WWOY 25 Years

2002 WISE Women of the Year

Lesley Visser and Billie Jean King with WISE founder Sue Rodin (second from left) and luncheon emcee Andrea Joyce (second from right)

2002 WISE Women of the Year honorees Lesley Visser and Billie Jean King with WISE founder Sue Rodin (second from left) and luncheon emcee Andrea Joyce (second from right) | Photo credit: Al Pereira

Courageous Women. WISE Women.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to your courage.” Event emcee Andrea Joyce, quoting Anaïs Nin, hit the nail on the head as she closed the 2002 WISE Women of the Year Awards honoring Billie Jean King and Lesley Visser. Expanding not only their own lives but the lives of so many others, King and Visser have had courage to spare as they blazed a trail through a thicket of barriers and a forest of obstacles in pursuit of their talents, dreams and ambitions.

Lesley Visser

A woman sports journalist was an oddity, and an unwelcome one at that, when Lesley Visser chose to make that her life’s occupation in the 1970s. “No women or children in the press box” was written on her media credential when she joined The Boston Globe as a sportswriter in 1974.

How did she deal with the “unwelcome wagon,” not to mention the lack of a ladies room anywhere near the press box, as she pursued her career, first as a print journalist and then as a TV reporter? “I learned to adjust on the fly,” she says. She could adjust because she was prepared. According to husband and fellow sports journalist Dick Stockton, “Lesley can name every starter in every Final Four.”

Visser also stayed true to herself. “Lesley could get to the heart of a story quicker because of her wit and her charm," says renowned basketball coach Rick Pitino. Football star Boomer Esiason calls her “a friend to all of us in the sports business.”

WISE Words:

  • On equality: “Equal access is equal opportunity.”
  • On the necessary attributes for success: “Passion, knowledge, stamina and a sense of humor. You need to hang tough.”
  • On pressure: “Pressure is a privilege.” (Like any good reporter, Visser acknowledges her source for this wisdom: Billie Jean King.)
  • On the importance of showing up: “Be there or be talked about.”
  • Visser’s version of carpe diem: “If you have a chance, do it at full speed. Do it, say it, risk it and then come back to share it with us.”

Billie Jean King

What is there to say about the woman whose career has transcended sports and landed her in Life magazine as one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century”? As presenter Robin Roberts said, “Just say Billie Jean King’s name and get out of the way.”

It was as if “all of women’s pride and self-confidence rested on the moment, and it did,” recalled journalist Diane Sawyer of the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in which King defeated Bobby Riggs in a nationally televised event at Houston’s Astrodome. It still holds the record for the most people to attend a single tennis match with 30,472 people. From that moment, King’s career as an athlete and social revolutionary were inexplicably intertwined.

Billie Jean’s talent, determination and focus catapulted her to the top of women’s tennis in the ’60s and ’70s; her passion and charisma made her a standard bearer for social change. She led the cause for equal opportunity for women as the rebel who encouraged seven other top women tennis players to risk expulsion from the USTA by signing contracts with the nascent women’s professional tennis tour. She took the cause of equal access to a larger stage when she helped found the Women’s Sports Foundation as an advocate on behalf of all women who play, or want to play, sports. She took tennis out of the country club by creating World TeamTennis as a vocal spectator sport. She continues to pass the torch — coaching tennis players, encouraging community leaders and speaking out for equal opportunity.

WISE Words:

  • On advocating for change: “Speak out nicely, but speak out.”
  • On leadership: “Be responsible for gender and color mix.”
  • On men: “They have changed my life the most because they are usually in a position of power. Men who are reasonable and secure will help.”
  • On the golden rule: “Be there for others. Be kind — treat others the way we want to be treated.”
  • On finding a mentor: “It’s never too late. I just found my first real mentor three years ago. Ask for what you want and need.”
  • On resilience: “Be thick-skinned. When you have to, start over.”
  • On the right stuff: “It’s all about character, not about reputation.”
  • On responsibility: “Every time that I have encountered real problems in my life, I realized they were a result of my failure to take responsibility.”
  • Her final exhortation: “Stick to your truth. Accept responsibility. Go for it!”

Beth Rasin wrote about the 2002 WISE Women of the Year Awards Luncheon for WISE words, the Women in Sports and Events newsletter, Issue 26, Fall 2002. Excerpts from the article are republished to celebrate the 25th WISE Women of the Year Awards Luncheon in 2019.