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August 26, 2019

Billie Jean King

Eric Goulder

New York, NY, USA

CHRIS WIDMAIER: As you know, we just had a beautiful unveiling of the Althea Gibson sculpture. Many of the speakers will be joining us but it will probably be on a rolling basis as there are photos and well-wishing going on. Obviously we do have Billie Jean King with us. For those of you who don't know, this is Eric Goulder, visionary behind the sculpture and the sculpture itself.

We are just going to open this up. I know people have tight schedules and just get this going. Somewhat informal. Go ahead.

Q. For people who are not familiar with Althea Gibson's legacy, for some of the younger people, how would you describe what today means?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I think it's really important for people to know about Althea Gibson. Not only who she is but what she represented to all of us, being the first African American to break the color line here at the U.S. Nationals. In those days it was U.S. Nationals and then in 1968 it became the US Open. And that's when tennis became pro.

As you noticed through Angela Buxton speaking, she had no money. I also was a part of what she went through, so we used to get our expenses exactly the same way at Wimbledon and whatnot.

What people have to understand is how she persevered and what she means to our sport. But not just to our sport, to all society, to everyone. I want the young generations to understand what she did for all of us, particularly people of color, but inspired all of us.

You know, I know I'm a white girl, but as a 13-year-old, she totally inspired me, and that can happen to anybody. Doesn't matter what color. I obviously have not had to deal with the challenges that my sisters of color and brothers of color. But I think for young people, the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. It helps you shape the future.

That's the most important thing I tried to get along to kids: History is not about the past. It is living history. History is constantly living. Every single thing you do during the day is history. Everything we all do, each one of us is accumulating history. And it's very important that each person know that they are an influencer and they can make a difference.

What Althea Gibson does is she makes us pause, focus, and think about her life but also inspire us to carry on her legacy and the legacy of others that came before us.

Every generation has to continue the process and the fight to keep freedom available, to keep -- to get rid of sexism and racism. Right now I think we have a lot of racism. Every generation. Coretta Scott King talks about every generation has to continue to fight for freedom and every generation has to win it. That's what each generation has to do.

But Althea is a very strong reminder that that's important to the living people right now that we carry on her legacy and the legacy of equality.

Of course being Women's Equality Day, I couldn't believe how fortunate it was to have that, as well, today. She went to Texas A&M, made the dean's list. I think as she first grew up she thought small and then she thought very large. If you see her going from small thinking to very large thinking. I think I heard that from somebody else probably so I'm stealing it from somebody, but I can't remember who.

But I think it's very important for us to see how a person's life can evolve over time with people championing her. She was very fortunate with Dr. Johnson and Dr. Eaton and the families.

If you read, 'I Always Wanted to Be Somebody', which I continually read, by the way, pick it up every so often just to remind me how lucky I am, that I was just right after her. She played Wimbledon in 1957. My first Wimbledon was 1961. So I'm right behind her. I mean, I feel like where I'm a continuation of what she was going -- what her generation was going through. Not just Althea but Angela Buxton, people you hear from, and how there was no money and yet the love of the sport carried you on.

What Angela was talking about with the Asia trip is she was going to give it up but President McMahon of the USTA went up to her and said, The State Department wants you to go. In fact, if you don't go, I don't know if they're going to do it. So she went with them. Bob Perry and Ham Richardson and Cal Firos [ph], but Bob Perry and Ham Richardson really encouraged her to continue playing and not give up the sport. You heard Angela and her mother also encouraging her to keep going.

She really credits, thank God, Mr. McMahon, I think it's McMahon -- I think I have it right -- asked her to go on the State Department trip. I think that was going to be her last trip, she was going to hang it up. That trip changed everything. And she decided that 1957 was going to be Althea Gibson year, and it was.

Q. Would you like to talk a little bit about the fact that Althea probably wouldn't have gotten into tennis had it not been for Alice Marble.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Alice Marble wrote a wonderful letter -- Disclosure: Alice Marble coached me when I was 15 in 1959. So this was slightly, just a little bit later than that. She showed me the letter, she showed me what she had written, it was in a scrapbook she had.

