Billie Jean King remembers meeting her “she-ro,” Althea Gibson, as a 12-year-old in Los Angeles in 1956.
Gibson was a pioneer in women’s sports, and provided a road map for King to follow on and off the court. Now, the tennis icon and longtime New Yorker hopes to return the favor with young people in the Bronx through World Team Tennis and local franchise the New York Empire, which will play its 2019 home matches at the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis and Learning in Crotona Park beginning at 5 p.m. Sunday
“I have skin in the game,” she said during an interview before the team’s preseason news conference at Leeds. King, a WTT co-founder and investor, added that the goal of the league has always been to “bring tennis to the people, and we thought this would be best place for the Empire to play and grow the sport. Leeds is within walking distance of 37 schools. Our season’s three weeks, but we will have a presence in the community all year-round.”
Such engagement and activism is hardly new to King, who has been an advocate for women at all levels of sport since her playing days. Though she hasn’t played a competitive match in some 30 years, the soon-to-be 76-year-old is still very much a known figure among young tennis players, particularly at the Leeds, where she has been active since the center opened in 2015.
Meanwhile, the coincidence that she is taking a more front-and-center role with WTT just as the U.S. national soccer team celebrates its FIFA Women’s World Cup run in France isn’t lost on King. She was at the forefront of the push for Title IX in the 1970s and established the Women’s Sports Foundation in New York in 1974. She also helped the women’s team during its first negotiations for better pay and more resources from the U.S. Soccer Federation in the 1990s.
“We still have a long way to go in the fight for equality, but we’re getting there,” King said. “Every boy or girl or whatever gender a young person identifies as should be able to have the dream.”
She once hoped to play baseball, like younger brother Randy Moffitt, who had a long career as a pitcher in the majors, “but the opportunities just weren’t there,” she said. “That’s starting to change.”