It was more than a four-woman forum. It was a tidal wave of empowerment.
Venus Williams was the star, Billie Jean King the legend, Lindsey Harding the hot new name, Valerie Camillo the power broker. They addressed about 100 people Friday night, mostly women and girls, before Williams, who plays for the Washington Kastles, won her World Team Tennis single match at St. Joseph’s University’s Hagan Arena, home of King’s Philadelphia Freedoms.
"Addressed?” More like "Electrified.”
The testimonies differed but distilled to similar themes: Stay authentic, demand your worth, and, more than anything ...
"Live your dream. That makes you you,” Williams said. “And makes your life more than about you.”
That is King, in a phrase: superstar, businessperson, feminist, social activist, and one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. As she always knew she would be.
When she was 11, while riding home from her second tennis lesson at Houghton Park near her home in Long Beach, Calif., King told her mother, Betty Moffitt, she wanted to be the No. 1 player in the world. At 13, when she began playing in tournaments, she said she realized that she could change the monochrome, international world of tennis, and the world beyond tennis, if she got good enough.
“Everybody wears white shoes, they wear white socks, they wear white clothes, they play with white balls, and everybody who plays is white," said King, now 75. “I said to myself, ‘Where is everybody else?’ "
Thanks partly to King’s obsession with equality, Williams, 39, has won more than $40 million. It’s been a long and fruitful relationship. Williams met King as a 7-year-old at a WTT clinic with her 6-year-old sister Serena on April 30, 1988. Their father, Richard, had driven them to Long Beach from their home in Compton, and when Venus Williams took her turn to hit in the pre-match clinic, her smash got King’s attention.
A few years later, WTT invited 10-year-old Williams, now a full-blown prodigy, to play a WTT pro. The Williams clan revved up the VW and Venus was ready ... but no one would play her. King volunteered. King won, 4-0, with “a backspin lob for a winner,” recalled Williams, who says WTT played an integral part in her development. “I had those opportunities to do that because of Billie.”
King co-founded the league in 1973.
King wore her a LUNA-blue jacket on Friday, in appreciation of the sponsor, LUNA nutrition bars, and an ally in securing equal pay for women in and out of sports. In April, LUNA bar supplied more than $30,000 to each of the 23 players on the U.S. Women’s National Team so their roster bonuses matched the $50,000 the men reportedly received in 2014.
USWNT has sued the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay and working conditions. This current battle echoes the fight that King began in 1973 at the U.S. Open; a fight that Williams continued through 2007, when women finally secured equal prize money in all four Grand Slam events. Williams explained why it took decades of measured, persistent resistance to find a simple justice:
"Sometimes it’s hard for people to say, ‘I was wrong.’ "
Harding, just 35, realizes that she has benefited from the battles that King and Williams fought. They have given all women a rising voice regardless of race or sexual orientation. Because of them, there will be more stories like Harding’s and her dizzying rise. She was an NBA league office intern last summer, when the Sixers hired her as the second female scout in NBA history. In April, they promoted her to player development coach, which made her the seventh female NBA assistant of any sort, and in early July handed her the reins to the offense during the Sixers’ summer league games in Las Vegas. On July 19, Kings head coach Luke Walton added her to his staff in Sacramento as a full assistant, the seventh woman to hold that position.
Harding was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 WNBA draft and played professionally for 11 years, but the NBA is full of male players with similar pedigrees. Harding said players appreciate her empathy, rarely seen in men’s sports.
“They’re yelling all the time, right?” Harding said. "It’s funny. A player would come to me after practice and be, like, ‘Can we talk about something?’ "
Those talks, she told me, could range from contract concerns to relationship issues to family problems to playing-time politics -- anything that’s “Stopping them from performing, and maybe they’re comfortable talking to you about.”
This, of course, only supports Harding’s motto: “Women make everything better.”
The Flyers certainly hope so.
Camillo, president of business operations for the Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center, is only the second female president of an NHL franchise (Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula is the other). As such, she found herself among the minority last month at her first Board of Governors meetings, where pre-dinner drinks tend to be dark and potent.
“All the men are, like, ‘Bourbon! Whiskey! Jack Daniels!’ " said Camillo, 46. She admitted that she hesitated before she went for hers:
It was frothy, pink, and delicious, and it didn’t fit in at all. So what.
“I don’t try to be something I’m not," Camillo explained. "I don’t try to be one of the guys because I’m in a room of all men.”
And, she said, she is always hoping to make those rooms less homogenous -- and to make those moments less awkward.
After Harding became a player development coach, Camillo found out that, unlike the male coaches, Harding had no suitable place to shower and change between shoot-around and game time. Camillo commandeered the dressing room of Flyers president Paul Holmgren for Harding, complete with an engraved name plate over her locker. Camillo then changed the plans for the $250 million renovation of the WFC to include a designated changing space for women in Harding’s position -- a necessity, now that so many NBA teams have female assistant coaches.
The room at St. Joe’s understood, applauded, and laughed and cheered with abandon. The attendees realized who they had in front of them: 52 total Grand Slam titles between King and Williams; the 2007 Naismith Award winner, from Duke; and, in Camillo, a dealmaker who might be the best contact any of them ever make.
Seventeen-year-old Asma Shakar, who will be a senior at KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy in West Philadelphia, listened with a grateful heart.
“I realize better [how] it wasn’t easy for women to get here. They paved the way for us to be able to do the things we do," Shakar said. "It’s more important to me now.”
Shakar attended as a part of a group from the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, created by the late Flyers owner to include people just like her, who are less likely to have a path to organized sports. She’s a serious student who maybe wants to be a pediatrician, or a forensic psychologist. She wore a black Snider polo shirt, tan jeans, white sneakers ... and a hijab.
She knows all about being authentic.
She plays basketball and runs track now, too, but hockey was her first sport, and she started when she was 10. You just don’t see many black girls carrying hockey bags down the streets of West Philly.
“Sometimes, it’s a shock around the neighborhood when I say I play ice hockey,” Shakar said.
Shakar doesn’t care. She’s always been herself.