She stood up for Althea. And her letter is phenomenal, there's a sentence in it that's amazing. Do you know what it is? It's one sentence just teed it up, like, How can you not do this, if you're human, basically.

There is a wonderful photo of Althea Gibson and Althea walking on the gravel path of West Side Tennis Club coming up this way, and they got a great a photo of her, the two of them at Forest Hills walking together, because Alice was so much in her favor.

But don't forget about the ATA, which is the American Tennis Association, that was started I think in 1916 by a group of African American men, because they weren't allowed to play in white tournaments. So they said the heck with this, we'll have our own association.

Guess how nice they were? They allowed anyone to play in their tournaments. You didn't have to be black to play in the ATA tournaments, okay? So talk about having big hearts and being forgiving is the ATA. The ATA is an amazing organization.

With them lobbying alongside Alice Marble is what made a huge difference. That's why I brought it up in my speech. I was trying to think how do you keep it short but how do you get the essence of why she was able to play? I thought it was ATA and Alice Marble pushing and pushing and pushing. I think it made a big difference.

Q. How would you describe Althea as a tennis player?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Liked to serve and volley, very, very long wingspan. I always teased Venus for years since I first met her, You're like the 21st century Althea Gibson, is what I call Venus. I tease her. She gets a kick out of that. Althea was 5'11" to 6 feet. She had very long arms and very long legs, and she was very much a player of her generation. We played everything on grass or hard courts. Three-quarters of our majors were on grass. And grass does dictate your style of play a lot, surface as you grow up, what you play on.

The grass was so bad you never wanted the ball to bounce so you volleyed a lot. Everyone goes, Why did you serve and volley so much? Ha, ha. If you played on those courts you would have been serving and volleying a lot too.

She had a serve and volley and was very intimidating because of her long wingspan. When she'd go to net, I noticed it was very intimidating to the other players. And how do you pass her, how do you go over her? I guess you hit it right at her maybe. It was difficult.

I don't know. She seemed smooth, the way she played. Kind of smooth. Kind of like -- kind of like we were taught in the old days, kind of static. We didn't have that dynamic turn of the body which I wish we had been taught. It was beautiful and graceful. And intimidating at the same time. She was quick, she was strong, fast.

Q. A lot of people know you as a pioneer and an advocate for women's sports and you mentioned that Althea inspired you. In what ways specifically did she reassure you that it would be possible for women to continue to take the next step? Do you have any specific recollections?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I knew if Althea had gone through what she had gone through and changed the world, that I had a chance to follow in her footsteps and help change the next generations.

She totally inspired me. I read that book. Remember, I slept with that book? I literally did with my sweater and tennis racquet. I would read it all the time. I also had 'Tennis With Hart' about Doris Hart, because she was close to her brother, and I'm very close to my brother. These books, "Use Your Head in Tennis" by Bob Harman. I had all of those things as a child that I absolutely loved to read.

I have been reading Althea's book again before I came here today to challenge her -- to be channeling her as much as possible for today's event because -- she's the one that's really waited. A lot of us have waited for a long time for today to happen.

Can I ask you, Eric, first of all, did you read about her a lot or do you channel them for a while and something happens?

ERIC GOULDER: I thought about her for a long time when they asked me to submit a proposal. I thought, well, she was different. You know, I didn't want to make a sporting sculpture with just somebody posing. To me, it's not interesting.

She was such a groundbreaker that I thought, I have to do something that's groundbreaking to honor her.

So for about two weeks I sat there and thought a lot about every day. Then I came up with the idea of the boxes. Because this is the way that the world was and this is the way people liked to see the world in this order. She shattered that order.

BILLIE JEAN KING: So those boxes...

ERIC GOULDER: They represent -- the whole sculpture reads from left to right. So things were this way. Then there is the shift, the one that has her name on it because that would have been Jackie Robinson and the letter of Alice Marble. Things were brewing in the world that would allow her to do what she did.

She didn't just break the color barrier. She became the best in the world. This was at a time when people were like, Black people can't play tennis.

