Kurt Streeter is a New York Times sports reporter with a particular interest in stories related to race, gender, and social justice. Before joining the Times in 2017, he worked at ESPN, the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun. And before that, he played college tennis at UC Berkeley and was world ranked by the Association of Tennis Professionals Tour for three years. Before joining a Zócalo/ASU Foundation streamed event titled “Can We Build a Better Summer Olympics?” he called into the virtual green room to talk about playing makeshift tennis in COVID, one of his foundational books, and watching the Seattle Supersonics lose with his dad.
When are you at your most creative?
When I'm sleeping. I'm one of those people that will wake up in the middle of the night and occasionally—not all the time, it doesn't happen enough—but I've written some really good ledes by half-dreaming them. Then it’s waking up and scribbling down in the dark an opening three paragraphs for a story. Or a really good sentence. Or a sentence that I at least really like. The recent story about Colin Kaepernick and kneeling for the Times, I had a line in there: “But his kneeling objection during the playing of the national anthem has boomeranged through the choppy slipstream of the American consciousness, and is again at the center of a turbulent moment with newfound force, and for the N.F.L., renewed debate.” That was one of those ones that came to me half-awake.
And then probably while out on jogs. Jogging or running. Plodding through the streets very slowly. It’s always a good time to think for me.
What's the best gift you've ever gotten?
That would be my son. That's the best gift I've ever gotten. Yeah. Pretty simple.
What do you do to decompress?
It's funny, before COVID, for the first time in my life I was becoming a yogi. I was really doing a ton of yoga, and I found that to be an amazing journey. What happened was my beloved mother passed away in her late 80s last year at the end of October, and to cope with that, I started doing yoga. I was going to the yoga studios five days a week and just loving it. I was like, ‘Man, why didn't I find this earlier in life? ‘I just felt great about it. Super relaxing, and it really helped me cope with a very difficult time.
And then COVID hit, and I had all these plans, I'm going to keep decompressing and de-stressing by downloading yoga apps and whatever, and doing it in my living room. But I haven't done it at all since COVID. So now I'm stressed. It's kind of lame how I had to have a studio to go to. I actually really enjoyed that whole process of being around other people and being in a community and I'm not really super limber. So it was having people who were really good to watch and follow. I've got to get more self-motivated to get back into that practice.
What's your favorite book?
I’ll throw out an odd wildcard here. I've got a lot of favorites, but a book that oddly had a huge impact on my life was The Inner Game of Tennis. It's been written about a bit. It was one of the first books in the early ’70s—almost in the self-help genre—that kind of got that whole movement kickstarted in a way. It talked about putting Buddhist and Eastern philosophy into sports…. It was just a different way to look at competition, and a different way to look at playing tennis, or any sport, and then beyond sport to life.
I read that book when I was about probably 13…. The author, Timothy Gallwey is his name… really had a big impact on how I started to look at my life in general. It was about releasing your ego and trusting your subconscious mind; that's the stuff that now is pretty casually talked about, but in I'm 53, so in the ’70s and early ’80s when I was reading this, it was pretty revolutionary stuff. At the time, I was a competitive tennis player, and that really helped me in my sport and helped me in many other aspects of my life.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Don't be afraid to be different. I think my parents really taught that. Maybe not necessarily exactly that phrase, but just being willing to be outside of the norm. I'm biracial and many people know this, I've talked about it many times….and I've written about it, but my dad was a tall, dark-skinned African-American dude from Riverside, California. And my mom was just about as white as you could be and grew up in small town in Oregon. They married in 1954, and had started dating in the early ’50s, at the University of Oregon.
So I think the way that they operated and the journey that they made was passed on to myself and my three brothers. [My parents] clearly didn't fit into society's norms. They lived their own path, despite a lot of everybody telling them that they shouldn't. So that was very much a prized piece of advice. I've tried to always do that and I try to instill that in my kid as well.
If you weren't a reporter, what would you be?
My plan was to be a teacher. I would probably be a fifth-grade teacher. That was always my dream job.
Why fifth grade?
I think because I had a really great fifth-grade teacher. Ms. Chu, and she was a really foundational part of my educational experience. And I had a great fifth grade, and I always thought, to me, that was sort of peak education for me. I just loved it. Loved that year. And I loved my teacher. She was super encouraging to me and really believed in me in ways that other teachers had not.
I'd gotten into a couple of grad schools to get a master's in education and all that. And it was between that and journalism, and then I got a really good internship in journalism and ended up going down that path, but I just as easily could've gone into education. I think it's really mission-driven…. I wanted to do something that would help society in a broad way.
What year, past or present, would you like to time travel to?
Gosh, probably 1968. It was a terrible year and a glorious year in some ways. I was 2 [when it was happening]. I'd like to be a little older. The ’60s really interests me, and Civil Rights Movement. Just all the ways that society was changing during that time. Women's rights, gay rights starting to push forward. Nixon and Johnson, the political scene, and yeah. It would explain a lot of what we're going through right now as well.
What is the most memorable sporting event you've ever attended?
I'd say it's a tie between two events. In the late ’70s, the Seattle Supersonics, the NBA team here, which no longer exists, made the finals. I was I think 11, and they were way ahead. They were playing the Washington Bullets, who are now the Washington Wizards. And they were ahead in the series and had a bunch of chances to win the championship. And then they lost in the seventh game. And I went to that seventh game with my dad, and seeing my team lose is something I'll never get over. They won the next year, but I don't remember the win so much as I remember the loss, which is pretty much true in my sports career. I remember the losses a lot more than I do the wins.
But then last year's men's Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, I covered that event and then was lucky enough to write about it. It was just an incredible, epic match that lasted deep into the fifth set and set a record for total time at a Wimbledon final. And Roger Federer, who really is, I don't really have favorites too much, but he's one of my favorite athletes and he had two match points in that match and easily could have won it, and then Djokovic, who is an amazing player, hit a winner on one of them and saved himself and came back, and they just played and played and played forever. And then I had to write about it on deadline.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
I got to say, it goes back to my kid. I think the way that he's handled COVID, it's been super inspiring to see. It's been hard for him, but to see the way he's handled it, being in third grade and all of a sudden jolted out of school and not being around your friends and having to do virtual education. It's been pretty remarkable to see the resilience. He’s ended up being pretty self-disciplined about it.
He's learning how to play tennis during this period, actually. We have a little backyard, and he took a string and he strung it from our little porch… across the yard and attached the string to a fence. So that made a net. And then we've been volleying back and forth. We're engaged in a marathon where he's Nadal and I'm Roger Federer, and he's crushing me.