BY RANDY SKUBEK
Latrobe (Pa.) Bulletin
Owner or ownership group for a World TeamTennis franchise in Pittsburgh. Interested persons are asked to contact WTT commissioner and CEO Ilana Kloss or co-founder Billie Jean King.
PITTSBURGH — Billie Jean King liked being called names and harassed so much when she played in Pittsburgh that she would like nothing more than for city to have World TeamTennis return to the city.
That’s right...enjoyed it.
“The fans were great and obnoxious. I loved them,” the tennis icon said of her playing days with the cross-state Philadelphia Freedoms.
“They were tough on me. I like it when they’re totally into it.”
King recalled playing in Pittsburgh against the Triangles as a member of the Philadelphia Freedom while in town for the Oct. 16, 2012 WTT Smash Hits (photo above of this year's participants), an AIDS charity event she and Sir Elton John host every year in different cities around the country..
It was the mid-1970s, and the very first season (1974) of World TeamTennis, of which King is a co-founder was only one year removed from her famous “Battle of the Sexes” victory over Bobby Riggs.
The Pittsburgh Triangles also had their share of big names like player/coach Ken Rosewall, Australian great Evonne Goolagong, Peggy Michel and the late Vitas Gerulaitis and his legion of fans known as the “G-Men,” so it made for an interesting and entertaining time.
“People were having fun and they wanted their team to win,” King remembered. “They’re great fans her in Pittsburgh.”
The 68-year-old King no longer plays in WTT, but remains very much active in the sport, especially through Smash Hits, which, by the way, had the most successful one-day event in its 20-year history by taking in more than $1 millions — for the first time — during its first-ever stop in Pittsburgh.
But even before that, King said one of her priorities is to try and put a World TeamTennis franchise back in Pittsburgh.
“I would love to have a team here again,” expressed King, who, back in 1970, was also instrumental in starting — along with eight other players (Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Judy Dalton, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Valerie Ziegenfuss) — what would three years later become what is now known as the Women’s Tennis Association, of which she was once president. “I loved it when I played here.
“I would love to come back here. It was great.
“Yes, I would love to have a team here. They’re on my master list.
“Of course, you have to have ownership. We need to get ownership and make sure it’s viable.
“Ownership is No. 1. But the community is fantastic.”
Frank Fuhrer was the founder and owner of the Pittsburgh Triangles, who were one of the 16 original WTT teams, from 1974-76. And the groundbreaking coed WTT was the 1973 brainchild of another Pittsburgh person, a newspaper and broadcasting syndicator by the name of Chuck Reichblum.
Fuhrer, who made his money in the insurance business and went on to become better known in the sport of golf, actually knew little or nothing about tennis and its players when he started the Triangles. Still, the fiery Fuhrer was known to bring some of his female players to tears.
But he brought in some of the top names in tennis, including Gerulaitis, Goolagong, Rosewall and Michel along with Mark Cox, Kim Warwick and Rayni Fox — among others — and instantly, Pittsburgh became WTT’s most successful team during its short stay before being dissolved, going 92-40 over those three years while winning the league championship in 1975 over the San Francisco-Oakland Golden Gaters and reaching the semifinals the other two times (’74, ’76).
When Smash Hits came to Pittsburgh, it was the first time that a WTT-format event was held there in 32 years. And if it’s any indication, WTT Smash Hits will be back at some point.
Leading up to it, John — the 65-year old, world-renowned singer/songwriter and performer who added Sir to his name after his knighthood in 1998 — said that he was expecting the event to be one of the best ever. Turns out, it was the best.
And WTT Smash Hits has been held in such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston, Houston, Atlanta, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Orlando, Sacramento and Cleveland. Interestingly, the previous record take of around $850,000 was in another Pennsylvania city — Hershey — in 2005.
