Fifty eight years ago, Billie Jean King asked the citizens of Long Beach to send her to the world. She raised $2,000 from the Long Beach Century Club, the Long Beach Tennis Patrons, and the residents of the city to send her to Wimbledon, where she skyrocketed to international fame at the age of 17 when she won the women’s doubles title.
For the last nearly six decades, she’s risen to a level of prominence reached by few athletes, or citizens period. Last weekend, King returned the favor to her hometown, and brought the world home to Long Beach.
The dedication of the city’s beautiful new library as the Billie Jean King Main Library was a rare celebration in the city, with a huge crowd on hand to celebrate and get their first look at the library. The ceremony itself was poignant, as the city worked hard to include students from all of King’s schools. Los Cerritos Elementary and Hughes Middle School students took part in the flag presentation and pledge of allegiance, and the Long Beach Poly marching band kept everyone excited with a performance.
The ceremony was also a celebration of the city’s generosity. A check for more $2 million was presented from the Long Beach Public Library Foundation on behalf of the project’s founding donors. That’s the same generosity, of course, that helped lift King from a blue collar household in the Wrigley to the heights of stardom.
King and partner Ilana Kloss made sure it was a special week for the city, beyond a large “founding donor” donation. She brought her Presidential Medal of Freedom, with a signed picture of president Barack Obama presenting it to her–they’re currently on display in the BJK Main Library alongside plenty of other items telling her story.
“I wanted it to be somewhere people could see it, where maybe someone could be inspired by it,” she said.
She brought plenty of other inspiration as well. Students at Jenny Oropeza Elementary and Edison Elementary were visited by King, who read to the students and brought Dodgers star rookies Gavin Lux and Edwin Rios. When Rios spoke to the students in Spanish, it sparked a celebration that made King emotional recounting it a few days later–because she knew the power of being able to physically see the success of someone from your community.
She also spent the day visiting her old schools, including Poly, where she posed for pictures with coaches and athletes and left a signed racket she used at Wimbledon to be displayed in Poly’s trophy case.
“It meant a lot to our kids to see someone who came from where they come from be able to show up for them like that,” said Poly girls’ athletic director Crystal Irving.
The Oropeza and Edison students were in for another surprise. King, who is a part owner of the Dodgers along with Kloss, was honored by the team on Saturday night after she was done at the library. She threw out the opening pitch and fans received a commemorative bobblehead in her likeness.
When she took the field before the game, she wanted to be sure she wasn’t alone, so students from the two Long Beach elementary schools joined her on the field.
There were a number of good reasons to name such an important building in our city after such an important person, but the one that kept coming back to me was: inspiration. King’s story, rising from Long Beach to reach the highest of heights, has always been an inspiration to kids in Long Beach. I can only imagine how much more inspiring it will be for this next generation to see that she’s come back home, as well, and she’s repaying the city’s generosity during her childhood.