An Interview with Billie Jean King
Conducted by Leadership Scholar Rebecca Granet, Class of 2013
Edited by Nicholas Salazer
Rebecca Granet: Could just talk about the political climate that you lived through in your childhood and what it was about that environment that allowed you to shape yourself?
Billie Jean King: I was born in nineteen forty-three, so it was during the Second World War. So, there was a lot going on with the men away. War creates crisis. All of a sudden women were allowed to do things when they really werenít before. When the men are at war the women [could] step up. They [worked] in the factories, they [could] make the airplanes like my mother was Rosie the Riveter with the planes because we [lived] in Long Beach, California. But when the men [came] home, women [had] to go back to being a homemaker.
But as a child it was very white-bred lower middle class in long beach. [We] lived in a track home and we had a great neighborhood, it was very safe. You could go outside and run and play and it was very safe it felt safe. I donít think we have that sense of feeling safe anymore like we used to in the neighborhoods. My mother said, my brother and I were moving a lot, kicking a lot before we were born, and then after we were born, we were totally into movement. The ball was big. In fact, it was the third word we ever learned. And he and I absolutely got along. Weíve gotten along unbelievable. I had one younger brother almost five years younger. My dad was a firefighter when he came home from the war, and my mother a homemaker. She wanted to make sure she was there when we came home from school. They both come from divorced situations and parents and they felt that it was very important to be very committed, and they absolutely loved each other dearly. I mean they really did so it was easy. My mother met my dad at seventeen, by the third date my mother came home and told her mother, my grandmother, Iím going to marry him, and my grandmother said, Well has he asked you? And she goes, No but he will. And he did. I think my brother and I were very fortunate to have two parents who loved us unconditionally. Iím always a big believer that you only need one person that loves you in the whole world unconditionally and you can make it. Every child, thatís all they really need, is one. If you have more than one itís a bonus and my brother and I had a bonus having two. And they were very strict, dad was in the navy and the military, and he brought it home. My mother was strict. They agreed with each other too much for Randy and you know, we could play them against each other a little, but not too much, so, we had a really- I would say- it wasnít perfect, I mean they argued and theyíd get into it, but they always made up and thatís what I liked.
RG: Was there someone you feel like unleashed your passion?
BJK: I think my parents were great examples. I used to go watch [my dad] play when he was in his forties. Heís a firefighter. He played in a night league. My dad would give it his all to win and just give it everything he had. He was the coach of the team; I mean thatís probably why I ended up being coach, a leader. People push me there, but my dad was kind of like that. He was always instructing; he was a great instructor, he taught me basketball. He did not touch tennis. He said, I have never played [and] I donít understand it. I will never tell you how to play the sport. He was absolutely on the money and yet, you know how many parents that have never played or hardly played and go get a book and teach their kid? My mom and my dad were great; they would never tell me what to do. Itís up to Clyde Walker, it was up to Alice Marble, it was up to all these great people that helped me in my life.
RG: Was tennis a process of self-discovery for you?
BJK: Oh I think everything you go through is a process of self-discovery, but tennis really does because itís very emotional, itís very physical, itís the whole shoot and match, and boy do you find out about yourself really fast. And sometimes I liked what I saw and other times I didnít like what I saw. Sometimes my anger would come out sideways which I did not like, and that had nothing to do with the tennis match, it had to do with my life off the court. Did I recognize it at the time? Absolutely not. I wish I had, but going through that process, I did get to the right point, and I did get to where I understood myself better, and I continually try to grow. What I learned through sports and through tennis is invaluable. I wish every child could have that experience because you find out about yourself; your character is revealed. My character was revealed through my sport; sometimes I was really happy with it and sometimes I wasnít, or in between. And I think you learn [that] thereís a place you go that you didnít realize you [would] have to be able to finish. Thereís a time when you think you canít take another step, you canít continue, and thereís some reserve you find in your body, in your soul that you didnít know you had. You go into different gear. Itís not one, two, three or five, itís a different number, and you find it, and it allows you to rise to the occasion. Never underestimate the human spirit. Never underestimate it. Never. Itís so powerful. You can do so many things. Imagination is powerful.
RG: What was the outlet was that tennis provided for you in your life?
