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Column: Why Billie Jean King finally took control of her own story

Billie Jean King leans against Elton John's back. Both hold tennis rackets in a black-and-white photo.
From Billie Jean King’s “All In”: “Elton (John) wearing the Philadelphia Freedoms jacket that I asked Ted Tinling to make for him because Elton was such a tennis fan. We’re having a few laughs here at the Queen’s Club in West Kensington, London.”
(Terry O’Neill / Iconic Images)

Billie Jean King’s words tumbled out in an enthusiastic rush, her thoughts jumping from one idea to the next with dizzying speed.

She said she doesn’t recall names as quickly as she once did, but at 77 she retains the passion that fueled her rise from the public tennis courts of Long Beach to center court at Wimbledon and the epicenter of women’s seemingly endless battle for athletic and social equality. “Oh, I’ve had a great life,” said King, who joins the L.A. Times Book Club on Aug. 24. “Oh my gosh. I pinch myself every day.”

King survived some dangerous riptides while winning 39 Grand Slam tennis event titles. She caused more than a few ripples too, and carried the weight of representing an entire gender when she faced aging huckster Bobby Riggs in the made-for-TV “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition match in 1973.

Book jacket for "All In" by Billie Jean King.
(‎ Knopf)
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King helped organize the first women’s professional tennis tour and founded the nonprofit Women’s Sports Foundation, which increases opportunities for women and girls in sports. She was outed as a lesbian before she accepted her sexuality and at a time when public censure cost her endorsement dollars. She couldn’t tell her parents she was gay until she was 51. She became an activist almost accidentally but, once committed, embraced the role without reservation.

It’s no wonder an early draft of King’s detailed, accessibly conversational autobiography, “All In,” topped 800 pages before her editors persuaded her that she couldn’t mention every friend she’d ever made. She reluctantly trimmed it by about half.

“So you can imagine I left a lot out,” she said. “I’d like to have more about friendship. I couldn’t get everything in, though. It just didn’t work.”

Billie Jean King in a blue jacket, seated, with a tennis ball and racket in the foreground.
Billie Jean King in 2019.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

King was thoughtful and chatty last week during an audio Zoom interview while she was in San Diego to present trophies at the Billie Jean King national 16-and-under and 18-and-under girls’ tennis championships. She was especially invigorated discussing two of her greatest passions: tennis, and how to nurture the minds and souls of athletes, particularly young women.

“It’s really sweet. It’s such an honor and the kids are great,” King said. “They’re always teaching you something, that’s for sure.

“I do like to learn. It keeps me young.”

That insatiable desire to learn and grow — and her charisma in leading others to see and follow her vision — illuminates “All In.”

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In this ‘All In’ excerpt, Billie Jean King talks about her first time playing tennis. “That night I asked my father, ‘Daddy, which sport would be best for a girl? You know, in the long term.’ ”

It’s an entertaining memoir of how a firefighter’s daughter who carefully saved $8.29 to buy her first racket and learned to play a rich person’s sport on public courts became tennis royalty, all the while refusing to settle for less than she believed she and other female athletes were worth.

She had previously shared bits and pieces of her story, in a book published soon after the “Battle of the Sexes” match and another with sportswriter Frank Deford in 1982 that was intended to repair the damage done when her former hairstylist and lover, Marilyn Barnett, publicly outed her. She didn’t fully cooperate with Deford and omitted her relationship with South Africa-born pro player Ilana Kloss to protect Kloss. “It wasn’t a personal reckoning as much as a whitewashing,” King wrote in “All In.”

That tumultuous period is recounted in the book. So is her first public mention of her 2018 marriage to Kloss, by then her partner of nearly 40 years. “We recognized that so many people had worked so hard to get the laws changed to give us the choice,” King writes. “Emotionally, we had arrived at a place where it became important to us to formalize our love for each other.” They have an ownership stake in the Dodgers and are among A-list celebrity owners of Angel City FC, the National Women’s Soccer League team scheduled to debut next April.

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Billie Jean King hoists the Venus Rosewater Dish, her first Wimbledon singles win in 1966, for a crowd of photographers.
From Billie Jean King’s “All In”: “Before I lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish after winning my first Wimbledon singles title in 1966 — my wildest dream come true — I snuck a peek at the names of the other champions that I knew were listed there.”
(Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo)

“Once I began living truthfully I felt like I could breathe again. I no longer have to lie or hide,” King writes. “I can be my authentic self, and I can say this with pride: It’s been a lovely, sometimes lonely, often soul-shaking, ultimately gratifying ride. It’s been full of sparks and recrimination. But I came through it.

“I am free.”

The timing was right, King said, to take control of her narrative now and write a definitive account of her life. She also recorded an audio version, but a hoped-for in-person book tour was scrapped because of COVID-19 concerns.

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“People have been bugging me for a long time. I’d say 10 years or more,” she said. “We took more than four years for this thing. It’s been a labor of love, that’s for sure. It does remind you of things. I think one can beat themselves up and say, ‘Why did you do this?’ But it was so obvious why I did it — because of the culture of the times. I mean it was so obvious. It also was a good reminder of how things have changed for the better in so many ways, I think, for women.

Billie Jean King as a child with her parents and brother Randy in their front yard in Long Beach, California.
From Billie Jean King’s “All In”: “My parents, Randy, and me in our front yard, West 36th Street, Long Beach, California.”
(The Billie Jean King Collection, The New-York Historical Society)

“Everybody said, ‘We need to hear from you, not what other people say.’ And it’s been at least since ’80 that anybody wrote anything and of course, poor Frank, I didn’t help him at all on that book. So the last book I really was involved with at all was 1974 with Kim Chapin and that’s it. And I thought, ‘It’s been a lot of life between 1974 and now.’”

King worked with writers Maryanne Vollers and Johnette Howard and full-time researcher Helen Russell, but the heavy lifting of memories was left to her. “It was just exhausting kind of reliving my life, which was sometimes fun and not so much fun,” she said. “Ooh, I had to stop a few times and broke down. It was rough.”

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King’s wide-ranging list of unfinished business is led by continued advocacy for equal pay for equal work, fixing racial inequities, and supporting the Time’s Up and Me Too movements. She also praised healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic and condemned those who refuse to be vaccinated. “I don’t know what to do about that,” she said, frustration in her voice.

“I have all of these things and you can say any of them are at the top, depending on what’s rising to the top one day when the cake is being baked.”

Bobby Riggs grabs Billie Jean King's upper arm on the tennis court in a 1973 black-and-white photo.
From Billie Jean King’s “All In”: “Bobby Riggs and I mug for the cameras in July 1973 after our New York conference at the Town Tennis Club to announce our Battle of the Sexes match.”
(Ann Limongello / Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

There might be more cakes in her future. “I still want to do other books because I like [discussing] leadership,” she said. For now and beyond, “All In” is a nourishing and filling treat.

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Book Club: Join us

Billie Jean King discusses “All In” with Times Executive Sports Editor Christian Stone at the L.A. Times Book Club.

When: Aug. 24 at 6 p.m. PT.

Where: Virtual event. Get tickets on Eventbrite.

More info: latimes.com/bookclub

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Billie Jean King is carried on a litter into the Battle of the Sexes, with "Go Bobby Go!" signs behind her.
From Billie Jean King’s “All In”: “Promoter Jerry Perenchio surprised me moments before my entrance into the Houston Astrodome for the Battle of the Sexes match by suggesting I ride into the stadium on this flashy litter carried by four men in togas. I said, ‘Jerry, I love it! It’s showtime, baby!’”
(AP)


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