All In, by Billie Jean King*************

There are books, and then there’s this: the autobiography of an icon that will be read for generations. I passed—perhaps foolishly—on a review copy, because I was afraid there would be large passages of minutiae about tennis, which doesn’t interest me. I was mistaken in my concern, but it worked out well, because I borrowed an audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the author reads her own book. She is an old woman now, and hearing her detail her own remarkable life is a matchless experience. It’s hard to imagine there will be a more important, or more enjoyable book published in the coming year.

Billie Jean Moffitt King is born in 1943 and grows up in Southern California in a conservative working class family; her dad is a firefighter, and her mother stays home, as most mothers did back then. There is Billie, and there is her brother, and the family are devoted Methodists. Who is to know that both children will be famous one day? Brother Randy becomes a professional baseball player, and Billie Jean becomes a record-breaking tennis star and a passionate social justice activist. If you, reader, are younger than sixty, you probably don’t even know how much you owe Billie Jean.

Growing up, King enjoys all sorts of sports, but when she is introduced to tennis, a light comes on. The problem is, tennis is a sport for the elite, even more so back then than now. To find a tennis court, you needed to either have a private court built on your palatial estate, or belong to a country club, and of course, to do that, you also have to be Caucasian. Billie Jean’s family is nowhere near affluent enough to belong. And so, early on, her passion and her obvious talent draw support from people with enough pull, or enough money, to give her access. She takes the time to thank them, but doesn’t let this bog the story down.

Over and over, however, she is shut out on account of her gender. Prize money typically pays enough to help an athlete pay their own travel expenses and buy equipment, but when women are allowed to compete in competitions prestigious enough to offer prize money, it’s only for the men. Women are expected to be grateful that they are included at all. And as King gets better at her sport and her confidence grows, she begins to push back. Nobody wants to watch women play tennis? Since when? And since when should people of color be shut out?

Although she doesn’t say so, it becomes obvious to me that in addition to athletic talent, confidence, intelligence, and almost endless energy, King has one more talent, one that isn’t recognized as such in the mid-twentieth century: she has amazing people skills. Over and over, she is able to reach compromises, make deals, and shorten the gap between conservative perceptions of women athletes, and what all athletes deserve. She discusses the various battles (though she doesn’t use this word) and how they are resolved, and I am amazed at the grace and dignity she demonstrates. Perhaps the most telling moment is when she befriends Bobby Riggs, the obnoxious bastard that she has defeated in front of the world, and later, when he is on his deathbed, takes a call from his wife. Riggs is asking for her, and he doesn’t have much time left. She is too far away to get to him in time, but she tells him on the phone that she loves him. Wow.

If you are or were a girl that participated in high school sports, or if you or your loved ones have benefited from Title IX, thank Billie Jean, who testified before Congress. She also started the first professional tennis circuit for women.

Over the years, King wins 39 Wimbledon Grand Slam titles and a host of others as well. I am a child when she plays Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes,” and she beats him squarely. What I don’t know (and would still not have known if I’d been paying attention,) is that she does her very best not to play this tournament. Riggs is much older than she, and he hounds her—in fact, today his behavior would violate anti-stalking laws. But she calmly tells him, over and over, that she isn’t interested, and then she ignores his calls and turns away from his in-person visits. But when a fellow women’s tennis champion plays him and loses, Billie turns to her husband and manager, Larry King, and with a sigh, says, “Okay. You’d better set it up.”

At this point, I turn away from the audio book and head to YouTube to watch The Battle of the Sexes. This trip back to the society in which I grew up is hair-raising. The ways that men talk about women, in public forums! The remarks by Howard Cosell, who was the most liberal of sportscasters, about her physical appearance, and the patronizing remarks of others are appalling. I wouldn’t go back for anything in this world! But when she is asked antagonizing questions, Billie Jean comments, briefly, calmly, and without showing even the slightest offence. Her coolness on the court is mirrored in her cool public appearances. It’s remarkable.