BJK: I think playing tennis for me is self-expression. Itís how to shape time and space. Itís like a dancer. You know, if I look at a ballerina, theyíre changing, theyíre shaping time and space every move you make. So, we get to do that and we get to compete. Weíve got two things going; we get to shape time and space so itís like dance, movement, itís balance, itís off-balance, itís still adapting, itís understanding where the face of the racket is in relationship to the ball, all those great things and how the ball feels against the strings, and the sense of integration of my mind, body and soul. And thereís a score if competing. I donít care if I compete; I just like to hit the ball. The transition when I retired - I call it transition, not retirement, I was forty, which is old. I went right into the World Team Tennis office. I already knew what I was going to do. I had no problem. I have never had any problem. I have my bucket list when I transition into something else [when] I do not have any challenges.
RG: You said to Jerry Cromwell when you were little, ďyou may be smarter than me, but Iím going to change the world through tennis.Ē Did you know at that point that you wanted to advance womenís position or even human rights through tennis?
BJK: I did. At eleven, I wanted to be the best player the second time I picked up a racket at the Long Beach public parks. I knew at the end of my first instruction ever by Clyde Walker that I found out what I was going to do with my life. Now today, Iíd say I found my destiny. At twelve, which [was] one year later, I had an epiphany at the Los Angeles tennis club that I would dedicate my life to equal rights and opportunities for boys and girls, men and women, [for] the rest of my life. I noticed that everybody who played tennis was white. The clothes were white, the balls were white, the socks were white, the shoes were white, and I said, whereís everybody else? Because I grew up in basketball, baseball, football, track and field, so I saw people of color. I think being from California was very helpful. Tennis would be my platform for that. It wasnít the most important thing but tennis allowed me to have a forum. So, that was going to be my goal the rest of my life. Now we have social media today. We didnít have social media. Thatís how we had to think about it. Now itís just, get on there and tweet or text or do whatever, it [was] just a very different world then. Thatís what social media is doing too, itís connecting.
RG: How would you define womenís leadership and is it important?
BJK: Womenís leadership is more vital today than ever, because you have to see it to be it, and every child boy or girl has to know that women are part of the fabric of every community in every which way, vertically and horizontally. I went to a state dinner the other night at the White House. If you really talk, [and] listen and discuss with [those] women, and if they have enough courage to tell you the truth, they say it is horrible still. Itís terrible. And it is. Iím a small businesswoman; the old boy network absolutely controls business to this day, more than ever because theyíre much quieter about it. Back in the seventies, they were much more overt about it. Then they smartened up and said, oh, we want to keep our power, we got to get a little quieter and a little smarter about things, and theyíve gotten really smart about it.
Leadership is interesting because followers choose leaders. Leaders donít choose followers. I was always pushed in the leadership positions since elementary school. I didnít think about it but I got pushed. I was pushed [into] a leadership position with the womenís tour. The players said, youíre the one. I go, Iím the one? What do you mean Iím the one? All of us can do this. And they go, no, no, youíre the one. People will listen to you. And finally, I said, okay Iíll cross the line and letís go. Iíll do it. But, was I scared? Absolutely, because I was representing us, not just me. So, I knew the responsibility was much greater and I accepted it. And accepting responsibility is huge in leadership. But if youíre going to be a great leader, itís really about them, not about yourself. And you can lead from the front sometimes, and you lead from the back sometimes. I also think great leaders know when to move on. So I think thatís a big part of leadership too. Leadership comes in very different forms, in different ways, and at different times. Also, you know how positioning is really important in tennis or in sports? Itís the same being in a position when thereís an opportunity, and knowing to go for it. So thatís the kind of stuff I think part of being a great leader is. Just having to visualize it, go for it, accepting responsibility, clarity of vision, itís about the people, itís not about you. Itís about the people that youíre trying to serve.
RG: Can you talk about being outed and using that opportunity to show your leadership and speak out for your rights?
BJK: You have to make decisions when youíre put on the spot. I think thatís where your characterís truly revealed. And one thing that my mother always taught me was Shakespeareís ďTo thine own self be true.Ē I just donít like to lie. I like to tell the truth, itís just a lot easier. And Iíve been brought up to tell the truth; you know itís been engrained in me. I had to really argue with my lawyer and my PR person for forty-eight hours. They didnít want me to do a press conference and tell the truth. I said, well Iím going to do it, and they said, no oneís ever done it; you donít do this. The lawyer kept saying, this has never been done, do not do this, take my advice. I said, Iím not taking your advice. Iíve worked with these media people all of my life since Iíve been young, Iíve always talked to them, Iím doing it now, Iím not going to go hide now.
