in a lifetime. Colleges should makekids sign contracts, or there's going to be more jumping."
"Well, Iwouldn't want that," Wooden said. "I truly wouldn't."
Billie Jean didnot let up. "We must lift sport out of this glass jar. We can't divorceourselves from politics, either. I haven't met one human being who agrees withAvery Brundage that sport is above politics. The nationalistic flavor of theOlympics breeds political problems. Athletes should represent themselves, nottheir countries. Using one's position in sport to influence a politicalsituation is a personal, individual matter. I've been to South Africa a coupleof times but the conditions have bothered me and I won't go back. In my workfor the Women's Political Caucus, I think of myself as a woman, not an athlete,and yet what makes me valuable is that I'm a tennis star. It's an athlete'sprivilege, like anybody else's, to speak out on issues."
Wooden agreed, upto a point. "When Walton was arrested last spring in an anti-war protest,he was acting on his own," he said. "He wasn't using basketball. Yet hewas criticized because he is a basketball player.
"Anotherrecent development has bothered me," he said. "I'm as loyal to the flagand the country as the next man. I love the national anthem and would like tosee its use continued at athletic contests, yet my team has been criticized fornot being on the floor when the anthem is played. I prefer that we be in thelocker room when the song goes on—so the players don't stand around cold afterwarmups. I certainly am not avoiding the anthem."
"In mostEuropean countries they don't play their anthems," said Billie Jean. "Ikind of like ours because it seems to settle things. I don't like the victoryceremonies at the Olympics, though; they're political. I've become much lessnationalistic over the years."
"That doesn'tmean you're less patriotic, does it, Billie Jean?" Wooden said.
"No,definitely not," she said. "But if the song offends some people, it istheir privilege not to stand or acknowledge it."
"It is thenational anthem, though," said Wooden.
The new breed ofcounterculture sports heroes and their impact on society was mentioned."There always have been rebels with different values and unusuallife-styles," said Wooden, "but it's unlikely they ever have majoritysupport. Duane Thomas is a subject of pity. Joe Namath and Kareem and MuhammadAli are stars purely on their ability. Not many people admire their ways ortheir styles. They'd be more of a factor in American life if they weren't so,well, radical."
"Many peopleconsider me radical," admitted Billie Jean. "but 10 years from now myideas will seem antiquated. People like Namath and Ilie Nastase don't botherme. They're another sign of the times. People are finding out athletes are nota bunch of Jack Armstrongs who neither smoke, drink nor have ideas. That'sunrealistic."
"Still,"Wooden pointed out, "because of these men it is sometimes more difficultfor youngsters to accept discipline now. Every person in the public eye has adeep moral responsibility to youth and to the public. It hurts to see athletesendorse liquor or tobacco."
"That hitshome," said Billie Jean. "I don't drink or smoke. You can imagine how Ifelt when the sponsors of women's tennis turned out to be Virginia Slims. Itwas a tough decision. If I hadn't played—I'll be truthful—there wouldn't havebeen a circuit. I wasn't about to deprive 80 girls of a living, and I do knowpeople who drink and smoke a lot and also play great tennis."
"I used tosmoke," said Wooden, "but I was ashamed to let my players seeme."
"Life-styleis an individual matter," concluded Billie Jean. "If a Dick Allen canget the job done living whatever way he lives, that's right on."
Wooden spokephilosophically. "In all of this, we're talking about something, sport,which is 99% good. I don't know anyone, as participant, spectator or bystander,who is not touched in some way by sport. It's healthy, an emotional outlet, aphysical outlet, an entertainment, a vehicle for escape. Certainly there aresome drawbacks. Sport is overdone sometimes; many people don't have it in theproper line of priorities. Widespread gambling is another problem. But sportkeeps people young; perhaps that is the most important thing.
"As I lookback, most everything I have is a result of sport. Oh, I know it's the toy partof the world and I'm not significant in any worldly fashion. But a long timeago I found this niche and it has been right for me. I've enjoyed coaching,teaching and the relationships. It's nice to look around and see my playersbecome successful in different fields. I am content. I have peace of mind, andI worry about how much I'm going to miss sport when I get out of it in the nearfuture."
Billie Jeanthought about that. "Sometimes there are down moments," she said,"and I feel unimportant. I think, "Sport, big deal.' But what is sportanyway? An art, an amusement. We professionals are the motivators. We are theones who inspire. We sell people something they have for the rest of theirlives—moments, memories—and they are better in health, mind and spirit. So I docontribute. I give people pleasure and happiness.
"The veryfirst day I hit a tennis ball I knew what I wanted," she went on. "Ithas made my life. Winning isn't the big deal, either. The real joy comes fromthe very thing that involves people in sport in the first place—the fun ofexecution, the fun of playing.
"Naturallysport is an outlet, an expenditure of energy. Not everyone gets that fromreading a book or watching a movie. But also it teaches us about daily living.Certain things don't always go our way. Sometimes we have to lose and we allmust face it. Ups and downs. Hills and valleys. That's what sport is all about.That's what life is about, too."