Thinking of Billie Jean and the (ongoing) battle

Sept. 20, 2013, is the 40th anniversary of tennis’ “Battle of the Sexes.” I was 8 years old then, and recall what a big deal it was to me as a third-grader. Here is a story I wrote for the Kansas City Star in 1999 about the match. BJK’s message in ’99 was the same as in ’73, and it’s just as relevant today.

Sept. 26, 1999

The Legend of Billie Jean

Here’s what you missed on TV on that pre-VCR Thursday night 26 years ago last week.

Sissy Spacek guest-starred as a troubled young pregnant girl on CBS’ “The Waltons.” Buddy Hackett and Ruth Buzzi yucked it up on NBC’s “The Flip Wilson Show.”

Meanwhile, approximately 50 million Americans tuned into ABC at 7 p.m. Central time for what became a landmark event in a watershed decade for female athletes in the United States.

In the “Battle of the Sexes,” the No. 2-ranked woman in tennis, Billie Jean King, beat former Wimbledon men’s champion Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. It was played in front of the largest crowd ever to see a tennis match, 30,472 at Houston’s Astrodome, on Sept. 20, 1973.

If you’re of a certain age, it’s one of those unforgettables of the sweet, schlocky ’70s – like your pilgrim costume for the Bicentennial parade or your mood ring.

But do you remember that even though King was 29 and Riggs was 55, odds makers had him as a 5-2 favorite? Riggs himself said he couldn’t conceive of losing, promising to leap off a bridge if he did.

It was all schtick. A longtime tennis hustler, Riggs knew the more outlandish the rhetoric, the better the ticket sales. In his many pre-match monologues he said every crazy thing he could think of, including that the only places a woman belonged were the bedroom and the kitchen.

King kept smiling, though thoroughly irked, and called Riggs “a creep.” Riggs objected, saying he was more like, well, maybe a clown.

Howard Cosell was an announcer at the match. Gloria Steinem had a watch party for Ms. magazine staffers. George Foreman (he showed up everywhere then, too) handed over the winner-take-all $100,000 check.

The money was ancillary to King, who had the past, present and future in mind that night. She had helped found the women’s pro tennis tour in 1970. And she was well aware of the legislation that had been passed in ’72.

“We’d just had Title IX go through, and I knew how important it was,” said King, in Kansas City last week for an AIDS benefit event. “Legislation can be very, very important. But you can have all the legislation in the world; things work best when you change the hearts and minds of people.”
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Help former player/wounded warrior with a new goal

Folks, here is an e-mail I received today from former Missouri State women’s basketball coach Cheryl Burnett about a player who was on her 2001 NCAA Final Four team. The e-mail also includes a story on Kinga Kiss-Johnson, who is trying to compete in the World Para Archery Championship in Bangkok in November. I did not write this story; I am including it for background.

A quick summary: Kinga was born in Romania, played college basketball in Missouri, joined the U.S. Army, and was severely injured in Afghanistan in 2007. She is now a U.S. citizen, and needs some financial help to afford to compete in her new athletic challenge, archery.

Below is a link to Kinga’s web site, and I am also including Coach Burnett’s e-mail/Kinga’s background story in full after that. If  you have a few dollars to spare, please consider supporting Kinga’s goal. Thanks!

Dear Lady Bears, friends, media types,

Kinga Kiss-Johnson is one of ours.  Kinga played on our 2001 Final Four team.  Kinga was injured while serving the US Army in Afghanistan.  (Read story below.)  To rehab from her injuries she started archery.  Kinga continues to make us proud as she has already qualified to go to the World Para Archery Championships in Bangkok, Thailand this November.  But Kinga must raise $6,000 for her own travel expenses by September 15th  You can go online to Please help such a wonderful human being.  Anything will help $5, 50, 500, 500.  Please help and please call one person to donate.

Story on Kinga Kiss-Johnson, taken from Clarendon (S.C.) Citizen:

Kinga Kiss-Johnson is a warrior on the battlefield and in life. She currently resides in Augusta, Ga. as a retired sergeant veteran working as the lead manager at JP Morgan Chase initiative.  Kinga has competed in the Army Warrior Games in archery, track and field, and wheelchair basketball.

From a small village in the mountains, Miercurea-Ciuc, Romania, Kinga’s parents wanted something better for her. So they placed her in an athletic school at age 6.  Kinga had seen communism collapse in Romania and cars with UNICEF and USA printed on their sides deliver humanitarian air to her struggling country. As a child, she said she was thinking: “One day, I will be the one helping others.”

Kinga played for the Romanian junior national team.  At 18, Kinga moved to Hungary to better her life. Then Kinga arrived in the USA on a basketball scholarship in 1998 at Jefferson Community College in Hillsboro, Mo. She barely spoke English at the time.