I think facing your fears is really important and this was an opportunity to face my fears. I didnít have a choice; I had to face my fears. I was put in a horrible position by being outed. So, I had the press conference and I just told the truth and everybody gasped. You could hear the pin drop, nobody could say a word. Nobody asked a question. They were just [silent]. [The] silence felt like a year to me. And then they started asking questions, [but] then the lawyer wouldnít let me talk very much but, because we had to go to trial. So, it was horrible because I hadnít had a chance to talk to my [partner]. I mean it was just terrible. My parents still didnít want to get there. Went to Renfrew, they still didnít want to be there. My dad was better than my mother. He said, donít worry your mom will come around.
But I took my power back. Iíd given up all my power to my parents when it came to my sexuality. Of course I [had]. I pussyfooted around, I measured my words, I [couldnít] be myself. So I took [my power] back. And everything started to get good, because if one person changes, everything changes. The whole dynamic changes; the paradigm changes, one move, like in a chess game, it changes the whole board right? Itís the same thing in life. Itís just a no brainer. Secrets donít work. When parents think theyíre doing their things and kids donít know, kids do know. They might not know how to say it, precisely, but they feel something. Theyíre bubbling up in their gut; they feel something isnít quite meshing right.
RG: Was there a moment throughout your tennis career where said this is it for me no matter how down I can get about this sport, this is where Iím meant to be?
BJK: Oh I had downs and doubts absolutely. My lonely times and my tough times were more from a leadership point of view, more of a vision point of view; what I wanted for our sport and couldnít get there fast enough. I wanted professional tennis, itís just, I didnít know if weíd ever get it and I was getting anxious because I wanted to be a part of it. And as an athlete, you have a very limited window of opportunity where you can play. I mean itís very physical and eventually, even if I wanted to play, I wouldnít be able to and I was very clear on that from the time I was about thirteen or fourteen. I remember watching one of my heroes, Althea Gibson, play for the first time. I remember saying boy it goes fast, you canít play forever. Then when I wanted to make professional tennis happen I said, God, now you know, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, the years are going by [and] we donít have professional tennis yet. So, that was huge to get that to happen first to make it into professional sport. Then the men were starting an association and I went to them to say, youíre going to include us arenít you? They said no, because they reject us. These were my friends by the way, the ones I would go to dinner with, go dancing with, not just menís tennis players. Now remember, Iím for equal rights and opportunity for boys and girls, men and women. I was very devastated and I said to them, youíre making a mistake because as one voice, weíre a global sport, weíre one voice, we have high profile men and women, which is really unusual in sports, itís usually only men. We can change the world, together. Weíd be the only co-ed association in professional sports. I said what we could do with this opportunity and they just kept rejecting us, and thatís the reason we started womenís professional tennis. It wasnít what I wanted; it was the alternative for me. The good thing that came from that is that we learned that we could do it, and we were very empowered. And Iím not so sure if we would have ever understood that without being put in that position of we donít want you.
I hated the rejection, but we adjusted to it. We [started] thinking about society and womenís place in it. We thought we could be an example, to change that. Our real mission was to [support] any girl born in this world for the future, [and] if sheís good enough, she would have a place to play and make a living and could follow her passion and her dream of being a professional athlete. So, when I speak with the players of today, I do a lot of mentoring still, I try to relay this story to them that theyíre living our dream. That now the batonís in their hand and they have to shape the future. Your generation will start shaping the future now, it happens pretty quickly. You can shape the future at any age. Every person is an influencer. So, we started that, and then we got the Womenís Tennis Association founded in 1973.
RG: How did the media affect your quest to making effecting change?
