Put your finger on the rubber seam of a tennis ball. Move that finger in either direction and trace the curvilinear oval path of the rubber around the ball. No matter what direction you choose, your finger will travel around the entire ball and end up where it started—a loop traced around a sphere.
It’s a feeling that’s familiar for Billie Jean King who just so happens to be one of the most accomplished athletes in the history of that felt-covered ball, with its curious seam—a 39-time Grand Slam champion, 12 times in singles.
King grew up in the Wrigley in Long Beach, in a blue-collar house on the wrong side of the tracks from the affluent Bixby Knolls and its Virginia Country Club, one of the places she learned to play tennis. The daughter of a firefighter, King has said she had a realization when she was a young girl washing dishes with her mother that she was destined for great things.
From that kitchen in the Wrigley, King went on to become not only one of the most successful athletes in American history but one of its two most influential; her work for the fair and equal treatment of all people regularly, and rightfully, compared to the only other athlete with such a far-reaching and long-lasting effect: Jackie Robinson.
Now, at 75, she’s coming home to receive one of the greatest honors Long Beach has ever bestowed on anyone: naming its new multi-million dollar central library the Billie Jean King Main Library.
It is neither the first major honor King has received in her lifetime nor the most significant, at least on a global scale. She’s the only Long Beach product to ever receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Barack Obama gave her in 2009. As far as having buildings named after her, she’s done that too: the USTA National Tennis Center in New York, site of the U.S. Open—at which she is a four-time singles champ—is named the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
But it’s the library, perhaps because of its location just a few miles from her childhood home, that has become something truly special for King. The normally in-control tennis icon was nearly at a loss for words during a phone call last week to discuss the library, scheduled to be dedicated for King at its grand opening, September 21 at 10 a.m.
“I think… I don’t know, I’m overwhelmed,” said King. “I wake up and I go to sleep and I go, ‘God, I can’t believe this is happening.’”
Thinking about her journey from a girl in the Wrigley to the namesake of the city’s newest showpiece, King was in a reflective mood about how far the LGBTQ+ community has come in the decades since she was outed in 1981.
“I would never have thought in the ‘60s and ‘70s that a gay person would get a tennis center or a library named after them, or a Medal of Freedom,” she said. “Never. When you read history, it’s fast. But when you live it, it’s slow.”
King said she streamed some of the city council meetings where the renaming was debated and was moved by the public comments and words of the council, which praised her as a trailblazer.
“I think it’s important that the LGBTQ+ community is represented and I’m happy that we’re visible,” she said. “When I was younger, it was so shame-based and so hidden, it was a terrible journey I went through because of the time. Gay people didn’t even talk about it to each other.”
King said that being a woman athlete, she’d get questions constantly from the media about her sexuality, questions she knew the same male reporters would never ask male athletes.
“It was terrible and then I was outed on top of it which was horrible because I didn’t get to come out on my own terms,” she said. “It’s exhausting, you became very measured when you speak. [Former NBA player] Jason Collins gets a call from the president and a job with the NBA [when he came out]. When I did it, I lost all my sponsorships. It’s changed dramatically—people are celebrated now, and that’s what we wanted.”
Of course, the progress that’s been made hasn’t happened in a straight line, and King won’t ever stop pushing forward, she’s been a vocal supporter of Serena Williams’ off-court advocacy and is a prominent supporter of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team’s suit against its organizing body, demanding equal pay with the men’s team. King also wants to make sure that the fight for equality is seen as something that benefits everyone.
Asked about the value of Long Beach naming its libraries for strong women, with the Billie Jean King Main Library joining the Michelle Obama Library in North Long Beach, King bristled at the notion that it was only special for girls.
“What I want to change about the world is that people talk about me inspiring girls, they don’t talk about who’s inspiring boys,” she said. “Michelle is an amazing example for good, for everyone. Whether it’s a boy or a girl, whatever their pronoun may be, I hope they see leaders. I’m gay, but I’m not just for gay people, I’m for everyone.”
That word “everyone” is the main thought in King’s mind as she and partner Ilana Kloss prepare for King’s homecoming in September—they spend a significant amount of time in New York. Talks are already underway about what will be the best way for King to make a lasting impact on the library and the city, aside from being an inspiring example.
“We’re definitely planning some things, we’re meeting with the city this week about what’s the best thing we can do to make a difference in the city of Long Beach,” said King. “Not just do things, we want to make a long-term difference.”
In addition to large-scale fundraising efforts in the works, King will be contributing some volumes for the shelves, as well. Now that she’s part of the ownership team of the Dodgers, King is donating 6,500 copies of the Brad Meltzer “I Am” series of children’s graphic novel biographies to SoCal libraries through the Dodgers Foundation; that donation will include copies of the book about her life story (there’s an “I Am Jackie Robinson” book as well). Late in 2020 or early 2021, she’ll also have a life-spanning memoir to add to the shelves as well.
For now, there’s the story she’s living: a girl from the Wrigley made good, coming back to Long Beach to see a major institution named in her honor. And, as she reflects on the journey that’s brought her to this point, she’s thinking about what she wants the future of the city and the library to be like.
“What makes Long Beach so great is free access and free instruction,” she said, pointing out all of the parks she played in growing up, scattered around the city. “The Main Library is going to be a gathering place, I hope, where people can connect. A place to learn and connect and have conversations. That’s huge.”
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