NEW YORK — Billie Jean King’s taxi ride home after the Sochi Olympics included a revelation.
She learned Jason Collins joined the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first openly gay male player among the four major U.S. professional sports.
“I was totally stoked and texted him immediately,” said King, who saw the news on a TV in her cab in New York. “When my mom died, he called and left a message. I talked to him when he first came out. We’ve just hit it off.”
King returned from a whirlwind three days at the Sochi Games, part of the U.S. delegation for the closing ceremony chosen by President Obama. She watched the gold-medal men’s hockey game won by Canada, went up the mountain for bobsledding, greeted U.S. athletes and met with a gay Russian teenager.
King was originally scheduled to attend the opening ceremony, but her 91-year-old mother died that day.
Rule 50 of the Olympic charter restricts political gestures or protests by athletes, who mostly shied away from commenting about the topic in Sochi.
King has been outspoken about the Russian law passed last year that banned gay “propaganda” to minors, punishable by fines and jail time. The openly gay former tennis great said she’d like the International Olympic Committee to add sexual orientation to the list of protections in its charter and consider the issue when deciding host countries for future Olympics.
Here are five things to know about King’s impressions of the Sochi Games, borscht and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
PUTIN, A HUGGER: King learned while in Sochi that Putin reportedly hugged Ireen Wust, a bisexual Dutch speedskater who led all Sochi medal winners with five – two gold and three silver.
“It’s great,” King said. “Think he knew it? Doesn’t matter, that’s the way the world should be. He should be embracing humanity.”
Putin said ahead of the Olympics that gay athletes and visitors were welcome, but warned to “leave the kids alone.”
MIXED MESSAGES: King said she met with a Russian teen who is gay and getting bullied.
“I’m worried about the LGBT community for their safety,” she said. “Basically, it’s OK to hate now and you can get away with it. I’m concerned, more than concerned. The main thing is to let them know we care and we can help LGBT organizations that help the community. Dialogue is always good, but action is important, too.
“The athletes pretty much kept it mainstream, ‘this is about sports, keep the politics out.’ There’s politics in everything, especially with this.”
HOCKEY HEARTBREAK: U.S. hockey player Julie Chu met King a few days after the team lost to Canada 3-2 in overtime in the gold-medal game. The U.S. had a 2-0 lead with less than 4 minutes left in regulation.
King was “heartbroken” after the loss, noting she’s become “hooked on hockey” after hanging around former U.S. Olympic hockey stars Angela Ruggiero and Caitlin Cahow. Ruggiero is now an IOC member and Cahow represented the U.S. at the opening ceremony.
Chu, a four-time Olympian, was the U.S. flag bearer at the closing ceremony.
BEST DISH: King recalled playing tennis in Russia at age 18 in 1962 when there was “hardly any food, just black bread.” While times have changed, she was hoping to get “some borscht, it’s the one thing I missed. I love borscht, but got cabbage soup instead. It was delicious.”
She visited the USA House and attended the closing ceremony with a U.S. delegation that included former Olympic gold-medal winning speedskaters Bonnie Blair and Eric Heiden.
“They are iconic. They are speedskating to me, they put it on the map,” King said.
BREAKTHROUGHS: So what does it say about the evolution of male sports in America to have Collins in the NBA and openly gay Michael Sam expected to play in the NFL?
“We’re getting there. Because the youth, they don’t care as much,” said the 70-year-old King. “They’re judging people by their contribution on the team. It should be a non-issue. We need these breakthroughs and young people stepping up.”