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A larger than life tribute awarded for the original Indigenous trailblazer

Andrew Mathieson -

Nathan Lovett-Murray almost single-handedly revives the National Indigenous Sports Foundation awards for the first time in 20 years, yet is hardly sighted in the spotlight.

He is happy enough to accept the plaudits at the back of the tables, inside the Olympic Room, but still within view of a stunning MCG backdrop at the presentation where the one-time Essendon midfielder used to run up and down the wings to louder cheers.

The closest a Lovett, a Murray or both gets to the centre stage is his dad until he walks up to present the last award of the night where Gary Murray looks to his left and spots his grandsons, Willun and Mara, ushers at the presentation.

Murray turns back comically from the timid boys, telling the audience, to fits of laughter that they're smarter, better-looking, and explicitly points out, they're better at sport than "we used to be".

But the Elder wise enough to win a landmark case in the Waywurru, Dhudhuroa and Ngurai Illum Wurrung land claim he boasts during his introduction, not only spoke too soon but – tongue in cheek – was too foolish to not choose his words more carefully.

Because Kevin Coombs – just like the inaugural award suggests in its title name and in his incredible life – was the very essence of an Indigenous Trailblazer.

A well-worn anecdote behind his mighty sporting prowess compels Murray to reveal a bloodline they share not through ancestry, but through tragic circumstances.

"The person, who won this, is a part of our family," Murray explains.

"In fact my father, James Stewart Murray JP AM, soldier, human rights activist, helped Kevin out when he had that accident."

Coombs was left a paraplegic when the 11-year-old was shooting one day for rabbits in 1953 and was, by all intents and purposes, accidently felled from behind.

He once recalled for the ABC Radio National in 2021 that he failed to account for one of his bullets when one of his two younger cousins were carrying a firearm of his.

"Click, click," Coombes re-enacted the moment that only the nine-year-olds and another older cousin only ever witnessed.

"About three feet away from me, (my cousin) fired the gun and it hit me in the spine."

There was no blame, but Coombs did not shirk the fact that he would never forget the sound that filled the self-confessed "bush kid" full of dread.

By good fortune, it was not long before Murray's dad was on the scene, taking matters quite defiantly into his own hands.

"When (dad) got his war pension, £487, which was a lot of money then in the 50s, he bought a brand new Boxall, bright blue," Murray continues.

"So when the accident happened at the station Balranald, he drove this beautiful new car through 20 gates to get into the hospital to give him some Wamba Wamba blood."

There was not a moment to spare to open all those gates, just as Coombs began to lose consciousness, which was provoked further after the car engine seized up more than walking distance from the local hospital.

Murray grew up admiring Coombs, who went on to five Paralympic Games from 1960 until 1984, spoke to him one last time just prior to his recent passing.

"I am absolutely grateful, respectful, and I recognised the power of the man, who has the blood of my father, but still the blood of his ancestors," he farewelled Coombs one last time at the awards night before his daughters had the last words on their dad.

Rose Falla stood tall with such pride and later, according to sister Janine Coombs, she emotionally tells the ears in the room they were just "humbled by the recognition", while feeling "grateful for the nomination".

Mourning just 38 days since Coombs had passed, aged 82, the sisters show courage to celebrate the life of their dad, their hero and the incredible competitor.

Rose pinpoints the lifesaving drive of about 50 kilometres back when a gunshot spinal injury had victims barely expected to live for weeks, not years.

He got another 70 years of life.

"So through Uncle Stewart's great driving, and also his willingness to damage his car, as he did sail through each of those closed gates, he got (dad) to hospital," Rose recalls.

"In doing so, it was uncle Stewart, who not just helped dad, but saved dad's life.

"He lied in the hospital bed next to dad and happened to be the same blood type, and they gave him an immediate transfusion, of which kept dad alive.

"He ultimately grew up in hospital, initially at the Royal Children's, and then later at the Austin hospital, and it was at that point of time he didn't stay idle."

