Heroes Hero

About Billie Jean King

At a time when women couldn’t get a credit card without a man's signature, Billie Jean King was fighting for women's rights in the sports areana and in the women's rights movement. In 1973, a one-on-one challenge from a chauvinistic 55-year old former tennis champion, Bobby Riggs, catalyzed King’s campaign for equality. King won the challenge, dubbed the "Battle of the Sexes," with ease.

In addition to her win against Riggs, King can add 20 Wimbledon titles, three World Team Tennis championships, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage (1999), and the Elizabeth Blackwell Award (1998), among others, to her list of accomplishments. The first woman athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a year, King has been honored as Sports Illustrated "Sportsperson of the Year" (1973) and as one of Life Magazine's "100 most influential people of the 20th century." Elton John even wrote a song in her honor (Philadelphia Freedom). She founded the Women's Tennis Association, and played a large part in founding the Women's Sports Foundation and World Team Tennis.

Billie Jean King's courage to fight for equality on the tennis courts expanded into a crusade to include equal rights for all humanity, regardless of gender, race, mental or physical differences, or sexual preference. Perhaps King's perseverance and strength comes from the adversities that she overcame to become a pioneer in the women's movement and in the tennis world. King's signature glasses corrected her 20/400 vision; she underwent several knee operations; and endured public press and scrutiny when her bisexuality was revealed.

The L.A. Times once described Billie Jean King as "a 5'4" 135-pound gladiator for human rights." She’s been that and more--a successful tennis player, activist, and businesswoman. These roles have all worked in conjunction with one another for King, and for other women. For King, sports participation has a direct relationship to women's success in business. In a 2002 interview on the Motley Fool Radio Show, King said: "Sports are a microcosm of society...(and) a reflection of how women are finally having more choices and doing their thing." She continues, "it teaches you character, it teaches you to play by the rules, it teaches you to know what it feels like to win and lose, and it teaches you about life." Whether they recognize it or not, millions of women have been touched by Billie Jean's philosophy.

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My Teachers

by Billie Jean King

Our lives are shaped by people and events. Most of us area pretty good at documenting, and often celebrating, the important events. And as for the people who shape our lives, they are the heroes (and "sheroes") we carry around in our hearts and souls.

Many people can readily identify one man or one woman who has made a difference in their lives and I applaud those people. Some of us, I believe, are even more fortunate to have a group of people who influenced us. For me, that group includes the teachers who helped me build the person I became. While there were several important teachers in my life, I want to share with you some stories about Mrs. Hunter, Mr. Bamick, and Mrs. Johnson.

The 1950s and 1960s were a great time to experience life. As a kid growing up in Southern California, unlike other parts of the country, it was acceptable, sometimes even encouraged, to take changes and not be afraid to be different from others.

Mrs. Hunter, my third-grade teacher, changed the course of my life. She was an elderly woman but had a youthful soul. While no one would have ever considered Mrs. Hunter a sports activist or enthusiast, she understood how important sports were to me. I still have a report card she sent home to my parents in which she wrote that I had good muscle coordination and was very good under pressure. She encouraged my parents to make sure that I stayed involved in sports, as it was something that motivated me.

Mrs. Hunter had the rare ability to see the best in people and worked hard to make sure she brought that out in each of her students. Since I was a young child, I have had a real love of music and Mrs. Hunter knew that. I remember one day she asked us to take out our pencils and pretend to use them as if we were conducting an orchestra. Let's just say that I was in heaven and I think some of my classmates were as well. Mrs. Hunter had the uncanny ability to home in on a person’s strength, and then work to make them feel so good about themselves that they used the strengths they had.

As I grew older I was your typical kid, and while many people may have a hard time believing it, I was actually a little shy. One thing that absolutely terrified me was speaking in public. It was my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Bamick, who helped me get past that. That year we had to present four oral book reports in front of the class. Some of the kids didn't even flinch, but I was scared to death. Mr. Bamick recognized my fear, so he told me to do a report on a book that was about something that really interested me. So I did the first report on baseball. When it came time for me to present it to the class, Mr. Bamick cut me some slack and let me read the report rather than deliver it from memory. Some of my classmates criticized me for the delivery, but Mr. Bamick defended me. By the end of the year I had completed all four of the oral book reports. I wasn't easy or comfortable for me, but I did it.

Years later I realized that Mr. Bamick did me a tremendous favor in sixth grade. One of the opportunities you get when you win a tennis tournament is to make comments to the fans who attend the match. Some of these are carried live on television and all of them are before thousands of people. It's still not one of my favorite things to do, but, with Mr. Bamick's help, I get through it. A few years ago, I was asked to bring my favorite childhood teacher to a national event in Dallas. I was thrilled when Mr. Bamick joined me for the event. It meant a lot to me that he was there.

I went to high school at Long Beach Poly. This is not your typical high school. Sports Illustrated recently noted that more professional athletes have come from Long Beach Poly than any other high school in the country. By the time I reached my high school years, I was ranked number two in tennis in the nation and it was time for me to start giving something back to my community.

When I was a sophomore, I offered to do an instructional tennis clinic for students at Long Beach Poly, and, much to my surprise, they turned me down. I was devastated. At this time, girls were only involved in sport sanctioned by the Girls Athletic Association and those were mostly intramural activities.

Not being one to let things lie, I went to Mrs. Johnson, one of the gym teachers at the school, when I was a senior. She let me plead my case, and right away she understood that what I was offering was not about ego, it was about trying to help others. I ended up doing the clinic and sharing some of my experiences away from Long Beach with several of my fellow students. Now, many years later, the Women's Sports Foundation just introduced a program called GoGirlGo that is designed to get inactive girls active. This program will be very successful, and because several of us at the foundation had experiences similar to mine with Mrs. Johnson, we will work hard to make it a success. Mrs. Johnson gave me the courage to push the envelope when the door looked closed, and she showed me the importance of giving back to those around me.

We all need heroes and "sheroes" ever day in our lives. They can be role models or they can be important anchors in our world. Mrs. Hunter, Mr. Bamick, and Mrs. Johnson believed in me and they helped me to believe in myself. They taught me the importance of continuing to learn something every day and how rewarding it is to help others. These life experiences and lessons are the things that shape us, the things that make us who we are, and the things that, in the end, are truly important.

Page created on 8/11/2014 6:51:42 PM

Last edited 8/28/2018 1:57:57 AM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Extra Info

Copyright 2005 by The MY HERO Project

MY HERO thanks Billie Jean King for contributing this essay to My Hero: Extraordinary People on the Heroes Who Inspire Them.

Thanks to Free Press for reprint rights of the above material.

My Hero: Extraordinary People
on the Heroes Who Inspire Them

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