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Lin Dunn is a feisty one. The native Southerner, who became a WNBA-champion coach on Oct. 21, has been at the helm of the Indiana Fever team for five years now. On Monday, she also shared in the good pleasure of listening to one Billie Jean King, one of the most decorated sportswomen ever and (barely arguably) the most influential female athlete of the past 100 years, as King addressed all comers at the downtown Indiana Repertory Theatre at the invitation of the Women's Fund of Central Indiana. Her featured remarks came on the heels of Dunn's own introduction, which was vintage, noting gamely that King was the first female athlete to ever earn more than $100,000 in one year and had purchased her first tennis racquet for just $8.20 decades ago.
"When she was 11, she gave up softball," Dunn said. "And I tell you, she was a damn good shortshop." The crowd of mostly women with a smattering of men chuckled at this. But Dunn continued: "I sat glued to that TV in 1973, as I didn't have a role model." She was speaking, of course, about King's famous Battle of the Sexes match against the chauvinistic Bobby Riggs, who King defeated in that exhibition. Many in attendance nodded along as Dunn described that man-vs.-woman setting. But Dunn was hardly finished. "Helen Reddy sang it. Billie Jean lived it: 'I am woman, hear me roar ...'"
With that, a video clip extolling King's accomplishments played, with the likes of John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Venus and Serena Williams, Diane Sawyer, Barack Obama, and more raving about her. On hand live on this occasion itself were notables such as Dunn; veteran Indianapolis 500 driver Lyn St. James, the first woman to be named Rookie of the Year at the race; Barbara Wynne, considered by many to be Indy's own Billie Jean King; and a cadre of female (and male) business leaders in the Indianapolis community, including Kelly Krauskopf, CEO and general manager of the Fever, and Julie Manning Magid and Jennifer Pope Baker from the Women's Fund itself.
Dunn referred to King as her "she-ro" just ahead of the tennis legend's appearance on stage. King entered to a vigorous standing ovation, though she actually quieted it before it escalated to the extended applause that Dunn herself received, and was subtly sporting red spectacles similar to those of Dunn. (I tell you, these women were on point.) King spoke of Title IX, which turns 40 years young this year—her match against Riggs will mark its own 40th anniversay in 2013—and, interestingly, praised Indiana's own former U.S. senator, Birch Bayh, for his work toward Title IX's enaction into law. "He's an amazing human being," King said. "He got Title IX passed in the Senate."
King spoke for an hour on the whole, gracefully weaving tales from her childhood, playing days, and post-athletic business and equal-rights career into the tapestry of her talk. She was quick on the draw to name a few of her favorite things: history itself, and the literary works of Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals) and David McCullough specifically; the 2012 film Lincoln (aside from its non-inclusion of Frederick Douglass); the book Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus; theater (including the IRT she was standing in); and, little known to be her first love, basketball.
At the end of the hour-and-a-half event, a few volunteers joined King on stage to aid her in sending about 75 signed tennis balls into the crowd, as she wielded a Wilson racquet and batted them left, right, and center, all while Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" (written for her, don't you know) played on the IRT's house speakers. Not a bad showing for the self-described "public parks kid" from California.
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