So she basically turned that same shape on its corner, which is a way more interesting shape, and once you see it that way you never see it the other way. That was the idea behind that.

So she emerges out of that cube, box. Her shoulder is exposed because that's the shoulder that everybody since has stood on. And then the remaining box that has her quote on it, as you see, it's still back down there but it's shifted because unfortunately the world hasn't totally changed. She disrupted it and it's never been the same and it never will be.

That's kind of the idea.

BILLIE JEAN KING: That's brilliant. See, that's brilliant. That's what I want to know. Now when I look at it I'm going to look at it in such a different way. No, now -- now I'm so excited. I can't wait to go back out there and have -- did you read articles or look at clips?

ERIC GOULDER: I saw Rex Miller's documentary, which I thought was great, and Fran Gray also gave me a documentary. I read everything I could.

BILLIE JEAN KING: Did you read her book, 'I Always Wanted to Be Somebody'?

ERIC GOULDER: I couldn't find the book, I couldn't get the book. I was living in Italy. It wasn't easy.

BILLIE JEAN KING: I have to get you that book.

ERIC GOULDER: I read everything I possibly could.

Once I came up for the idea for the sculpture, I was really happy with the idea and I really wanted to get this job. When you're an artist and you come up with something, you want to see it be realized. So I pushed hard, sold them on this idea. It was all pretty much up in the air. I got the job. Then I realized, Wow, I only have basically under nine months to produce this thing.

BILLIE JEAN KING: How much time does it usually take?

ERIC GOULDER: I probably would have like to spend two to three years.

BILLIE JEAN KING: What made you think about interactive?

ERIC GOULDER: The conceptual is more of a contemporary idea of sculpture. I wanted the traditional of her. And I wanted to be future thinking, because she broke -- she opened up the future, wanted to open doors. I wanted it to be a sculpture. I thought one of the best ways to commemorate her was to always make her memorial as on the cutting edge and always changing. It's something that people will always talk about.

As the technologies change, we're going to continually adapt the sculpture and always be on the forefront. I think it's the best way to keep her story, because that's the whole point of the interactive. It's not enough just to erect a monument. Her story is what's inspirational.

I had nine months to do this and it was trying, as my family, who is sitting here -- and I used her as my inspiration, too. Every time when I got done, I was, like, What am I complaining about? Look at what she went through. It was such a privilege to think about this extraordinary woman for over a year of my life, because I thought about her obviously before I even made my proposal.

Q. Katrina in her opening remarks made a point of saying that statue was long overdue. Can you talk a little bit about why you think it took so long for Althea to get recognition, particularly here...
BILLIE JEAN KING: I don't know why it took so long. I have been trying, I don't know how much I should...

Q. Everything.

ERIC GOULDER: I could answer that.

BILLIE JEAN KING: I think since the '70s at least I have been trying to get this to happen.

ERIC GOULDER: I think it was meant to happen when it happened. Because I was meant to be the artist. In the '70s it wouldn't have been...

BILLIE JEAN KING: I like that, that's good. Who knows what cosmic things. I don't know.

I think it takes effort to get things organized. It takes a huge effort. I think people just -- I think it hurts that so much time has passed since she was a big winner. She didn't get the exposure that, say, we all did when pro tennis started. So I felt she really lost a lot on that. All the players of that generation did. All of them. If you read about all of them.

I could talk about Bobby Riggs not getting his dues, everybody.

But being a woman? We're still second-class citizens, and she's African American. So just go down the totem pole some more. As women, we do not get the same respect. We do not. We still do not. We're always second -- I can go through every day of my life and people don't notice it, but it's just there. And if you're a person of color, I can't imagine what you go through each day. I know just a woman it's frustrating. It's exhausting. It's exhausting.

But we can talk about what didn't happen, but what has happened is what's important, and we finally have gotten over the finish line. I cannot tell you for me personally, I know tonight I'm going to be absolutely exhausted, because, ahh, I can actually exhale for the first time on this project. Because my brain just goes like this all the time.

