Reliving the legend of Billie Jean

Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer premieres at 10 tonight on HBO.

Published April 26, 2006

Tennis champ Billie Jean King is one of the most chronicled sports figures of her generation: winner of 20 Wimbledon titles, founder of what became the Women's Tennis Association, trailblazer of Title IX and conqueror of Bobby Riggs in the 1973 "Tennis Battle of the Sexes."

Yet there is more to learn about King in the HBO Sports documentary Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer, which debuts tonight.

King, 62, was forced to go public with her lesbianism in 1981 when a former lover sued her unsuccessfully for palimony, but she is now candid about her sexuality and its effect on her life. The documentary includes revealing interviews on the subject with her mother and father; her brother, Randy Moffitt, a former major-league pitcher; her ex-husband, Larry King; and her partner, onetime tour player Ilana Kloss.

Not just tennis fans will find the portrayal of King, interviewed by Mary Carillo, to be touching and down to earth as she recounts what it was like to be a pudgy, bespectacled working-class girl from Long Beach, Calif., in the country-club world of tennis in the '50s, or the discomfort she felt, even at 51, in talking with her parents about being gay.

The great thing about King on and off the court was always her intelligence and ebullient spirit, and the documentary has good footage of landmark matches with the likes of Maria Bueno and Chris Evert.

But nothing topped the surreal spectacle of King's joust with Riggs in the Houston Astrodome that drew a mammoth TV audience. Not only did she have the game to dismantle the wily old hustler ("I practiced about 350 overheads a day" to combat Riggs' lobs and spins, King said) in straight sets, but she also won the psychological war by presenting the self-proclaimed chauvinist pig with a piglet before the match.

The documentary, produced by Margaret Grossi, includes insightful contributions from King buddy Elton John (who wrote Philadelphia Freedom for her World Team Tennis team in Philadelphia), Evert, Martina Navratilova, King doubles partner Rosie Casals and sports writer Frank Deford.