(Robert Lipsyte) I've written about sports for the New York Times off and on for half a century, so I'm sometimes asked who is the most influential sports figure of my time. People expect me to say Muhammad Ali, even Michael Jordan, but my pick is Billie Jean King. She helped professionalize sports, and more importantly, she helped change the way we think about gender. I've always admired the courage and character she showed throughout her career as a tennis player, a broadcaster, and a businesswoman. She discusses this in her book "Pressure is a Privilege." I found out more when I sat down with my old friend Billie Jean.
(Robert Lipsyte) Billie Jean King, welcome to "Life (Part 2)." As you know, you've been my "shero"...
(Billie Jean King) Thank you.
(Robert Lipsyte) ...for more than 40 years, and I thought I knew everything about you, but one thing that surprised me in "Pressure is a Privilege," your new book, was that one of your role modelsi n the art of aging was Bobby Riggs.
(Billie Jean King) Yes!
(Billie Jean King) Well first of all, just by playing me at his age, at 55, was part of the art of aging. Here's a man who I totally respected, because I kept in touch with him until the very last day of his life. So, I adored him. He never stopped, he just had fun. He always played tennis, played golf. He kept moving, and that's really important as we get older.
(Robert Lipsyte) Is that what you've been doing?
(Billie Jean King) Oh, I still work. I still work 7 days a week or whenever I have to work.
(Robert Lipsyte) One of the things, I've always thought that athletes really age twice, and somebody's who's had, you've had real trouble with your knees and all, maybe 3 or 4 times during periods of disability. What's harder? Retiring from sports at 40 or finding other things starting to go when you're 50 and 60?
(Billie Jean King) As far as my body?
(Robert Lipsyte) Yeah, your body and your mind.
Emotionally, I'm in the best place I've ever been. So I think I gained, every year, emotionally. But I went to therapy. I really worked on a lot of different areas of my life, which when you're playing, you can put off forever. One thing about being a professional athlete is that you can escape every single day from, I think, other things that are maybe on your mind or inside you, you don't want to accept or get to and really face my fears, for instance. And it's a great way to stay focused and not deal, because you have a match every day or a practice or-- it's amazing how it fills your day.
(Robert Lipsyte) But then bang! I mean, that must've been hard not playing now, and you kind of sinked into this...
(Billie Jean King) No, it wasn't hard not playing, what was hard is my sexuality. I had not come to terms with it, now, I had time! Okay? I didn't have that match, that escapism every day. And also something that was very pressing on me was I wanted to be at peace with my parents before any... my parents or my brother or I died. And I worked through it with my parents that I'm a lesbian now, and I have had this long relationship with Ilana Kloss. And we got there.
(Robert Lipsyte) In the book you have these rules, Billie Jean's rules for life, and I was struck by how traditional they were.
(Billie Jean King) Very.
(Robert Lipsyte) "Be polite, show respect," listen to your elders, give to the less fortunate, and show gratitude."
(Billie Jean King) Yeah, that's just a few, I've got more.
(Robert Lipsyte) I always thought you were so cutting edge.
(Billie Jean King) No, I'm not cutting edge. You know what? Each generation stands on the shoulders of the past generation, and when you're there, you want them to stand on your shoulders too because you always want to help people get to the next level and do better.
(Robert Lipsyte) And yet that kind of mentoring, which is what you're talking about, the intergenerational reach back, you are kind of training your replacements who are going to replace you.
(Billie Jean King) Yes. That's exactly what you do.
(Robert Lipsyte) And that's what you want to do?
(Billie Jean King) Oh I loved doing it, I still enjoy it, because it's your time to let go. It's good to pass the baton. Now, I see older people who can't, and they're miserable! You gotta be happy for others. I enjoy it, I enjoy seeing young people do well. I enjoy seeing older people do great. I love listening to people even older than I am. They're still going strong. I mean, my mother's in her 80s, 86, she's going to be 87 soon. It's like she's just dancing, working out, seeing friends. And she would like to find a companion that likes to go dancing, and that's it! See ya!
(Robert Lipsyte) You seem to be living through your mother.
(Billie Jean King) Well, I am now, particularly because...
(Robert Lipsyte) She's in her 80s, she's dancing.
(Billie Jean King) Yeah I am, and I've gotten closer to my mother because of the honesty. And my mom's really good now, and I can be free and feel safe to tell her anything I want. I think getting old is, it's challenging. All I can tell you is getting old is not for sissies! Because the thing I don't like is the physical aspect breaking down, it's like ugh, another doctor's appointment, another dental appointment. Ai-yi-yi! It takes time, and I don't want to spend my time at a doctor's office, or getting blood work, or-- I don't want to do that, I want to keep going. And that's the part that gets irritating, I'm sure as I speak this, other people are saying, you're not kidding.
(Robert Lipsyte) I'm saying tell me about it, Billie Jean King.
(Billie Jean King) I know, and I don't know how people do it.
(Robert Lipsyte) Is that what you're most fearful of about aging, the physical disability?
(Billie Jean King) Well that and my dad had 5 years of dementia. I think if my brain isn't cooking pretty good, goin' on my quick twitch, you know that... I notice a difference already, I don't like that, I'm slower. But then I go, be patient, It's okay, I'm older, I should be, I want to go slower. I don't want to rush. Another thing my mother and I've talked about is that, you know, she has friends. I guess the magic number of friends if you lose your spouse is to have at least 4, and I guess that's why women do better than men. They've found that women usually have more friends than the men do, and why they survive better. So all the men out there listening, get your friends because you're all going to be helping each other when you lose your dear ones, and I think that's important.
(Robert Lipsyte) Billie Jean King, thank you so much for joining "Life (Part 2)."