Q. How long were you working on it?
BILLIE JEAN KING: I have been asking but I finally did a lot more than just ask. I should have acted and others should have acted earlier, I thought. We should have put the pedal to the metal. You try to do things diplomatically first, really be sweet and all that.

You do. You try to just, behind the scenes, do everything right, yeah. You always do that first. And then you only go to the media when you've had it. I'm not kidding. Sometimes that makes it not happen, as well.

Q. When you spoke earlier, seemed like you paused to think about what would be going through Althea's mind when she did break that color barrier. What do you think was going through her mind at the time?
BILLIE JEAN KING: Some people said she didn't want to be "the one" as far as -- whereas Arthur I think embraced it more. But we're also younger generation.

I think she had such hardship compared to most of us that we can never really -- I just try to think about how much loneliness she must have gone through and how much disappointment and frustration she must have gone through. And yet she prevailed. That's what I always remember in the end. She prevailed.

I can tell when I read her book that it was just difficult. We didn't have a pathway to pro tennis and all the kids have today. We didn't have any of that. She went to Wimbledon with two, what was it two racquets, a Lee racquet and a Slazenger racquet. We used to go on court with two racquets. That should tell you everything right there. On the free list you got two racquets a year. Now they break two racquets a match. So it's just different.

I'm not really answering that question right. Go ahead.

Q. Angela Buxton talked about feeling like an outsider as a Jewish player. What does it mean for these two outsiders to come together and develop this special relationship?
BILLIE JEAN KING: It's really good in the book, 'I Always Wanted to Be Somebody', this Jew and black playing together. I thought it was great when I read it. It just shows you -- and they won, which I think was great.

Queen Elizabeth was there in '57 when she won the singles and doubles, and I think she -- I know she did the singles. There is a photo at Wimbledon I always used to love to look at with Queen Elizabeth and Althea there. I think it was singles and doubles, the Queen gave the trophy. I'm not sure. I have to go back and look. Singles for sure.

How do you think -- just think about it. You've got a white woman Jew with a black woman together playing doubles standing there and getting the trophy from Queen Elizabeth, and everybody is giving you a hard time and trying to not let that happen, you know, not really helping Althea and getting behind her or Angela.

So I thought it was -- when I was reading it in 1958 I thought it was unbelievable. But as a child and you read these things, that helps you form your opinions and how to live your life and how to be inspired by that that always be good to people and always be kind to people and always do the right thing.

Those were the examples that keep just punching away that, you know, that's where, what Coretta Scott King talks about. Like a drip. Every day, just wake up with, you just -- you know, you just charge up your batteries and you go. You know you're lucky to be alive and let's go for it and make the best of every single moment of your life.

I used to think I'm going to give everything I've got. Look what they had to overcome. This is great and it's more than tennis, it's not just the United States, it's all over the world. This is unbelievable.

Those are the inspiring moments really when you see that. It's inspirational and it breaks down barriers, keeps breaking down barriers by example. If you can see it, you can be it.

She taught me that. I keep thinking about that, too.

Q. The point you were talking about Althea talking to younger people about her, and I grew up in the '50s and one of my elementary school teachers was a friend of hers in college and she would come visit our school.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Can you remember the name? I can't remember the name but I know what they said.

Q. This was over 60 years ago.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Who's counting?

Q. One of the things she talked about, the segregation, which was in fact in the South and de facto in the North. When you traveled to go play at things, you couldn't eat at restaurants, or stop in a motel somewhere. You stayed with family, friends.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Well, I think watching that on TV as a child -- I grew up in Southern California so we never did that. We never saw whites only or blacks only. I remember asking my dad about that, like, Why can't the kids go to school in the South? He says -- well, in those days what was politically correct, Negro. I said, What does that have to do with it? He said, Oh, it's their color. I said, Their color? I didn't get that because I grew up in Long Beach. We didn't talk like that.

I can't believe what they were going through when I watched the Little Rock Nine as a child. Of course my dad -- Joe Louis, the great boxer, who was my dad's favorite boxer, I mean, he's it, he's the best, no one's ever going to be -- it's so cute. He just loved him.

