Today's WNBA players can find inspiration in 'Battle of the Sexes'

Lessons still to be learned from 'Battle of the Sexes' (3:18)

Billie Jean King and Emma Stone sit down with Julie Foudy to discusses the new film about King's legendary match against Bobby Riggs. (3:18)

Had it been an average Thursday in 1973, I probably would have tuned into "The Waltons." (Sissy Spacek was guest starring that evening.) I'd have had my little transistor radio on, too, as my beloved Cardinals were in a pennant race.

But there was something else on television that night that seemed bigger than anything. A true spectacle. A tennis match at the Astrodome, one that pitted a woman against a man and completely transfixed me.

I desperately wanted Billie Jean King to win. She did, and I couldn't stop talking about it the next day at school. I told her that, 26 years later, when I interviewed her. My heart was racing because I'd never been so nervous or excited to talk to anyone in my career as a sportswriter.

"I was in third grade, and it meant so much to me ..." I said, knowing she'd heard similar versions of this a bazillion times. To her credit, she didn't act that way at all. She said she realized that no matter how often the story of the "Battle of the Sexes" is told, somebody is finding out about it for the first time.

With the new movie out starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell detailing that Sept. 20, 1973, match and all that led up to it, a lot of young people are going to find out -- including many in the WNBA.

Sunday in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Los Angeles tip off the WNBA Finals (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), seeking the league's 21st championship. I've covered the WNBA since its 1997 inception, and women's college basketball since 1984.

But when I was an 8½-year-old sports fanatic in September 1973, there wasn't even a girls' basketball team at the high school I would later attend. Nor a women's team at Missouri, the college I would go to.

Both would start in 1974, a year that saw the launch of many girls' and women's sports teams at schools nationwide. That was spurred by the passage of Title IX in 1972, but I didn't know about that legislation then. I knew about Billie Jean King, though, and she had to get some of the credit.

The history of girls' and women's basketball in the United States for the past century is complicated. It existed for decades in some states, mostly in six-on-six form, including Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. It tended to be more in rural school districts.

Some states had girls' basketball in the 1920s to the '40s, but then dismantled it in the 1950s and didn't bring it back until the 1970s. Some colleges had women's basketball teams, including Nashville Business College in Tennessee and Wayland Baptist in Texas. AAU tournaments date to the 1920s, and the first world championship for women's basketball was in 1953.

But these were patchwork opportunities, something millions of girls never experienced. When I first spoke to King, in 1999, one of the things she mentioned was her excitement about the still-new WNBA.

"I grew up around team sports; that's what I really wanted to do," said King, whose brother, Randy Moffitt, became a Major League Baseball pitcher. "Tennis was the last thing I found. Now they have pro women's basketball, pro softball. Gee, if I'd been born later ..."

But it's fortunate that she was born when she was, because of the boundless impact she had and the leadership she displayed at a critical time for the women's movement, including athletics. King's goal, of course, was never to prove female athletes were better than males -- but rather to prove women deserved respect in their own right.

As feminist icon Gloria Steinem put it: "She wanted to show that any man was not better than any woman at anything, which had been the attitude up until then."

Phoenix Mercury vice president Ann Meyers Drysdale was a senior in high school in California when King and Riggs played their famous match. Her school had multiple sports for girls then. She excelled at them, and went on to become the first female scholarship athlete as a basketball star at UCLA in 1974-78.

"Billie Jean was a role model for a lot of girls in the 1960s and '70s," Meyers Drysdale said. "I played tennis, too, and I followed it. And that match was huge at that time; TV bought into it, and I was probably like any other young girl in sports watching everything that was happening.

"I think this is an important film, because a lot of young people don't know that this happened, and it was part of changing our society."

In microfilm research while writing about King years ago, I saw this optimistic headline in the Kansas City Times the day after the match -- "Male chauvinism stamped out in three sets" -- and laughed, thinking, "If only it had been that simple."

Then I saw another story in that day's paper about the Carnegie Commission of Higher Education's report saying that despite females' success in school and their dedication to their work, they did not achieve anything near parity with males in terms of salary and rank. The commission lamented that women were, "the largest unused supply of superior intelligence in the United States."

Here we are 44 years later and there's no doubt there has been remarkable progress on academic, business and sports fronts for females in this country. But roadblocks and pushback remain.

There are still many lessons to learn, even now, from the ownership King took for growing her sport and understanding -- and challenging -- the financial components of it. Past, present and future WNBA players can look to that as they must help shepherd the league's growth over its next 21 years and beyond.

The Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike, the league's MVP last year, is back in the WNBA Finals to help try to defend Los Angeles' title. At 27, she also is president of the WNBA Players Association executive committee.

"It's been awesome, and I've gotten to know about all the different things our players are involved in -- with their foundations, helping their communities, and business ventures," Ogwumike said. "And I think the WNBA athletes are spearheading a lot of the conversations about issues in our society now. There are many things in the world bigger than what we do, but our voices can impact them."

And King -- and Riggs, a showman who ended up being an ally -- can still inspire today's athletes in their quests.