With Long Beach set to open Billie Jean King Library Saturday, here are five key moments from the icon’s life – Daily News

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Billie Jean King is back — though, in some ways, she never left.

The tennis legend, and the pride of Long Beach, spent part of this week visiting her old haunts throughout the city — her childhood home, Los Cerritos Elementary School and Poly High. But she also stopped by the gleaming, soon-to-open structure on the corner of Broadway and Pacific Avenue that bears her name: The Billie Jean King Main Library.

That’s right, for those who don’t yet know, Long Beach on Saturday morning, Sept. 21, will officially christen and open its new 92,500-square-foot, $48 million main library, named in honor of one of the most influential figures in American sports history.

Billie Jean King (Illustration by Jeff Goertzen, SCNG)

Given King’s accomplishments, one would think having a library named after her wouldn’t resonate much. But while King is an American icon, to be sure, she’s also one who happened to be born and raised in Long Beach. It’s a city she still cherishes today.

“I was able to make it to the top,” King, 75, said in an interview with Long Beach media in early August, “because of people in Long Beach. You have to be championed by others to make it.

“I feel blessed,” she added.

But about those accomplishments. They are, in truth, the reason the City Council — with strong public backing — opted to name the library after her on July 23.

Her professional accolades are revered among tennis fans: 39 total grand slam titles, 12 of them in singles tournaments; six Wimbledon championships and four U.S. Open crowns. She won the career grand slam  — coming out on top in each of the four major tournaments at least once — and was the No. 1 player in the world five times.

She is also known as a champion of gender-equality — most famously because of her triumph of Bobby Riggs, a former No. 1 ranked tennis player on the men’s circuit, in the Battle of the Sexes in 1973. She decimated him, winning in straight sets.

But she was much more than a great tennis player, her activism more than a single, well-televised match, and her accolades more than shiny trophies.

So here are five moments from King’s life that changed her sport, pushed the conversation on gender- and LGBT-equality and established her as an American icon — “sports” qualifier not needed.

1973: Women’s Tennis Association forms, with King as president

King spent much of her career fighting for equality between men and women tennis players. Women pros made less money than the men, were often forced to wear clothes that adhered to traditional gender norms rather than those that were convenient for running and lunging — dresses rather than shorts — and faced chauvinistic leadership that didn’t value women players as much as men.

When she won the 1972 U.S. Open, for example, she received $15,000 less than her male counterpart.

Two years before her U.S. Open victory, however, she persuaded eight other women to sign $1 contracts and join the Virginia Slims Circuit. The upstart women’s tour was meant as a protest against pay inequality. A year later, she became the first female athlete to win $100,000 in prize money.

Yet, it wasn’t until June 1973 that she achieved what her website called a “lifelong dream”: the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association.

The association united, for the first time, all women tennis players under a single professional tour. King became the organization’s first president, and later that year, the U.S. Open became the first grand slam to offer equal pay to the champions. Then, in 1974, the WTA signed its first broadcast deal, with CBS.

Today, according to the WTA, that organization boasts 2,500 members across 100 countries.

2008: U.N. names King a global mentor

Even after King retired from tennis, in 1983, she kept chipping away at inequality and continued being a pioneer  — all the way into the 21st century.

In 2006, for example, the United States Tennis Association named its main venue in Flushing Meadows, in Queens, New York, after her. The site of the U.S. Open is now called the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Then, in November 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — better known as UNESCO — named her a global mentor for gender equality. The United Nations tasked her with creating the Billie Jean King Leadership Internship program to provide women with experience, via internships, and eventually jobs in the sports industry.

“There is so much work still to be done when it comes to breaking down barriers to opportunity for women and girls throughout the world,” King said at the time, in a statement issued by UNESCO. “And one of the most effective things we can do is combine our resources, energies and expertise.”

2009: President Obama honors King …

It was August 2009. A contentious debate over healthcare had Washington in turmoil. Yet President Barack Obama, not even through his first year in office, welcomed 16 American icons to the White House. It was his first time bestowing Congressional Medals of Honor.

King was among the recipients.

