By Emma Turner and Reardon Palmer
When Tim Coenraad was twelve years old, he set himself two life goals; to play in the National Basketball League and to represent Australia. Now, at 33 years old, he has checked them both off the list and accomplished a lot more off the court along the way.
Astana, Kazakhstan.A small crowd fills the bleachers of a basketball court, positioned in the middle of a huge velodrome. Outside the stadium, snow is falling lightly. It’s a strange scene, but as Tim Coenraad lines up alongside his teammates from the Australian men’s basketball team – also called the Boomers – he knows there is nowhere else in the world that he rather be.
In some respects, the 33-year-old is basketball’s own Steven Bradbury. Both men prevailed through difficulty to reach their respective goals. Coenraad debuting in the Boomers jersey at an age that some consider past one’s prime is the equivalent of Bradbury winning the gold medal – both circumstances were “written off” as extremely unlikely, but perseverance and a small pinch of luck were to have the final say.
No stranger to making the impossible come true, defying the odds has become Coenraad’s life story, both on and off the court.
From an early age, his above-average height and his parents’ keen enthusiasm for sports seemed to destine a future in basketball. When Coenraad was in primary school, his family moved homes, relocating to a house in Brisbane’s outer-suburbs. Before long, he became friends with the neighbourhood kids and started joining their pick-up games at the local park down the road. The tarmac was traded in for hardwood when Coenraad turned twelve and began competing for representative clubs.
Soon, all Coenraad wanted to do was to play. He decided to apply for an American college basketball scholarship one year of out high school, which originally proved to be quite difficult. “I was trying to send tape out to all these different teams and universities… none of them wanted to take me at first, so that was disheartening.”
Eventually, a coach from the Florida-based Nova South-eastern Sharks (NSU) awarded Coenraad a scholarship after visiting Australia and witnessing his work ethic and talent first-hand. He was a diamond in the rough for NSU, going on to become the Freshmen Basketballer of the Year in the Sunshine State Conference and etching his name into the Sharks’ history books. He still currently NSU’s all-time three-point scoring record.
Yet the struggle to gain any sort of recognition when applying for college mirrored his experience coming back home. When he endeavoured to sign a professional contract in the Australian National Basketball League (NBL). The Illawarra Hawks didn’t originally see Coenraad as a potential prospect, despite his successful college career. He was told by his agent that the team weren’t looking for a player in his position but “he could come to a few practices”, where he met coach and former player Geordie McLeod and Hawks’ legends Mat Campbell and Glen Saville. The three played a crucial role in Coenraad’s development as a professional basketballer and he cites them as mentors, they were incredibly instrumental in teaching him the things important to life off-court, like loyalty. He was quickly rewarded with a one-year professional contract at the Hawks, the first of many with the organisation.
Coenraad pegs that rookie season as his all-time favourite, and one moment in particular stood out amongst the rest; “They picked us to finish last in the league, but we were able to make it all the way to the grand final. I’ll never forget warming up to the crowd chanting ‘We love you cause you’re from Wollongong’, fifteen minutes before tip-off.”
That underdog reputation is one Coenraad embraces with pride. In 2015, a twelve-man Australian Boomers squad was named to compete at the FIBA Oceania Championships, a qualifier for the Rio Olympics in the following year. He found himself surprisingly bitter to be excluded from the list.
“My best statistical year wasn’t exactly the team’s best, but I figured I’d get a few looks. I was a bit salty… it seemed they picked guys that were in the ‘boys’ squad’, so to speak. I felt like I was better and producing more than them.” Coenraad admits that he was upset at the time but picked himself up, brushed it off and moved on. Previous rejections like this have made his recent debut experience with the Boomers even more sweet.
He’s had his fair share of off-court hardships as well, ones he “wouldn’t wish upon [his] worst enemy”. Coenraad and his wife Nelly are part of the growing percentage of Australian couples who turn to IVF for a chance at having a child of their own and have been vocal about their hapless nine-year journey.
“When you start getting into that world, you see so many people in the same boat. It doesn’t matter whether it’s been a three-year struggle or a fifteen-year struggle. There’s no comparing, because at that time the pain is real – you’re really in a type of hell and you’re doubting yourself, whether it’s suppose to happen.”
In 2017, after half a decade of unsuccessful IVF procedures, Coenraad and his wife made the life-changing decision to foster two little girls, quickly becoming accustomed to a new life as a ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mummy’. A photograph from his Instagram shows the children in their #22 COENRAAD shirts, watching on from behind the barricades as their foster father plays on court. However, heartbreak struck after a year and a half when the girls were removed from the couple’s care under unfortunate external circumstances.
“It was a rough situation. We know we did all of the right things, there’s no question about that. There are times where Nelly will call me crying, and I’ll come home and be sad… that’s probably going to happen for the foreseeable future or until we get to see them again. I’ll always feel like they’re our kids, but we have to accept what’s happened because now we’ve got different things to focus on.”
By that, Coenraad means their own little miracle; a baby boy who is a physical representation of the couple’s endurance and assiduous spirit. Coenraad was by his wife’s side during her emergency Caesarean, leading to the birth of the couple’s first son – Tyson Adam Coenraad. He sees it as a positive example for others who are struggling with IVF.
“We thought it wasn’t going to happen and it was our last two embryos… we had five failed attempts before that. We’ve had an ectopic pregnancy, we’ve had miscarriages, we’ve had so much heartache, but then to see what we have now, it’s just crazy. There are times where I get caught up staring at Tyson, thinking ‘This is a part of me and a part of her’. Then you see him smile for the first time… you just melt.”
The accumulation of incredible life experiences, such as the birth of Tyson, simply reinforce Coenraad’s faith in ignoring the odds and just knuckling down and working hard.
“You know, I remember when I was at a basketball camp, I think I was about eleven or twelve years old, and the coach said, “You’re probably not going to play professionally, that’s pretty hard.” He told me that I should look at another sport. I remember that clear as day. He was a good guy, but I still think about that conversation. I took that away until now.”
And where is ‘now’? Coenraad is a Boomer and an NBL veteran. He’s the longest standing member of the current Illawarra roster, having spent a total of ten seasons with the club. He sits in third place on the list of all-time games played for the Hawks too, a respected persona renowned around the league. At home games, when the players run out to the floor in front of an adoring Wollongong crowd, the announcer’s call of ‘Number 22 – Tim Co-e-e-e-nraad!’ draws the loudest cheer.
The singlets of his mentors – Glen Saville, Mat Campbell and Geordie McLeod – hang from the rafters in the Illawarra stadium. One day, the number 22 jersey will join them too.