Billie Jean King: Racquet Revolutionary

The lesbian/feminist/tennis pioneer who brings coed Word Team Tennis to Philly again this month is still trying to change the way the world thinks about men, women and sports

KING IS ON the board of World TeamTennis now, and a part-owner of the Freedoms’ league. She has a fond spot for Philly; it’s where she won her first adult tournament, in 1959, at age 15. She reels off the names of local families she stayed with when the circuit went through Germantown and Merion. The friend who first invited her to play tennis back in elementary school in California, Susan Williams, wound up marrying a Catherwood and living here. “She always buys a box—and she uses it,” King says. “I hate it when people don’t use a box.”

She lived in Society Hill when she played for the Freedoms, and she loved it. “My first time here, when I was 15, I went to see it all,” she says. “Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell—most kids today don’t care about that stuff. I tell them: ‘The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself.’”

King’s life, more than most, has been a slow process of learning about herself. Though her background was wholly traditional, she always felt that people were putting labels on her—and they kept not sticking.­ Take her marriage: She met Larry King in the library at California State University, Los Angeles, where he was majoring in biochemistry and she in history. “He was so gorgeous,” she says, laughing, and he was: Photos show a Robert Redford look-alike with gleaming blond hair. They married when they were still in school; she was 21, he was 20. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she says. Larry was a tireless entrepreneur; he encouraged her, looked after her, pushed her to pursue tennis full-time. He was the real feminist, she’s said: “He woke me up to that.”

But King was shoved into the spotlight again when she was sued for palimony in 1981 by a former personal assistant, Marilyn Barnett. Today, 30 years on, we remember King as a gay-rights pioneer, but as she once said, “To be outed means you weren’t ready.” King did her best at damage control, publicly admitting, with faithful Larry at her side, that she’d made a mistake. The affair with Barnett, she said, had been a onetime thing, a fling. What else could she say? Her parents were homophobes. She was a homophobe herself; she’d been raised that way. And so many battles—for Title IX, the Equal Rights Amendment, those equal purses—might be lost if she, the foremost proponent of women in sports, was tarnished with the lesbian brush. She and Larry tried to hold it together, but King had fallen in love with Ilana Kloss, her South African doubles partner. They’re still together. King and Larry divorced in 1987. King went on battling guilt and shame and the eating disorder her internal conflicts had led to until, at 51, she found a good therapist—in Philadelphia, at the Renfrew Center. “I wish I’d gone to therapy when I was young,” she says. “Everyone should go.” She finally sat down and talked with her parents honestly about her sexuality.

As for Larry, he got married again and had a son and a daughter. King is godmother to the son. “Oh. My. God,” she says. “He is so gorgeous! He just turned 18.”