The rehabilitation was long and slow, but what guided Coombs through into his next phase of his life was the discovery of his love of sport.

Rose is adamant that sport, and in particular playing basketball while in a wheelchair, "actually saved him".

Saved his body, his mind and his soul.

"It created a lifelong passion for him and it's when he turned his hand to (wheelchair) basketball and fortunately, he was pretty good at it," Rose says.

"It gave him a life, he could never imagine."

Coombs attended all of the 1960, 1968, 1972, 1980 and 1984 Paralympics.

Two of those campaigns also included competing in track and field athletics events.

He captained the Australian wheelchair basketball side in 1972 at the top of his game.

So well regarded was Coombs, not just as a ball player, but as a person of outstanding qualities that he was appointed captain of the entire Australian Paralympian squad in 1980.

The superlatives to describe his impact never appeared to end except for the fact that Coombs will always be remembered as the first Indigenous Australian Paralympian.

"Sport took him all over the world," Rose says.

"He forged many great friendships and rivalries.

"He went to the first of his Paralympics (but) regrettably, he was not a citizen of our country when he had to travel on an honourary British passport to leave the country.

"That was something dad found offensive to the very end."

On the court, Coombs told his daughters that he wanted the ball in his hands when it was time to win a game.

Think the Paddy Mills of yesteryear.

Of course, Australia's greatest Indigenous basketballer never got weighed down by small things like a wheelchair and sore arms, not from shooting baskets.

Coombs brought just the one wheelchair to the Paralympics – all five of them – and it was the same trusty wheeler he used every day to perform mundane tasks.

The fact it weighed an incredible 40 kilos among the lightweight vehicles made up of a high-strength steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon fibre, fibreglass and not heavier than four or five kilos today, did not seem to impede his performance.

"When dad would reflect how great of a basketballer he was, he tell his grandchildren and his great grandchildren, 'I won Australian basketballer of the year on a couple of occasions, I had a great career, but I was the best'," Janine smiles.

"This demonstrated his enormous confidence of his ability to play a role for the team – it wasn't arrogance.

"While he appreciated the individual awards, he was most proud of the achievements of his teams."

In a country and an era when the racial divide was prominent, even in a sport where on the other side of the Pacific the American black man had taken command to hold court, Coombs was always keen to bring other Australian teammates along on the ride.

The strength of his character and courageous leadership was a shining example for other Indigenous basketballers to follow and envisage a path away from the rugby leagues and Australian rules of this sporting world.

"He thrived on the competition and more so, he loved the brotherhood that basketball gave him and the bonds that it had forged," Janine says.

"When he first started out in international basketball, he was the only Aboriginal man to play at the highest level.

"However, he was delighted when other (Indigenous) superstars joined him after.

"Without a doubt, he would want us to recognise the enormous contributions made to basketball like Uncle Michael Ah Mat and Uncle Danny Morseau.

"Once dad got to know them, they were brothers for life."

Coombs never sought the limelight and his daughters admit the National Trailblazer award would have made their dad feel "really overwhelmed".

But that presence came again on the grand stage of the 2000 Sydney Paralympics.

The iconic image of the Wotjobaluk Elder rolling down the track, holding out the Paralympic torch at the opening ceremony is a sight to behold.

"There is a photograph of him that depicts his cheeky smile so beautifully," popular TV host and awards MC, Shelly Ware, told the audience.

There was also a 1983 Order of Australia Medal in recognition of his services to not only disability sport, but also Aboriginal welfare that confirmed he was a national treasure.

But what kind of impact Coombs had on international sport came with an avenue at Sydney's Olympic Park named in his honour ahead of his 2016 induction into the Paralympic Hall of Fame.

"You will live in our history books and our hearts for all of your hard work, for your people and communities that you lived and played in," Ware ended the night.

"You will impact generations to come."


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