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Billie Jean King talks about tennis wins and battles still being waged

If part of being a champion is preparation, Billie Jean King displayed her knack for that on Monday night when she appeared at Kleinhans Music Hall in a private event hosted by M&T Bank. In a media gathering before she went onstage for a Q&A, King mentioned that she had played tennis at Memorial Auditorium here in 1974 with the Philadelphia Freedoms, and that she “adores” Jimmy Arias, the tennis legend from Grand Island. She also put in a good word for the Bills and said “Jim Kelly is wonderful.”

King, 74, not only has a sharp memory, she is also savvy enough to hit the mental refresh button before visiting a city.

Monday’s program began with a screening of the 2017 film “Battle of the Sexes,” in which Emma Stone portrays King in the story of her 1973 exhibition tennis match in which she beat Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell. King then took the stage to answer questions from the moderator, M&T Chief Information Officer Michele Trolli, along with audience questions.

King, of course, is a world-famous advocate for gender equality and social justice, which was the theme of the evening, organized by M&T and its affiliate Wilmington Trust.

King knows that her place in history will always be associated with her match against Riggs, despite the fact she won 39 Grand Slam titles, in singles and doubles. King says her victory over Riggs created ripples in society that are still felt today.

“I knew I had to win,” King said. “As soon as I was playing against a male, now it was about them. The men controlled the media, so now there was interest (in the media). I knew that would happen, and Title IX had just been passed the year before, 1972, so I knew this would help carry it forward.”

Riggs had won his first “Battle of the Sexes” match, against Margaret Court, in May 1973, the so-called Mother’s Day Massacre. The stakes were high when King got her shot against Riggs.

“There were 90 million people throughout the world seeing it and I knew it’s the biggest audience I’d ever have in my whole life. And I knew how vital it was because Bobby had already beaten Margaret, and I don’t think Margaret understood what she was getting into at the time, which is fair enough. She had her worst day possible in her whole life. I wish she’d played like that against me when we played.”

King said her victory over Riggs caused some “interesting” changes in American society.

“The women got more self-confident and were willing to ask for what they want and need for the first time. And the men who have had daughters, they’ve raised their daughters very differently because of that night. … Even President Obama, who was 12 years old when he saw it, he said it affected him a lot and how he has raised his daughters.”

The “Battle of the Sexes” film earned Golden Globe Award nominations for both Stone and Carell. King likes that the film introduced her story to young audiences.

“I want the movie to light a fire in the bellies of the millennials,” she said. “And to continue the fight toward freedom and equality for their generation. Hopefully, with the Z gen — and I call them globals, the world is so small now — also they need to keep pushing with the millennials, we need those two generations together to keep pushing.”

King said she talks to “kids of all genders. A lot of time they don’t know the history and they don’t realize that every generation stands on the shoulders of the generation before them. … And millennials are the greatest generation in the history of our country when it comes to believing in inclusion. That’s what’s going to change our world and make it go the right way. Students can really make a big change, they did with the Vietnam War, they did with the (change in voting age), and now with the gun situation they are fighting like crazy.”

King’s younger brother, Randy Moffitt, was a major league relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays. (King said Moffitt liked the Blue Jays organization the most.) King’s belief in equality began at home, she said.

“When Randy and I grew up, I know my dad believed in us both equally. My mother did as well but my dad was very important to me as far as the male figure. He said I could do anything Randy could do, and that means a lot.”

M&T’s Trolli pointed out that National Women’s History Month begins on Thursday, “so this is a great time to be talking about gender diversity and gender equity” with King. “We’re happy to encourage the dialogue.”

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