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Billie Jean King Bio Serves up a Matchless Hero

Bespectacled and always looking as if she were about to burst into giggles, Billie Jean King won a revolution brandishing nothing more deadly than a tennis racket.

Those who came of age after the Nixon administration may not grasp why King strikes such a chord among their elders. Sure, she won 20 titles at Wimbledon and smashed Bobby Riggs in the most hyped tennis match ever, but King reigns as a hero to those who never chased a fuzzy yellow ball.

She challenged an entrenched system, insisting that women can be professional athletes and just like men, should be paid. She redefined women's sports in the 1970s and in so doing, paved the way for girls since. Given King's personality, she hardly expects gratitude.

That personality, sweet and forthright, is on display in HBO's excellent "Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer" Wednesday, April 26. Even those who thought they knew the Long Beach, Calif., native are bound to learn more and see how, by dint of her prowess on the court and perseverance off it, King changed sports in America.

"I don't think I realized it, but I sure wanted it," King says, reflecting on the changes she wrought. She recalls an epiphany she had at 12, a major point of the film.

King always loved sports, but her mom deemed them not ladylike. A friend introduced her to tennis, and King's parents insisted she earn money for her first racket. After doing odd jobs, she had $8.29 and a mission.

"I really wanted to make a difference and help girls and women across the board," she says. "I wanted everyone to be included and everyone to be a part of this universe. I didn't think anybody should be considered less.

"I made a promise to myself that if I were ever good enough, I wanted to help people," she says. "Until Larry woke me up in college, I couldn't articulate it. I had these things percolating inside me; I felt I was a second-class citizen, but I couldn't articulate it."

At California State University, Los Angeles, she wed law student Lawrence King, and he was by her side 20 years later when her former hairdresser sued for palimony. With typical honesty, King faced a bank of cameras, and said, "I did have an affair."

The marriage ended soon after, and King acknowledges she knew for years their union was wrong. Though an icon to gays, King says it took her decades to recognize her sexual orientation. Despite being outed and the general circus that surrounded her, the film manages to convey that King, 62, keeps her own counsel.

"I am a private person," she says. Yet in the '70s, she was everywhere. In her tennis whites, King was grinding opponents into oblivion, making guest appearances on "Sonny and Cher" and "The Odd Couple," and popping up on talk shows.

As the public face of women's sports in those years, King recalls being sleep deprived as she fought for equal pay for women in sports and to establish a women's tennis tournament.

"She was devoting as much time to the politics of tennis as she was to playing," says sportswriter Frank Deford, who co-wrote her autobiography. "If the tour came into town, she was the one who had to get up at 6 and go to the morning talk shows. Everyone wanted to talk to her.

"She had to carry the burden of being an idol," Deford says. "It was the time when the whole women's movement was blooming, and she was this very, very visible icon, and most of the people who were leading the women's movement were as you might expect -- older, more sedentary. Billie Jean was out there, more visible.

"She was such an infectious character," he says. "Everybody loved to go out and see her play. It was a combination of factors; she was so attractive as an athlete and later on where she became this leader and symbol. The pressures on her were extraordinary, not that she didn't like them. I never saw her run away from anything. She would embrace more and more things."

And she continues to. In love with Ilana Kloss, her partner of 25 years, King still works for the Women's Sports Foundation, which she started in 1974, to help girls achieve parity in sports. "My overriding goal in life is equal opportunity for boys and girls," she says.

"Every day I wake up and thank God I am alive," King says. "And then I go from there and I think, 'Another adventure; today you can reinvent yourself.'"

"I am not finished," King says. "I just want to make a difference."

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