When Gloria Steinem starts Ms. Magazine, King supports her, but she is always either asleep or busy, so husband Larry handles the mail. When he sees the request to add her name to a list of famous women that support a woman’s right to choose, as the controversy over Roe v. Wade heats up, he signs for her and then forgets to mention it to her; had he read more carefully, he would have noted the line, “I had an abortion!” King doesn’t know it’s about to be public knowledge, and her parents didn’t know she’d terminated a pregnancy. It’s not a good moment.

Later, when her feelings for other women grow stronger, she and Larry separate, but not completely. For years, she stays with him when they both show up in town at the same time, and they continue a romantic relationship, though infrequently. It is when she grows close to South African tennis player Ilana, and Ilana makes her choose, that she divorces Larry; again, they remain friends.

I could carry on all day about this woman, a champion on the court and off, but if you are interested enough to read this entire review, then you’re interested enough to get this book. I’m sure the print version is lovely, but the audio book—which sounds like a garrulous old lady telling her story, like Forrest Gump, but authentic and more accomplished—and hearing her voice wobble when she speaks of her most moving experiences, is simply unmissable.

Go get it.

At Home With Muhammad Ali, by Hana Ali*****

Muhammad Ali is the sort of larger-than-life historical figure that nobody forgets. I was offered an opportunity to read and review this biography written by his daughter, Hana, and I jumped at the chance. Her recollections are bolstered by the vast archives that her father intentionally left, cassette tapes of every phone conversation that took place from his home, along with letters, photographs, and journal entries. Ali knew he was making history, and so he consciously left copious documentation behind. This wonderful book strikes the perfect balance, deeply affectionate and intimate, emotionally honest, yet never prurient or mawkish. My thanks go to the author for the beautiful hardcover copy, and for this opportunity.

A note before I continue: usually when I review a book, I refer to the author by his or her last name. In this case, however, the last name is shared by author and subject, and so when I use the name ‘Ali,’ I refer to the boxer, whereas I refer to his daughter and biographer by her first name.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. I didn’t watch boxing, which my mother considered a nasty, violent sport; I was inclined to agree with her, and so when Dad turned on a boxing match on television, she and I beat a hasty retreat. However, it was impossible to miss my father’s agitated shouts at the TV whenever Ali was on it. Ali’s brash confidence, his refusal to humbly look at the floor while talking to white interviewers, his fervent proselytizing on behalf of the Muslim faith frightened a lot of Caucasians, particularly those who, like my family, lived a life that never intersected with people of races different from our own. But my father wasn’t just afraid of Ali; he was angry. How dare he! On television! He called him a clown; he called him an idiot. There was a lot of that going around at the time, as the Civil Rights Movement strove to change the racial contours of American society, not only in the Jim Crow South, but across the nation.

Many years later, when I began studying education in preparation for teaching public school, in particular language arts, American history and civics, one of the most critical parts of my own graduate school curriculum had to do with serving children from underserved racial and ethnic groups, and part of that was in holding up positive role models to foster self-esteem in every child. My classmates raised the name of Muhammad Ali, and I could see that they were right; say that name around any Black child, especially a little boy, and watch his chin raise perceptibly, his spine straighten, and a gleam come to his eyes. This is what interested me about Ali, not his athletic record, but his principled stand in regard to Civil Rights issues, and his assertion that Black men in America should walk tall.

As I began reading Hana’s glowing tribute to her daddy, I began to wonder more about his boxing career. Ali began boxing at age twelve! There’s a practice you won’t see today; but Louisville, Kentucky during the post-war boom was a much different place than anywhere in America today. By the time he was old enough to shave, he was already accomplished at his sport. And the more I read, the more convinced I was that I should not review this biography without watching some boxing. I went to YouTube over and over, and I watched Ali with Sonny Liston, with Joe Frazier, with George Foreman. I learned a lot about the sport, including the fact that it’s not really all that violent, and it involves just as much skill as other team sports. And also: that man was talented, and he was so damn smart.

