“Get in the Game!”
King is Keynote Speaker at PWSA’s Fourth Annual Girls and Women in Sports Awards Dinner
When Susan Williams asked Billie Jean King if she wanted to play tennis, the 11-year-old Billie asked, “What’s that?” Billie Jean, a basketball player then, had never heard of tennis. Susan responded, “You run, you hit and you jump.”
Billie Jean replied, “I’m there.”
Over the next 52 years, tennis would take Billie Jean — and the fight for equality — here, there and everywhere. While King was the face behind the Title IX movement, which is 30 years old this year, King is still moving. She’s fought for equality on the tennis court all her life, and now she’s practicing participatory democracy.
Billie Jean King told countless stories of inspiration to those who gathered for the Fourth Annual Phoenix Women’s Sports Association’s (PWSA) Girls and Women in Sports Awards Dinner May 19 at the Biltmore. Some 500 fans of Billie Jean King, including athletes and BJK friends like Nancy Lieberman, Anne Guerrant, Anne Smith, helped raise $250,000 for the PWSA and its associated programs.
The Power to Inspire
Speaking on the power to inspire, BJK said when she gives a speech, she sends out a “Call to action: Asking you to inspire yourself and to inspire others.” She listed the “key ingredients” for success in the 21st century: “girls and boys have to be allies” even though “we’re not taught that enough in the way we’ve been socialized.” King’s call to action encouraged the 500 in the room to be “physically active, financially independent, get an education, respect our environment, have faith or spirituality and be an active part of democracy.”
King encouraged the crowd to know who their congressmen and women are and to know what’s going on “locally, state-wide and nationally.”
“Get in the game. If you’re not in the game, you can’t win,” said King about participatory democracy. And “insist your sons and daughters, nieces and nephews have equal rights and opportunities. You have to demand it!”
King was 12 years old when she had an epiphany that she was going to fight for equal rights for girls and boys. “I’ve never looked back and that dream has inspired me since those days.”
King’s entrée into the professional tennis circuit began in 1971 when the Virginia Slims Women’s Professional Tennis Tour paid $350,000 in total prize money. King credited tennis player Kristien Ziska for helping King win the 1971 US Open. “It was a rough year,” said King. Ziska and King practiced every day. “Ziska had her best year” and King won the US Open. “Everyone helps each other,” said King, who spoke on “the power to inspire.”
Today, $66 million is offered in prize money today in 66 countries. Much of that is due to King and many others, who increased the popularity for tennis around the world.
Althea Gibson made a “huge impression on me,” said King of the young African American who came from Harlem to win 11 major tournaments in the 1950s. King was 13 when Gibson won Wimbledon in 1956. “She had a tough life and no money. She meant a lot to me.”
King recognized those who made an early impression on her: her parents, her brother Randy, who played major league baseball, Reverend Bob Richards from her church and teachers. “My mom kept me grounded” and “told me ‘to thine own self be true,’” the line from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been King’s mantra ever since. King’s 85-year-old mother was in the room. King bragged that her mother works out three times a week and talks to her daughter about her cardio and weight resistance training. Teachers are the true “heroes and sheroes,” continued King. They “change our lives forever.” One of King’s best teachers was her coach, Clyde Walker. “After my first practice with Clyde, I decided I wanted to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world.” She added, “Imagine if Susan Williams didn’t ask me to play tennis!”
Local Stars with International Athletic Success
Forty accomplished elite female athletes, who all reside in the Phoenix area, were invited by the PWSA to the dinner. All of them epitomize the popular phrase, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Each elite athlete paraded on stage and emcee Donna Rossi of Channel 5, listed their accomplishments. Basketball legend Nancy Lieberman, race car driver Lyn St. James and tennis stars Anne Guerrant and Anne Smith were at the dinner and each has inspired King.
Nancy Lieberman fought her way from the streets of New York to play NBA basketball and was one of the first women to play in the WNBA. Today, after years of professional basketball, she’s a commentator. She spent lots of money to lose her thick Brooklyn accent to be the international commentator she is today. And she was funny! Trading jokes with PWSA President Nona Lee on stage was one of the evening’s highlights. King, the supernova of female athletes, said, “How do I top that?”
Anne Smith won 10 grand slams and was No.12 in the world. King told the story of when Smith asked King to be her doubles partner. By then, King wasn’t playing much, but Smith wanted King as her doubles partner. Their opponents were Pam Shriver and Martina Navratilova, who had won 108 matches in a row. “Anne Smith hit an ace down the middle to win the match and thanks to Anne, I got another doubles title.” Choose your partners well, King repeated.
King talked about her admiration for Anne Guerrant. “Anne and I played doubles in team tennis for the New York Sets. We were No. 1 in the league.” Choose your partners well, King advised. King also lauded Anne and her husband, Terry for starting the Guerrant Foundation, which provides small loans to the poorest of the world’s poor through small loans for micro enterprise. Visit guerrantfoundation.org
Lyn St. James, who was rookie of the year in 1992, helped pave the track for the Indianapolis 500’s female qualifiers: Danika Patrick, Milka Duno and Sarah Fisher.
In addition to citing those who inspire her, King also talked about the qualities of a winner:
· Accepting responsibility is the most important.
· Follow your dreams. Do what you believe in.
· Be self aware: know your strengths and weaknesses. Practice your strengths every day and make your weaknesses “adequate.”
· Know why you win.
· Set your expectations high.
· Pass it on.
· Live the process. Unless you bring all of yourself – mind, body and spirit, it doesn’t happen. You have to bring it all.
· Bring ALL of yourself.
· Sleep well. Really sleep. Give it up!
Relationships Built Around Sports and the Empowerment of Women
In addition to the celebrated athletes, there were businessmen and women who offered their support to female athletes and the PWSA. David Highmark, CEO of Northern Trust, encouraged the athletes in the room to apply for a job with his bank. He said his best employees know about teamwork, commitment and discipline that athletes bring to the table. PWSA is partnering with Highmark’s mentorship organization, which is called Arizona Quest for Kids, to provide sponsor deserving girls who demonstrate need and significant potential in selected sports at the club sport level through high school.
Healthcare was represented in a big way. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Arizona pitched in a $25,000 sponsorship — the largest sponsorship the PWSA has ever received.
Education was represented. The University of Phoenix, another sponsor, offered a full ride scholarship.
PWSA’s Carla Sulka, who served as this year’s dinner co-chair with Betsy Bombeck, summed up the evening this way: “My impressions were based on older athletes being an inspiration to the younger athletes; but this year we had the added inspiration of fighting for what is right and equality and being true to yourself thanks to BJK. We can all embrace the power to inspire greatness, not only as an athlete, but as a person.”