Bliss saw the eye of the tiger in Bennett, knew UVA was his destiny

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: City of Basketball Love

When Christian Bliss made his official visit to Virginia in June, he still had three other schools on his mind: Xavier, Miami and Villanova. All four were heavily recruiting the savvy, 6-foot-4 point guard from Queens, but something happened during his stop in Charlottesville that convinced him that he would play for Tony Bennett.

The UVA coach welcomes prospects to his home for dinner and an opportunity to bond, but here’s a warning issued by Bliss. Don’t engage in a ping pong match with Bennett unless you’re really good.

“He dusted me,” Bliss laughed about a very lopsided loss to his future coach. “I don’t even think we played more than one game because he was just better than me. I couldn’t mess with him. He had everything going.”

Yet, it was during that ping pong game that Bliss discovered everything he needed to know about Bennett. He saw a side of Bennett that had not revealed itself during previous contact, and Bliss really liked what he saw.

“I kind of just saw sort of the competitive spirit in [Bennett] and it kind of just opened my eyes because he such a good person, but then once he got in that mode, he kind of locked in and it was like, ‘OK, I see it now,’ this is what I want to play for,” Bliss said of the experience. “So I guess that ping pong game really opened my eyes a lot. I don’t even know if [Bennett] knows that or not, but I kind of just saw it. I don’t even know what I said, but he didn’t even hear me and we were right next to each other.

“So I was like, alright, this guy is locked in, and if this is ping pong or basketball, he’s definitely going to be locked in. I just gravitated toward something that kind of stood out to me.”

Those who strongly follow Virginia basketball recruiting have read things in the past about how Bennett can subtly impress a prospect without planning to sway them.

It’s just a case of Bennett being himself, whether it’s a game of ping pong or exchanging psalms at the end of a long conversation, something the coach did with transfer Jordan Minor, that tells a recruit that’s a guy I want to play for.

With Bliss, he had already been impressed with something Bennett had told him earlier, plus the fact that Bennett had not promised him anything. No promises about starting. No promises about immediate playing time. Nothing of that nature, and Bliss loved that approach.

“I think [Bennett’s] vibe was really authentic,” the New York point guard said. “He told me multiple times, underpromise, overdeliver. I mean, he’s not going to promise me, but he believes in me and he believes that I can earn everything I want. That really kind of stood out to me because at the end of the day, you have to go and work for everything, and that’s something I want. I don’t want anyone to be promised anything.”

Bliss, who grew up starting as a ninth grader at famed Arch Bishop Malloy before transferring to George School in Newton, Pa., is not your typical New York City point guard. He shares their swagger, but at 6-4, he’s bigger.

“I do have the offense, obviously the toughness,” Bliss said. “Just certain things when you play in New York, when you play at the park, when you play in certain environments that every New York guard plays in, you’re going to have a certain character, like toughness, just the way you act, the way you carry yourself.”

A lot of NYC point guards are smaller, undersized, go to the basket.

“I wouldn’t say really that’s all my game,” Bliss said. “But I will rep New York.”

Bliss described his game for Virginia fans that have never watched video of him play. He’s a good playmaker, passes well, can score the ball at all three levels.

“Most of all, I think I’m a leader and a winner,” Bliss said. “Everywhere I go, I win. And I lead my team. I lead my teammates. I just get them better and push them every day because I’m a hard worker. So that’s something you’re going to get.”

Bliss, who should be in Charlottesville later this week after a vacation in Portugal with his mom, is looking forward to getting to know his Cavalier teammates.

Committing to Virginia a week after that dinner at Bennett’s house, he has since reclassified from the Class of ‘24 to the Class of ‘23, having enough high school credits to graduate and join UVA for this season. He plans to redshirt, build his body, his game and learn the Bennett system.

“At the end of the day, I feel like I’ll be able to adapt to whatever it is that I’m doing,” the 4-star guard said. “As long as the fit is right, I think that will take care of itself. I’ve played on a lot of different teams and a lot of different styles, so I feel like style of play is something you can adapt.”

Other than the vibes he got from visiting the Bennett house, he committed to Virginia because he believes he can develop here, not only as a player, but as a person.

“I can help win, which is the most important thing, because when you win, everything else takes care of itself. I just wanted to go somewhere that I could win, where I think they can develop me and they’re going to care about me. I kind of checked off all three of those boxes right there, which were three of my biggest concerns.”

Location didn’t really matter to Bliss because he’s so consumed with improving that he doesn’t plan on becoming a social butterfly in his new city.

Reclassifying to skip his final year of eligibility of high school basketball and redshirting at Virginia is viewed by a major sacrifice by many, but as a head start in college basketball by others. Bliss considers the latter to be his path.

“After all my visits, seeing the facilities, the resources that all the schools had for me, I kind of thought about it a little bit more,” Bliss said. “The thing that stuck out about Virginia when I went there was the plan they had for me, what they thought I could get better at.

“They broke down my film, they brought up my weaknesses and showed me what they think I can better at. Once I saw that, I kind of thought it would make sense to go a year earlier so I can start working on these things with the resources and the people they have in order to prepare me to help me be an impact player early on, which is one of my goals, to play as an underclassman and help the team win.”

One of those resources is strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis, who played at UVA, went on to a career as a strength and conditioning coach in the NBA before returning to Charlottesville to join Bennett’s program. Curtis has had a profound influence on so many Cavaliers that he’s considered one of the program’s not-so-secret weapons.

“He’s really impressive,” Bliss said of Curtis. “Everything for him is down to a science and all of his information is based on facts, so I feel like he’s someone that is easy to trust. I’m definitely excited to just allow him to help me transform my body into a new player.”

For more of the Christian Bliss interview, playing at George School and for the EYBL PSA Cardinals for Munch Williams, his family, how he hopes to help UVA recruit and more, listen to our podcast with him by clicking here.