- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

—”I don’t want the crumbs anymore, I want the cake and icing. Everybody deserves the cake and icing.”

Billie Jean King

As well as anything else, this quote captures the spirit and motivation that has marked the former tennis star’s life and career. It comes near the end of the HBO documentary “Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer,” which premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on the pay cable network.

Like most of the programs in HBO’s “Sports of the 20th Century” series, the King film is well worth catching for its perceptive peek at a woman who changed things within and without her sport.

As Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford puts it, “She and Jackie Robinson are the two figures in sports that stand out in the culture.”

King was, and remains to some, a highly controversial person. In addition to citing her on-court triumphs and role as a spokeswoman for gender equality in all areas, the film also notes that she had an abortion and two affairs with women while married to tennis promoter Larry King. One of the women, Marilyn Barnett, later filed and lost a highly publicized palimony suit against her.

King neither apologizes for nor flaunts her personal life. Of the abortion, she tells a TV interviewer, “I don’t think it’s really anybody’s business. I didn’t think it was right to bring a child into the world when [her relationship with her husband] wasn’t right.”

King expresses happiness that her family has accepted her for what she is and adds of her life today, “Everything is working. Everything is great. Sometimes I feel like I’m 17 years old still.”

Born in California in 1943, King was introduced to tennis early and recalls, “By the end of my first [group] lesson, I knew I had found what I wanted to do with my life: ‘I love this game! I wanna be the number one player in the world.’”

What does it take to be No. 1?

Says King at the start of the film as she strides onto an empty court at hallowed Wimbledon: “A champion has to say, ‘I want the ball’ and be willing to be at high risk. God gave me this gift, and I was going to do everything in my power to make this world a better place.”

The road was not easy.

“In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the whole world was in tumult, and so was I,” she says. “I was just a lost soul.”

Her “tumult” did not show on court. King first achieved recognition when she won the Wimbledon doubles title with Karen Hantze in 1961, five years before she gained the first of her six singles championships there.

Says Deford: “The British fell for her. She was this chubby little thing with the hideous, tacky glasses. It was her energy and passion that they loved.”

King displayed the same qualities fighting for women’s equality in tennis and sports. Outraged that females were paid only a pittance compared with men’s purses after the sport entered its open era in 1968, she was a moving force behind the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association, World Team Tennis and the Virginia Slims tour. Though later eclipsed on the court by such stars as Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and the Williams sisters, King remains a guiding light and icon in a sport she helped popularize around the world.

And in 1973, she struck a highly publicized blow for women when she defeated 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in their “Battle of the Sexes” winner-take-all match at the Astrodome. Before the ABC telecast, she insisted the network remove analyst and former champion Jack Kramer, who had dissed the women’s game, from its broadcast team. Without King there would be no match and no ratings, so executive producer Roone Arledge was forced to back down.

Riggs was a hustler of the first rank who had beaten women’s champion Margaret Court and played the role of male chauvinist pig to perfection. Phony as their showdown was, King knew it would be a setback for female athletes everywhere if she lost. So she blew past Riggs, whom she genuinely liked, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

The kidding relationship between the two is evident in a clip when both did a guest gig on “The Odd Couple” TV show.

“Hi, Bobby,” King says. “Who did you hustle today.”

Riggs points to Oscar Madison (actor Jack Klugman), who smiles sheepishly.

The HBO documentary also touches on King’s mutual admiration society friendships with such disparate personalities as Elton John and the late cartoonist Charles Schulz. King has moonlighted as a backup vocalist at John’s concerts (“I had no idea what I was doing”) and occasionally turned up as a foil for Snoopy in Schulz’s “Peanuts” strips.

All in all, “Pioneer” gives us a valuable look at a woman who once wanted only to be No. 1 on the tennis court and ultimately became so in many other areas, too.

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