Obama recited King’s stats, and discussed her activism and legacy.

Then, he walked over to King, medal in hand. They put their arms around each other and Obama kissed King on the cheek. The president then put the medal around her neck.

King looked out toward the crowd, held the medal lightly on her fingertips and — like any seasoned tennis champ would do — kissed it.

Then she smiled.

In an interview with the Washington Post after the ceremony, King again went back to Long Beach.

“As President Obama placed the Medal around my neck, I thought about the people of Long Beach,” she told the Washington Post. “There are so many who have been supportive of me and our family for more than six decades.”

Obama, for his part, wasn’t done with King yet.

2013: … then he has her send a message

In December 2013, Obama named King to the U.S. delegation during the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics, held in Sochi, Russia.

In the lead up to the Olympics, Russia came under fire for anti-gay laws, including ones that  banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” and allowed officials to detain “pro-gay foreigners” for up to 14 days and then kick them out of the country. Unlike when King faced a public-relations nightmare when she was outed three decades earlier, this time, ball fell on the other side of the net — toward Russia. Everyone from Long Beach officials (Sochi is Long Beach’s sister city) to Coca-Cola criticized Russia for the laws.

Most folks, according to a Press-Telegram article at the time, looked at Obama’s decision to name King to the opening ceremonies delegation, as well as openly gay hockey player Caitlin Cahow to the closing ceremonies, as a rebuke to Russia.

“I am equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT community in support of all athletes who will be competing in Sochi,” King told the P-T, “and I hope these Olympic Games will indeed be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people.”

2018: King puts on Dodgers blue

Before she was a tennis icon — before she even picked up a racket — King was a girl with a bat.

King began playing softball at 10 years old — and played shortstop on a 14-and-under team that won the city championship.

In 1953, of course, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, playing at rickety Ebbets Field and losing to the Yankees in the World Series seemingly every other year. But in one way at least, the team had already etched its name in history: The Dodgers starting shortstop was Jackie Robinson — the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.

When the Dodgers played their first game in L.A., in April 1958, King was 14 years old and a tennis-star-in-the-making. Robinson was two years out of baseball.

But how could King, a Long Beach native and former infielder, not become a Dodgers fan? There was no way.

And the Dodgers, for their part, kept pushing forward: They energized L.A.’s Hispanic population with Fernadomania, and brought in both the first permanent Japanese Major League player (Hideo Nomo) and the first South Korean player in MLB history (Chan Ho Park).

So it’s only fitting that on Sept. 21, 2018, Billie Jean King sat at Dodgers Stadium, put on a white-and-blue jersey and was introduced — along with her longtime partner, Ilana Kloss — as a minority owner of the Dodgers.

“As someone born, raised and educated in Southern California,” King said in a statement at the time, “it is an honor to be part of the Dodger ownership group.”

By joining the Dodgers, however, King also stepped into a world that has been an old boys’ club for more than a century. There’s never been an active ball player who was actively gay. There are few gay or female owners. This season alone, a member of the Houston Astros was punished for using an anti-gay slur.

The Dodgers, though, again seem to be ahead of their colleagues. While the Dodgers were not the first team to have an openly gay owner — that distinction goes to the Chicago Cubs — they have long embraced the LGBT community. The team, for example, employs one of the highest-level executives in the game to be openly gay. That man is Erik Braverman, a senior vice president, who has spent years building up the team’s annual LGBT night — the best-attended in MLB each season.

King, for her part, said last year that she wants to build on what the Dodgers have already done.

“We share a commitment to equality and inclusion, including the LGBTQ community,” King said in her 2018 statement. “And we hope to further expand the team’s efforts in those areas as we move forward together.”

This year, the Dodgers outdid themselves on LGBT Night: Rainbow flags flew around the stadium, the team sold out its LGBT Night packages and 12,000 folks showed up specifically for the event — contributing to the largest crowd at Dodgers Stadium since 2012, according to Outsports.

And, of course, Billie Jean Jean King was there.

Oh, and she’ll be there again on Saturday, after she christens the new Long Beach Library.

It is, after all, her very own bobblehead night.

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