There are two kinds of icons.
There are those known primarily for exploiting their talent for talent's sake and those who parlay those gifts into something much larger than themselves.
Billie Jean King is one of the latter.
In a presentation Nov. 12 at Kent State Stark entitled "Pressure Is a Privilege and Other Lessons in Business and In Life," the notoriously blunt legend of the tennis and business world presented three tenets of successful people. Success, she said, is built on problem solving, a desire to learn and emphasis on building relationships.
"There is inner and outer success," King said. "What we want to do is keep those in synch."
Of course King's influence on the game of tennis and, more broadly, equal rights overall, was what most in attendance wanted to hear. And the ever-outspoken King delivered.
She recalled sports-defining moments in her career such as her defeat of Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" match in 1973 or the landmark 1972 Title 9 legislation outlawing sex discrimination in the workplace.
King was and remains a woman of her time. She took what has been placed before her and, with an overwhelming sense of purpose, tenacity and controversy, slammed it right back into the opposing court.
"Tennis has given me everything," said King, who officially retired from singles play in 1983 and doubles in 1990. "But it was the last sport I got involved in."
Describing herself as a "public parks kid," the Los Angeles native said her first exposure to tennis came in the fifth grade when a friend told her it was a sport where you "run, jump and hit the ball."
"I was a basketball player," King said, "but I thought, 'those are my three favorite things to do.'"
The result was a love-at-first-sight experience for King.
At a press conference prior to her Nov. 12 appearance, King humorously recounted telling her fireman father that she wanted to play tennis.
"He said, 'how much do you want to play?' and I said, 'oh really bad'," King said.
Instead of simply handing over the $8.29 for her first racquet, King's father instead let her figure out how to raise the money. She performed odd jobs from neighbors on her street who she admits "made up things for me to do because they felt sorry for me." She stored the money in a mason jar and saved enough to buy her first tennis racquet.
CHANGING THE WORLD
Since stepping on to the tennis court for the first time, King saw that tennis offered her a chance to change the world.
"I remember, when I was 12-years-old, sitting at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, having an epiphany," King said, referencing the prestigious private tennis club and home of the Southern California Championships. "I thought, 'Everyone here is white. We wear white cloths, the (tennis) balls are white and that's great. But where is everybody else?' At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a champion and knew that if I could be No. 1. … (and I also) knew I could use that as a platform."
Page 2 of 2 - Since her 12-year-old epiphany, King has made history both on and off the court, culminating in 39 Grand Slam titles in her career. She helped to elevate women's tennis from its amateur status with the Virginia Slims Series to the founding of the Women's Tennis Association and was named first president of the Women's Tennis Association in 1973. She founded the co-ed professional tennis league World Team Tennis and devoted her entire career to promoting equality between men and women in all sports and beyond.
"Going back to when I was 12-years-old, I decided to spend the rest of my life promoting equal rights for boys and girls," King said. "Have I spent more time (promoting) women? Yes, but I have been pulled that way because we have been so far behind. If it had been the other way around, I would be spending more time (fighting for the equal rights of) men. And there is still a lot of prejudice – gender, color, for the disabled. We know we can't walk in a person's shoes, but we can have empathy for them."
King understands the impact she has had on the sport and the world beyond it. She was also clear about the fact that, in retirement, she is not ready to give up on on the equality fight.
"It's still frustrating when people come up to me and say 'thank you for all you've done for women's tennis,'" King said.
When it was suggested that she has done quite a bit for tennis in general, King replied simply.