She would go to the college computer lab for assistance. It was there that Kinga met her husband, Bill, whom she would marry in 2001. She was then recruited by Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) in Springfield to play basketball, and at 6-7 is the tallest player in program history. She made it with the team to the NCAA Final Four in 2001 in St. Louis.

In July 2006, Kinga joined the Army and headed to Afghanistan with the 173rd Brigade Support Battalion. Thanks to her employer, Walmart, she was able to take military leave of absence.
 Kinga was the tallest service member in her U.S. Army company when she took the oath of citizenship to the United States in 2007 at Bagram Airfield.

She sustained a spinal-cord injury, traumatic brain injury, and left and right hip injuries in October 2007 while deployed to Afghanistan. Her vehicle was involved in an accident when the truck she was in had to avoid a vehicle that was sent airborne by an improvised explosive device. Kinga was the turret acting as a gunner.

Kinga has a fused and replaced vertebrae and a limited range of mobility. She began playing basketball and shooting archery from a wheelchair.  Kinga made sure that everyone understood the meaning of “Army Strong” in the 2011 Warrior Games, earning a gold medal alongside her Army teammates.

Her wheelchair basketball team, is the Augusta, Ga., Bulldogs of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
These sports gave her back a part of her life.  Archery allowed Kinga to concentrate on “what I can do, not on what I can’t.”

Crossroads Wounded Warrior Archery Foundation provided Kinga with her first bow. Scott Dault of Summerton, S.C., the founder of The Crossroads Wounded Warrior Archery Foundation, said about Kinga, “I was impressed by her fierce determination and competitive spirit.”

Upon receipt of the bow, Kinga made a vow to win a gold at the Paralympics. First, she hopes to compete at The World Para Archery Championships, which are in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2013.

She must pay for her trip, which will cost $6,000.  With such a short time to raise the funds, Kinga has turned to the public asking for help. With the help from the Crossroads Wounded Warrior Archery Foundation, a fund has been established at the Bank of Clarendon, P.O. Box 908, Summerton, S.C. 29148.  Help can also be given online at

While she is practicing and saving for her trip to Thailand, Kinga is working part-time serving her community and people with disabilities. She is also a volunteer with Champions Made from Adversity, where she teaches and coaches adaptive sports for people with disabilities.

“My No. 1 goal is to be the best I can and be a role model for veterans that are still at home after their injuries and don’t know how to _ or just don’t have the desire to _ get out and go on,” Kinga said.

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Remember Patsy Mink on Title IX’s anniversary

Note: As we mark the 40th anniversary of Title IX, this is an column I wrote in December 2002, honoring the late Patsy Mink. She had recently passed away then. One of the “mothers” of Title IX, Mink is among the people we should always remember to thank when we talk about what Title IX has done for us.

Here’s Patsy Takemoto, a teen-aged girl. She’s extremely bright and ambitious. She’s small of physical stature. She plays some high school basketball … well, the half-court game that they let the girls play.

She lives in a beautiful place, Hawaii, where her grandparents had come to from Japan in the 1800s to be sugar-plantation workers. But it’s not been a pretty world these last few, long years.  She’s been an eyewitness to the carnage at Pearl Harbor, which happened the day after she turned 14. War has raged over the globe, and people like her _ Japanese-Americans _ have been treated like the enemy by both sides in the conflict.

Her patriotism and her optimism, though, are undaunted. Soon, it will be time for the world, shattered in so many places, to begin rebuilding. She’s tiny but strong. It’s 1944. She’s graduated from high school and is eager to begin the next stage of education and step into adult life as a contributor, a healer.

She meets segregation, belittlement, contempt. For her race, for her gender. It’s relentless, mostly unchallenged, thoroughly institutionalized.  Yet she still thinks anything is possible.
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Six of one for Team USA

Asjha Jones was added as the 12th and final member of the U.S. women’s basketball team for the London Olympics on Monday. I’m going to take a wild guess and say this didn’t go over that well in certain pockets of the women’s hoops fan base.

Jones, of the Connecticut Sun, became the sixth UConn grad added to roster, meaning half the team are former Huskies. With Geno Auriemma coaching, the fact that he didn’t actually pick the team – it was done by a selection committee  - will get lost, ignored, or just flat-out not believed by those who are certain that it was his nefarious plot to stack the team with his former players.
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A memory of Summitt’s No. 8

Note: Today, April 18, coach Pat Summitt moved into a new role at Tennessee – as head coach emeritus. She finishes with 1,098 victories, 18 trips to the NCAA Final Four, and eight NCAA titles. Here is a story I wrote for in 2008 after Summitt’s last championship game.

