Caitlin Clark, WNBA rookies have chance to 'set this league on fire'
Billie Jean King

Caitlin Clark, WNBA rookies have chance to 'set this league on fire,' Billie Jean King says

King says the extraordinary attention on the WNBA is because of Caitlin Clark. "She’s a superstar. When she does well, everyone does better."

At the 1971 U.S. Open, tennis legend Billie Jean King brought the veteran players together and told them their jealousy toward 16-year-old sensation Chris Evert needed to stop right then and there. 

"She’s the reason we had all those people watching us," King recalled in a phone interview with USA TODAY Sports. "I told them Chris is fantastic for our sport. Look at the crowds. You could not get in the place. She’s the next superstar. She’s going to put more money in our pockets."

But, King continued, "That means everyone has to be more hospitable. When you’re on the court against her, you gotta play tough as always, but no cheap shots. It’s our job to make sure she is treated fairly."

As the WNBA deals with its first three weeks of the season with rookie sensation Caitlin Clark, King said she has thought back to those days and the lessons she learned. 

Billie Jean King at the 2021 U.S. Open played at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

"As great as the WNBA has been, with amazing stars like Maya Moore, Sheryl Swoopes, Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart, among others, this year is a turning point, and it’s because of Caitlin," she said. "Breaking the college records, everyone wearing the No. 22 jerseys. Things are going good for the WNBA, for women’s sports. They are amazing for everyone with all these sellouts and all this interest and we’ve got to keep that going now. 

"Whether you like it or not, Caitlin is the reason for so much of this interest. She’s a superstar. When she does well, everyone does better. The league is going to do better. The veterans were the building blocks and now Caitlin and this rookie class have this incredible platform to take the league to an entirely new place." 

King said the extraordinary attention being paid to the WNBA makes this opportunity especially crucial. "This generation is so important for the WNBA, you have to set an example. Children are watching. How do you want to be remembered? This generation has a chance to set this league on fire. Don’t blow it with animosity. Do not blow it. Just play ball. Play hard but no cheap shots." 

On X (formerly Twitter), Evert praised King’s actions back in 1971 and also made the comparison to the WNBA and Clark:

"Yes, there was jealousy towards me…It didn’t feel good. I was just a teenager. BJK stood up for me. 💓 I hope women’s basketball follows suit. @CaitlinClark22 is making the sport better." 

King, who said she met Clark for the first time after the Indiana Fever-New York Liberty game May 18, also praised how Clark has handled herself during the first three weeks of her pro career. 

"Caitlin has shown great leadership here," King said, "just trying to stay down the middle, being inclusive and not getting dragged into anything."

King noted the similarities between the impact Evert had on the 1971 Open and what Clark has done in both college and the pros, selling out arenas and driving TV ratings for women’s basketball to unthinkable heights. 

"As I told the players in 1971, ‘Do you realize how many more people are watching us because of Chris?’

"And they answered, 'well, the crowds are really there, they’re packed.’

"And I said, ‘Yeah, were they packed two days ago before Chris?’

"‘Well, not really,’ they said.

"'Well, hello.’"

Said King: "I’ve seen this before. It’s a different time, it’s bigger now, everything is bigger, but it’s the same principles." 

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