BJK: There were no women sports writers [and] very few women writers cared about womenís sports. Even today, thatís the case quite frankly and itís a mistake on their part. The media was very difficult; they would really label us more than they do men. They started calling me a liber and a feminist, and what I started doing in the press conferences after every match, Iíd say, before we start, Iíd like you to tell me your definition. Letís go around the room, because weíre all men, whatís your definition of being a feminist, or whatís feminism to you, because Iíll tell you what it is for me. For me itís what Iíve been doing since I was twelve. Itís equal opportunities for boys and girls. Or equal rights really, and opportunities. Thatís what feminism is to me. Itís fine for a woman to want to do something as much as a man. A little girl should have the same dreams a little boy has, and a little boy should have the same dreams of whatever we want. We should be free to be who we want to be. And I said, thatís all we want. We said, we canít beat the guys. We know that. But what we can be just as entertaining, or even more entertaining sometimes depending upon the match itself. So please, give us an opportunity to prove that weíre worthy.
RG: What is it about you that you think allows you to get up in the face of adversity and advance your cause?
BJK: I love people. I love children. I love people. Weíre all like this electricity and weíre all connected. Every single one of us whether we like it or not are all connected throughout the world. And as social media and as your generation is going to go through this world, and how fast itís going to change, my generation will be in shock. We canít cope with the idea that the changes are happening so rapidly, that youíre going to have to know how to adapt better than my generation because of the rapid changes. But, we still have a lot of unrest in this world and Iím hoping the social media can bring us more together. Itís a great way to mobilize, which is good news. [Itís] bad news because we mobilize for good or it can mobilize for bad. Always know when thereís always a plus, thereís always usually a trade-off. You got to always try to look at both sides. Iím all for it, but I want the good to come from it.
RG: What do you think your truth is?
BJK: Iím finally comfortable. I can exhale [and] finally I feel good. I feel great. I feel centered. Iíve been in a relationship with a woman for a long time, and we have a great relationship, not to say we donít argue and all that, but itís good. Iíve got godchildren, I help mentor, I still want to change the world, I still want tennis to change, [thereís] a lot. I want [tennis] to be a team sport. When a child signs up for tennis, I want he or she to be put on a team immediately. I want the children to stand in a circle and name their team so they have ownership of that team name. So, thatís what I want and I think more kids would play, and weíd keep them in a lifetime sport, because tennis is a great gift of a lifetime. [Itís] about health in this country, and tennis is a great one for health. Itís a fantastic sport for health and so I want people in lifetime sports.
RG: What are you most afraid of?
BJK: Getting old is not for sissies. Iím really, emotionally, in such a better place. I wish I could have this emotional well being when I was in my twenties, thirties, [and] forties; itís been such a struggle. However, youth is wasted on the young in a way. I donít know, itís just fascinating, life. I wish I had nine lives. I told people if I die right now, [Iíd be] really ticked off because Iím not finished. Iíve got a lot of things I want to do and enjoy. I want to live a long time, but I want to be physically healthy and emotionally healthy. So, itís a challenge because timeís running out now for real, and Iíve always had a sense of urgency; I canít remember when I didnít have it. I always thought time was passing too fast even as a baby. Young people today say, oh Iím bored, Iím this. Iíve never been bored a moment in my life! Not one! I donít know what that means almost! Life has just gone so fast.
RG: What can you offer as a piece of advice for college students and women around my age who are trying to advance leadership and advance their causes?
BJK: The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. If you donít know about history you wonít know how to take it to the next phase. Thatís why I think learning the past is really important to shaping the future. And so, I would suggest that you understand- whatever field of endeavor particularly that you are going to go in, that you understand the history of it. Live it, love it, get as much of it as you can, so understand the past, understand the present, and from that, I think it will help you shape the future. You should not be the same as the past or the present; youíre not going to be. But, itíll help you see the stepping stones that got us to where we are now and where you belong in this universe, and why youíre kind of where you are in history and in time. Now, what do you want to do with it for the future? What do you want five years from now? What do you want ten years from now? When I do mentoring with the tennis young people, I shake them up a little. When weíll be talking about the history, I [say], youíre going to shape the future, and then I say, how do you want just our little tiny universe of tennis to look give years from now? And their eyes get like saucers, and they look at me like, what do you mean? And I go, well, Iím not going to shape it, I shaped it way back. Youíre shaping it, weíre all shaping it, all the generations that are still alive and breathing. We can do it together to a point, but this is for you and the next generation. What do you want it to look like, what do you want it to feel like, what do you want it to smell like, use all your senses. What do you want? And they go, whoa. I really admire what youíre doing and I admire each and every one of you. Itís great. And I wish you just follow your dreams and go for it. Think big and go for it, and if people tell you why, you say, why not.
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