TAMPA, Fla. _ Remember the old “Schoolhouse Rock” tune?

“Figure eight as double four,
Figure four as half of eight,
If you skate, you would be great
If you could make a figure eight.”

Tennessee’s Pat Summitt has made a figure eight now as a basketball coach, but she’s never “skated” a day in her life. That got reinforced from her earliest consciousness, by parents she called “the hardest-working people I’ve ever known.”

The apple, as they say, didn’t fall far from the tree. Summitt – whose program now has eight NCAA titles after its 64-48 victory over Stanford on Tuesday _ is a long way from the farm girl who wondered if she’d ever measure up to her father’s unyielding standards.

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A league that came into its own

As the Big 12 celebrates a second consecutive national championship in women’s basketball this week with Baylor following Texas A&M last year _ plus Oklahoma State overcoming a huge tragedy to win the WNIT _it’s a good time to reflect on the league before it undergoes another change next season.

Let’s go back to the very beginning. The women’s hoops coaches of the newly formed Big 12 met with the media at a Kansas City-area hotel in October 1996. Some of them had been coaching against one another for many years at that point. Some were just getting to know the others.

“It’s kind of like in the ‘Brady Bunch,’ where the two families merge,” then-Nebraska coach Angela Beck said that day. “Like, ‘Here are your new brothers and sisters; you should love each other, even though you don’t know each other.”

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Taking over at Texas, Take 2

DENVER _ Coaches taking a new position often will use the phrase “dream job,” prompting eye rolls from a few of us more cynical media folks. Because of all the times we’ve seen coaches leave one “dream job” for another “dream job.”

With Karen Aston and Texas, though, there is no doubt that today really is a dream come true: She is, after more than two decades in the profession, the head coach at the place she wants to be more than anywhere.

Aston was officially announced as boss of the Longhorns on Tuesday, the same day that another Big 12 school, Baylor, is playing for a national championship here in the Mile High City.

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You can wake up, St. John’s. It wasn’t a dream

It’s not just that UConn seems to have many of its games won before tipoff. It’s that the Huskies seem to have the “W” just as soon as the schedule is printed.

Opposing coaches watch film, do the scout, and run their players through practice before facing UConn, just like going against any other team. Except it’s not. You wonder how many coaches – for instance, one of a program that had lost its last 27 in a row to the Huskies – could truly keep 100 percent faith that this preparation really mattered.

Yet that’s what being a coach is: Believing you always prepare to win because that possibility always exists. Even if you are about the only one on Earth who believes it.

Now look at this score: St. John’s 57, No. 2 UConn 56. Coach Kim Barnes Arico and her Red Storm players may wake up Sunday and initially think they just had a very pleasant dream, kind of like those where you possess an inexplicable but astonishing ability to fly.

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Coach, interrupted (for now)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. _ It’s a warm January afternoon, with sunlight streaming in a window at Chick’s Oyster Bar. Despite the nice weather, it’s still winter in this popular summer-vacation city, so there’s no lunchtime crowd.

But even if there had been a wait instead of your choice of tables, Wendy Larry wouldn’t have minded. For the first time in her adult life, she can casually spend time chatting on a weekday during basketball season. There is no practice to prepare, or meeting to run, or luncheon to speak at, or film to watch.

In May, she resigned after 24 seasons and 559-203 record as head coach at Old Dominion. A contract dispute with athletic director Wood Selig – Larry was entering her final year, and Selig wouldn’t give her an extension – was unpleasantly played out publicly.

Long the primary face of ODU’s athletic success, Larry opted to resign rather than muddle through what she felt would be a perfunctory season before being let go. She is getting her last year of salary, but she no longer has a real role in the athletic department, and her ties to ODU are severed. At least for now.

Maybe the wound will be repaired with time. Or maybe it won’t. She wasn’t planning to leave and never imagined ODU’s 72-55 CAA tournament quarterfinal loss to Delaware would be her last on the sidelines of her alma mater.

I went to the Tidewater area recently as part of ESPNW’s “Hoops Across America” project, and wrote about the past, present and future at Old Dominion. But there was more to say specifically about Larry and how her situation reflects where women’s basketball is now.
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The road we’re on

The first time I went to Stillwater, Okla., I drove by myself on a rainy Saturday in February 1987. It was Valentine’s Day, and the Missouri women’s basketball team was playing a late afternoon game at Oklahoma State. I didn’t go to cover it; I just wanted to watch. In those days, Missouri’s women were literally never on television. Very few women’s teams ever were, especially not in the regular season.

I was a senior at the University of Missouri then, a few months from graduation and what I hoped was a future covering sports for a newspaper. But I already was well aware that what I wanted most to cover – women’s basketball – was not valued by the majority of people who ran newspaper sports departments.
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