Riley Blanks had little cause to ponder the fact that professional athletes were a huge part of her life. It started way too early for her to consider how unusual it was. “I was basically born into the NBA,” says Blanks (Col ’13), a first-year on the UVA women’s tennis team.
Blanks’ father, Lance, played several seasons in the National Basketball Association, then took his game overseas before moving into front office work in the NBA. He’s now the assistant general manager for the Cleveland Cavaliers, yet another step in the family’s immersion in the world of professional basketball.
Blanks—tabbed as a four-star recruit by tennisrecruiting.net—bolsters an already talent-heavy UVA squad. But she isn’t the only Cavalier women’s tennis player who had the privilege of growing up around professional athletes. Katie Gater, another heralded first-year, grew up on the same street in Dunblane, Scotland, as tennis star Andy Murray. In fact, Judy Murray, Andy’s mother, once coached Gater. That exposure to one of the sport’s top talents gave Gater insight into life as a professional tennis player.
“Knowing what Andy sacrificed for tennis has made me understand what is necessary to reach such success at the sport,” Gater says. “He has dedicated his whole life to tennis, and it is paying off for him now.”
One thing about Murray in particular stands out for Gater, who worked her way into the Cavaliers’ top six early in the 2010 campaign while also playing some doubles.
“He is very much a role model to me, and I admire the hard work he has put in—especially on the physical side, to be one of the fittest players on the tour,” Gater says.
Riley Blanks has also learned a great deal from her own athletic role models. Her father’s long career in professional basketball explains how, at 12, she found herself casually chatting with NBA superstar LeBron James. Conversations like that are why Blanks finds herself looking up to giants in a completely different sport.
“I think he can be a role model for anyone. I think that’s what makes him special,” Blanks says of James. “His awareness and his people skills are amazing. He’s kind of not normal; he’s like another whole species.”
Blanks had other pros as role models: her grandfather, Sid Blanks, played professional football; and her uncle, Larvell Blanks, played nine seasons in Major League Baseball. Exposure to such athletes had an early impact on Riley.
“I just feel like I’ve seen the world from a different perspective,” Blanks says. “Being around people who live, eat and breathe something, there’s just so much passion. I definitely think it rubbed off on me in a good way.”
Her father’s early basketball career also played a role in Blanks coming to Charlottesville. Lance Blanks started his collegiate career at UVA in the late 1980s before heading to the University of Texas, but he fell in love with UVA’s atmosphere off the court. When Riley started her collegiate search, UVA came up again and again, eventually leading her to the Cavaliers.
Now she and Gater will get a chance to contribute to the steady emergence of the women’s tennis program, which hopes to emulate the meteoric rise of the men’s team, a perennial NCAA power. Clearly, both women have examples of excellence to draw from.
“It’s impacted me not just tennis-wise but also in life,” Blanks says. “My outlook on a lot of things is different. I just feel like I’m a better person than I would be without that experience.”