I didn't think -- I just couldn't understand why -- I didn't understand that. Then you saw 'Green Book'. It's a story but it's a true story, and there were those Green Books. I've seen the actual Green Books.

Q. We had them in our house.
BILLIE JEAN KING: You better keep that. There is not very many left. Seriously. Historical society was telling me those are very rare. You should make sure you hold on to it.

That's the way you had to survive. That's absolutely ridiculous. But that's where sports can help change things. We have a platform that's powerful. Every athlete and every person in the sport, you, all of you, you guys write. It's the power of the pen, basically. You don't do it anymore but you know what I mean.

No, it's just -- that's why it's so important for children to understand history, even if you didn't live it, you live it through the writings and the visual impact that maybe a documentary has or something to have some deeper understanding and deeper compassion and empathy for others. We need to always have that in mind. You never know what another person has been through.

That's why every time I listen to somebody, I go, Just remember, Billie, talking third person, Okay, you don't know what this person has been through. Just try to listen and listen to their body language. Look at their body language. Listen to what they're saying, their expression. Try to learn what they have been through and try to learn from it.

And also, to have compassion for what they have been through. I don't know how -- I don't know how you guys did it. And the lynchings, that's a whole other discussion.

Q. When Emmett Till was killed, I was on lockdown. Couldn't go anywhere. We used to go down South to visit our relatives. That was our vacation.
BILLIE JEAN KING: I'm so glad you didn't because maybe you wouldn't be here today.

Q. I saw his body, by the way. (Indiscernible) went to see the body first before he allowed me to see it. Then he came back, and said, Okay, you can go see it. It's not as bad as it looked in the papers. Made him up.
BILLIE JEAN KING: They always make him up. It's bad, it's worse. It's terrifying.

Q. That was ironically right around the corner from the Chicago Defender, which broke the story.
BILLIE JEAN KING: Yeah, Chicago Defender.

But the '60s were rough. You had Evers in '63, '65 might have Malcolm X, '68 you had Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I'm sorry, that was a terrible decade. I may have forgotten another person. Those are the main ones, I think, off the top of my head.

CHRIS WIDMAIER: We are coming to close to when Billie needs to get to her next appointment.

Q. (Comment about Florida A&M.) That actually happened to her at Florida A&M. Her first two seasons bringing her all the way up from Maryland down to Florida, she didn't have good seasons her first and second seasons.
BILLIE JEAN KING: As far as playing or...

Q. As far as playing.
BILLIE JEAN KING: I think it's great she got to play. Title IX changed all that in '72. What years did she go to college? Doesn't matter.

Q. So what happened is the athletic director, Jake Gaither, the football coach, brought her in and said, What are you trying to do? We brought you in to be a champion. She was mad at him. We at Florida A&M believe she got so mad at him she got better because she never lost a match her junior and senior year.
BILLIE JEAN KING: That's her personality. You said it right there. I had the privilege of knowing Althea through the years, actually. Zina Garrison and I got to go to her home and visit with her when she was actually not 100%. I used to leave messages on her phone. Finally she acquiesced and said, You and Zina can come and see me. That was about 10 years' worth of leaving messages on the phone.

I think I met her in '61 or '62 when she was an announcer and she came up to the players locker room. I think I met her there or met her in '61 or '62 at Wimbledon. Then she came to Wimbledon in 1990 to see Zina Garrison in the finals against Martina Navratilova. We had a good talk.

Larry and I, when we had a tournament in Oakland Coliseum, we just created this exhibition and we had four men and four women. I called her and we played her to come and play because I knew she didn't have any money. You just keep, How can I help her and have her dignity as well? Then we had the women sport superstars. Larry and I went to ABC or whoever, and we got equal prize money for the women at the women sport superstars. I said, I want Althea, because she'll won one of these things. You can't play your own sport, but she won the bowling and I think she won something else.

She's an amazing athlete. She played on the LPGA in 1964, the first African American person of color to play on the LPGA. This woman is extraordinary, and she deserves this attention and she will inspire. If people really learn her story like Eric is talking about, believe me, it will inspire them to do great things with their lives.

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