By Patricia Sellers
June 30, 2014

Knowing tennis champ Billie Jean King as we do (she’s a loyal attendee of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit), it was no surprise to see that she hit it off big-time with Jason Collins, who last year became the first male athlete while playing a major U.S. team sport to tell the world, “I’m gay.”

Collins, of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, hasn’t had it easy: Coming out led to death threats, he said in Sunday’s Q&A in the New York Times. But we’ve come a long way (baby), from 1981 when King was forced out of the closet. She too got death threats. But while Collins earned an instant hero status after he announced his homosexuality in last year’s Sports Illustrated exclusive, King suffered a slew of cancelled endorsements and “lost all my money overnight, paying lawyers.”

In the New York Times interview, King gives due credit to fellow tennis champ Martina Navratilova, who was the first world-famous pro athlete to come out voluntarily. Having been burned herself, King told her pal Martina back in ’81 “Don’t get outed! Control your message.”

Navratilova (who King, by the way, calls the greatest all-around women tennis player ever) laid it all out at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit last October, telling me in an interview how she got up the guts to come out 32 years before Jason Collins became a modern-day game-changer. This very candid conversation with Navratilova was the 2013 MPW Summit participants’ second-most favorite session, after (wouldn’t you know), my colleague Carol Loomis’ sit-down with Warren Buffett.

 

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