And this is the side of Ali that the public never really saw. Who knew that he preferred brainy women with independent ideas? In the 1960s, this was a rare thing among men. Who knew that he wouldn’t let anyone, whether family or staff, raise a hand to his children? Nonviolent parenting all the way. There wasn’t much of that around back then, either. Part of his indulgent nature was due to his faith, but part of it was a deep fear that some hateful person would try to hurt him by kidnapping his daughters. Given the way Hana describes her childhood self, it might have become a Ransom of Red Chief situation. Among the mountains of documentation Ali saved is a hefty collection of letters sent home by preschools and schools decrying Hana’s scrappy behavior. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from the recordings she shares:

“’Hana, say ‘I’m a good girl.’

“’I’m a good girrrrl.’

“’Say ‘I’m a pretty girrrrl.’

“’I’m a pretty girrrrl.’

“Say ‘I won’t bite the boys no more.’

“’I won’t bite the boys no more.’

“’Say ‘I won’t scratch the boys no more.’

“’I won’t scratch the boys no more.’”

Hana recalls him as a gentle father who remained available to his children despite his busy career; each day began with her careening down the stairs to find him in his den, where he might be having a phone conversation with one of many American celebrities as well as world leaders. He spoke with Brezhnev, Ghaddafi (who wanted to contribute to the war chest of a Black American presidential candidate), and Deng Xiao Peng, who wanted Ali to train Chinese boxers. He offered his services to President Jimmy Carter in the 1980s, hoping he might use his religion as a connection to the Iranians holding American citizens hostage.

In another section she recounts the time he happened by a police cordon. A man was out on a ledge of a skyscraper, threatening to jump; Ali persuaded the cops to let him get past the cordon and speak to the man. There are photographs of him holding the would-be jumper in his arms after he was rescued.

Whereas other public figures often bemoan their lack of privacy, Ali loved being famous, and he loved his fans. Sometimes he left home just to go out and find some of them and talk to them. It’s refreshing.

Yet Ali wouldn’t have been an easy man to be married to. Part of this dovetails with his generosity; he often tooled around in his Rolls Royce when he wasn’t training or working, and when he saw homeless people he’d load them into his car, bring them home, and put them in a guest room until he could arrange a lovely hotel suite for each of them. It’s a sweet gesture, but although Hana doesn’t mention how her mother reacted to it, I can tell you right now that for me, that would get old fast, coming home and not knowing how many strangers had taken up residence. And whereas Ali had more respect for the women in his life than most men did back then, his marriages were clearly never intended to be equal relationships.

But his relationship with Hana was an idyllic one, and this shows in the many engaging photographs that punctuate the text, one after another in which she and her father pose using identical body language, some of which are pretty funny. She also speaks with the pain she feels, even today, of her parents’ divorce, which she is convinced was primarily due to a misunderstanding.

There’s a great deal here about Ali’s religion; there’s really no way to tell his story without it, since it motivated nearly everything he did. There are places where I am ready to be done with it; but just when it threatens to slacken the pace of the narrative, Hana wisely segues on to other topics.

To remember Ali is to remember the virulence of the overt racism of twentieth century America. The way that the media played up every violent thing any Black man or boy did; the stereotypes involving the jungle, and the unpredictability of Ali’s personality, all served to underscore the false notion of hidden menace deep within the man. Ali is the first Black man I ever saw on television that didn’t keep his eyes down when talking to reporters, and who didn’t downplay his own strength. He scared a lot of Caucasian people half to death, merely by being successful, strong, and confident.

But Hana doesn’t dwell on any of the negative publicity; instead, she shows us who he really was. Ali loved to write poetry, for example, and he loved to read. He had never gained strong skills in spelling or grammar, so some of what he produced came out looking a little rough, and yet its merit is undeniable. What a voice! Who knew that a fun day out with his daughters often meant a trip to Barnes Noble to load up on good books?

The book’s ending is perhaps the most poignant of all. Hana recalls her father, an old man in his seventies, weakened by Parkinson’s, viewing footage of himself after the Foreman fight:

 “I wrestled with an alligator, and tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightning and threw thunder in jail. Just last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, and hospitalized a brick! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!”

Watching himself he muses, “Man, I was something!”

I defy you to finish this book without a lump in your throat or misty vision, as Hana tells us, “Sometimes I still feel like that five-year-old girl roaming the halls of a mansion, waiting for her daddy to come home.”

Highly recommended.