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Billie Jean King, 73 but 17 inside, still has plenty to give

The tennis legend has formed an unlikely emotional connection to Philadelphia since she grew up playing in junior tournaments here.

Philadelphia Freedoms team owner Billie Jean King is introduced to VIP fans before the home opener.
Philadelphia Freedoms team owner Billie Jean King is introduced to VIP fans before the home opener.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Of all the places tennis showed Billie Jean King, the history drew her to Philadelphia. She grew up playing in junior tournaments at the Merion and Germantown and Philadelphia Cricket Clubs. She saw the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall and the site of the first U.S. government and, of all the places she traveled, fell in love here.

There is no logical explanation for King's emotional connection here, except that there is no logical explanation for any legend's emotional connection anywhere.

King grew up playing on public courts in Long Beach, Calif. She led the establishment of the women's tour at the Gloucester Hotel in London. The National Tennis Center in New York is named after her.

And yet one of the most influential figures in the history of sports has made much of her impact in Philadelphia. Here she began her career in World TeamTennis, which she calls the most important part of her life. She has worked with the city to organize years of tennis programs for local kids. She owns the Freedoms and attends all of their matches.

That is where you will find King these days, not in her hometown or in New York or at a high-profile tournament somewhere in the world. You can see her sauntering around Hagan Arena mingling with fans or checking in with her players outside the locker room or sitting at a table in the top row, drinking a can of Canada Dry ginger ale and watching her vision play out.

A child, maybe 11, goes up to her with a tennis ball and asks for an autograph. King likes to lean down to kids' level and look them in the eyes. The boy hands her the ball, and she asks what his name is, and whether he plays tennis, and what his best shot is. Backhand, the boy says, and King's eyes light up behind her red-rimmed glasses.

"Backhand!" she cries. "I love it!" So there goes the boy, encouraged by Billie Jean King.

A Freedoms ball boy walks up to say hello. He has met King before, in past seasons. King remembers. She asks the boy for his contact information, calls to her publicist, "I want his info!" The kid, Sam, brings back a slip of paper with his email address and phone number. He gives it to her, and there goes another boy, having made contact with Billie Jean King.

On the court, a young player named Darian King from Bridgetown, Barbados, roams the baseline, Billie  giving commentary from the upper deck.

"Come on! Let's go, let's go, let's go, let's go! Make him play! Be patient. Go to the forehand!" The player does not. "God almighty." The opponent hits it into the net. "Yes!" she shouts. So here is a 25-year-old man, playing a tennis match 2,000 miles from home and being cheered on by Billie Jean King.

She does not stop. There is a world to change, a life to improve, a day to make, somewhere.

"I feel like I'm 17 inside," said King, 73. "I still have a lot of energy. God gave me a little extra."

'It's all-encompassing'

Kathryn Ott Lovell has her own story about Billie Jean King.

Weeds were growing through the cracks in the tennis courts at Hunting Park. The fences were mangled. The North Philly park needed rebuilding. Lovell, then the executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, was in charge of transforming it.

After Lovell spoke about the project at a gala, Alison Grove, a publicist of King's, approached Lovell about having King support the revitalization. A couple of weeks later, Lovell was working at the park when a car pulled up, and out stepped King.

That night, Lovell's cell phone rang. "Kathryn?" a voice said. "This is Billie Jean."

King's tennis life started in public parks, a backstory well-known by now. So she sought to help, gave money, donated rackets, even helped start the tennis team at Little Flower Catholic High School across the street. It was not the last Philadelphia heard from her. She stays in touch to make sure kids are learning not just drills but team tennis, the sport she started in 1974.

"It's almost like it's all-encompassing for her," Lovell said.

But of course, King is nothing if not her outgoing, friendly self, changing the conversation from tennis to Lovell's children to the ABC show Scandal.

"We all have raised her up to be this iconic status," Lovell said. "But it feels like she could just be a beloved aunt."

Turning points

There's another story King likes to tell. It's the mid-1950s in Long Beach. Eleven-year-old Billie is approached by a friend named Susan Williams, who asks, "Want to play tennis?" King replies, "What's tennis?"

"They're turning points," King says of these moments that have shaped her life. "They're benchmarks. They're epiphanies. They worked."

She started playing, grew up, conceived the idea of team tennis in a library at Cal State-Los Angeles, where she worked two jobs to attend school. She became the first draft pick and coach of the Freedoms. She named the team. Then came the song. Elton John, who befriended King weeks before the "Battle of the Sexes" in 1973, said he wanted to write a song about her. "Philadelphia Freedom" it was. So King ended up calling this place home.

She has 12 Grand Slam singles titles, a spot in the Hall of Fame, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009. She has wanted since she was 12 to have a platform and effect change. This is her way of doing it.

"There are very few people in the world who at a young age have a vision of how the world can be better and then are able to live a life where they've had as much impact on that vision as virtually anyone in history, and Billie is one of those people," said Mark Ein, who met King in 2007 and purchased her majority stake in WTT in March.

King still wants to affect lives, and she does not have to go farther than Hagan Arena to do so. "Relationships are everything," she says, in this interview, in her commencement speech at Northwestern in June, and in life. Her tennis career started with one relationship. Her influence in Philadelphia began with another.

"She really sees it as, this could happen to anybody," Lovell said. "We all think there's never going to be another Billie Jean King. But she fundamentally believes that it could happen to anybody."

So King shows up at places like Hunting Park. She tries to show kids that the impossible can happen, that any moment can start a story. Perhaps on the first day in that new park, she leaned down, looked a child in the eyes, and asked a fateful question: "Want to play tennis?"

This story has been changed to correct the decade in which Billie Jean King was 11.