But the $1 million raised in Pittsburgh, which included $375,000 from a sold-out VIP reception and silent/live auction at $500 a ticket in addition to 4,718 in attendance, topped them all. That brought the 20-year total to more than $11.5 million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation and local charities in those cities, which, in this case, was the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force.
“We go to as many cities as possible and leave the money that we raised for that night of Smash Hits in the city that we go to,” John explained. “It’s very important.
“If people are going to turn out and give money in the community and come out and see us play tennis, it’s only right that some of that money stays in the community. The more money we raise, the more money that stays in Pittsburgh.”
John decided that he needed to do something after meeting Ryan White, an Indiana boy who passed away from AIDS and straightening out his own life, which he said was “completely out of control,” in part from drug abuse.
“I had no values,” John admitted. “I was irresponsible. I was unreliable.
“I was a friend of him (White) and his family. He knew he was going to die and had so much dignity.
“What that boy taught me was that, if I decided to get well, then I would do good things with my life afterward. It’s been my inspiration ever since.
“I chose the AIDS charity because so many of my friends died during the epidemic, and I did nothing. Where was I for those missing years?
“I was absent,” John continued. “I had to make up for lost time.
“I’m still ashamed of my actions from before. But I’m trying to make that right now.
“You get a second chance in life, don’t waste it.”
It was around the same time that WTT was forming when John and King developed a strong friendship. It lives on through their mutual love of tennis and charity work.
“Quite frankly, it would be a lot easier for us to stay in one place,” King said in reference to WTT Smash Hits. “We go to different cities every year so we can fund it locally.
“We think it’s very important. We want to make sure that the communities get money from the event.
“Unfortunately, AIDS belongs to everyone. It’s an everybody issue.
“We need to help each other. All of us are in this world together.
“Every single person is an influencer. You can influence yourself, your family, your community, this nation and this world by your actions and your good deeds.
“I’m just so thankful that the players are here,” King added. “They don’t get paid, and a lot of people don’t do charities unless they’re paid, so I really appreciate it.
“That means there’s more money that stays locally and also goes into the Elton John Foundation. I appreciate each and every one of you doing this and what it means.”
The star-studded lineup for the actual match, which consisted of the WTT format of men’s and women’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles with no-ad, cumulative scoring and sets to five games (instead of six) with a nine-point tiebreaker at four-all, included the likes of International Tennis Hall of Famers Martina Navratilova and the now husband-and-wife duo of Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf along with the recently retired Andy Roddick, Mark Knowles, Jan-Michael Gambill and up-and-comers Christina McHale, Samantha Crawford and Taylor Townsend.
“It’s good to see him out and staying connected to the game,” Agassi said of Roddick. “It doesn’t surprise me that he continues to care about others, being here.
“It’d be easy to go do a lot of other things right now. It’s a new life, one that he should enjoy.
“But he still shows that he cares and certainly doesn’t forget where he came from and continues to use it as a platform to make a difference to others.”
For the record, Team Billie Jean beat Team Elton, 19-17, in the WTT Smash Hits event at the University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Center to even the series at 10-10. But this wasn’t really about the tennis, although it was entertaining.
It had everything to do with raising funds for AIDS. In conjunction with that, officials also announced that Mylan — a generics and pharmaceutical company based in Pittsburgh that became a first-time sponsor of Smash Hits this year — has agreed to become title sponsor for WTT for the next three years in what both termed a perfect fit.
“It’s about raising money and awareness for a very good cause and one that Mylan has been associated with for years in the HIV/AIDS arena in providing access to affordable medicine for those that need,” said company CEO Heather Bresch. “We believe that getting access for everybody is important.”
“I just want to say thank you. We couldn’t ask for a better fit, and it’s just the beginning,” King remarked.
“It is like a dream come true,” John stated. “It is the best fit that we could possibly find working hand in hand — and not just in tennis — with a company that really cares.
“I’m very happy for their philanthropy and to make drugs cheaper for people who really need them. From my point of view, not only is it a landmark year for the foundation, this is like a new beginning.”