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King biopic takes her beyond the match points

April 26, 2006|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

How's this for a starting point? She was the Michael Jordan of her sport ... with a social conscience.

Not only did Billie Jean King win a record 20 Wimbledon titles, which included six singles championships, but the baggage she carried along the way in helping create a women's tennis tour and fighting for gender equity was also just as considerable.

There were struggles in her marriage, which ultimately collapsed. An abortion made international news, as did a palimony lawsuit filed by a former girlfriend, which would cost King millions in potential endorsements. Then there was the famous Battle of the Sexes, in which King defeated Bobby Riggs in 1973, avoiding the "ruin [of] the women's tennis tour," according to King.

It is all covered as HBO Sports takes a candid, comprehensive look at King's life and career with tonight's airing of "Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer."

This isn't a typical sports biography. The talking heads discussing King's life aren't those on the outside looking in, not the typical jockumentary dotted with comments mostly from sportswriters. The source material doesn't get any better than this, namely King herself, ex-husband and World Team Tennis co-founder Larry King, parents Bill and Betty Moffitt, who are rarely interviewed, and brother and former major league baseball pitcher Randy Moffitt.

Her former husband, King says, is "the one that made me into a feminist."

There are interviews from tennis Hall of Famers Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, close friend Elton John and King's longtime partner, Ilana Kloss. The only sportswriter seeing substantial air time is the co-writer of King's 1982 autobiography, Frank Deford of HBO and Sports Illustrated.

Supplementing the interviews are rarely seen match footage and family photos. King's formative years on the tennis courts took shape on the public courts of Long Beach. There is the oft-told story about a stuffy official at the Los Angeles Tennis Club not allowing the young Billie Jean in a group photo because she wasn't wearing a dress.

"The czar of tennis, Perry T. Jones, looks at me and says, 'Hey, little girl, you can't be in the photo because you're wearing shorts. You have to wear a skirt or a tennis dress,' " King says. "Because of our ignorance and inexperience in the sport, we hadn't ever seen a tennis dress until that day. I started to understand what it was to be a girl, kind of be on the outside looking in. I had an epiphany that I want to change things."

Not seen on camera is story advisor/interviewer Mary Carillo. She has known many of the key participants for years, and her interviewing ability yields introspective nuggets of information. King reveals that the only time she ever cried before a match was before playing Evert in the semifinals of the 1971 U.S. Open.

One of the documentary's final scenes shows King's parents finally coming to terms with their daughter's relationship with Kloss. They are all strolling through a mega supermarket.

Kloss: "If you ask Billie Jean where her favorite place is to go to lunch, she will tell you it's Costco with her parents, for a hot dog and a frozen yogurt."

King: "Everything is reconciled. Every little thing. And that's what I wanted."


`Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer'

Where: HBO

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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