Celebrity News

Tall Blacks star Alex Pledger’s emotional winter wedding

A cancer diagnosis couldn't stop the basketballer marrying the love of his life
Jordan Tawhai, photosbyjordi.com.

On a still afternoon in Queenstown, basketball champion Alex Pledger and his fashion-loving fiancée Bailee Wilson stand inside New Zealand’s largest wine cave, nestled amid the quiet hills and mountains of Central Otago.

Surrounded by glowing candles and 40 of their dearest loved ones, the couple are tying the knot at Gibbston Valley Winery and Lodge, accompanied by their adorable Maltese-Griffon pup Boris, who is Alex’s “best boy” for the day.

With gorgeous bride Bailee by his side, Alex is excited about the future and is keen to get back on the court.

At the end of the intimate ceremony, where Bailee’s vows described their nine-year relationship as “full of love, fun and surprises”, cheers can be heard across the vineyard when the make-up artist and her sports-star beau are announced Mr and Mrs Pledger.

“I was nervous walking down the aisle because although I can present as a bit of an extravert, most of the time, it’s all eyes on Alex!” laughs Bailee, 33, speaking exclusively to Woman’s Day shortly after the nuptials.

“But as soon as I saw Alex, I felt the nerves roll off my shoulders and we had a really fun ceremony. Our celebrant Luke Bird mixed a good balance of romance and off-the-cuff jokes because we didn’t want lots of tears. We just wanted to celebrate after what has been and where we’re going.”

With a glass of Champagne in hand, the couple’s unique ceremony took place in an historic wine cave in Queenstown

The couple’s romance has certainly endured a rocky ride recently. Just three months ago, on the same day Alex and Bailee excitedly sent out their wedding invites – after putting all plans on hold because of COVID lockdowns – the Southland Sharks player was unexpectedly diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

Although the fit 34-year-old was told the cancer fortunately hasn’t spread, Alex needed five weeks of intensive radiotherapy and chemotherapy at Dunedin Hospital, which he finished three weeks before finally saying the big “I do”.

Today, the former SkyCity Breakers player is only focused on his beautiful bride, who is glowing in a one-sleeve organic silk wedding gown, custom-made by bridal couture curator and celebrity stylist Donna Rae.

Donning her second stunning wedding outfit, Bailee shares a moment with (from left) mum Karen, sister Jaz and nana Jean.

“I actually saw Bailee in her wedding dress earlier in the day for our pre-ceremony photos and tried my absolute best not to get teary, so I didn’t have puffy red eyes for the pictures!” admits Alex, who signed for a fifth season with his Southland basketball team this year. “But a couple of hours later, when I saw Bailee come down the aisle after the bridesmaids, I kind of just lost it for a minute.”

As guests gather at the winery’s restaurant for the wedding reception – styled by Kelly and Andrew Hamilton-Wallace of Utterly Marquee & Events – Bailee changes into her second wedding outfit of the evening. Also specially created by Donna, the two-piece creation includes a floor-length champagne skirt and Saint Laurent blouse, matched with a pearl- and crystal-encrusted corset.

The courageous basketballer only finished exhausting cancer treatment three weeks before saying “I do”.

“Donna designed two wedding looks for Erin Simpson, who is one of my best friends, as well as my bridesmaid and MC today, and I liked the idea of having two,” says Bailee, who has been her hubby’s number-one supporter since his March diagnosis.

“I’ve also been blown away by my ring designer Layla Kaisi, who created a wedding ring that’s so bespoke, it’s crazy!

She custom-designed my engagement ring too, which is a marquise-cut pink-emerald centre stone with diamonds on the band.”

The brains behind the Layla Kaisi Collection, the jeweller also took a family heirloom – a ring that once belonged to Bailee’s great-granddad and was given to her when her father passed away – and refurbished it into a wedding band for Alex.

Alex and Bailee’s wedding party (from left): Doug Courtney, Dave Niethe, Alex’s brother Mark, Bailee’s sister Jaz, Erin, Amy Phengsavath, Christina Finlayson and Emily Powell.

“The love and care she put into crafting something new for me, as well as an old piece for Alex, in a very short time is one of the highlights for me,” gushes Bailee. “The rings are a symbol of this new phase for us together.”

It has been almost a decade since the couple had a chance meeting in an Auckland bar. “We actually went to a few of the same schools together in Hamilton, where we grew up, but didn’t know each other,” recalls Alex, who, at 2.2m tall, towers over his diminutive 1.52m bride. “After the Breakers won a championship in 2011, the team and I were out celebrating, and it was when the royal wedding of Kate and Wills was on, which Bailee was celebrating.”

Alex’s remodelled ring was a treasure from Bailee’s late father.

After recognising each other, they got chatting and Alex told her they’d just won the National Basketball League with a thrilling final against the Cairns Taipans. “She had no idea what I was on about and waffled on about the royal wedding!” he grins. “We were friends for a year and then started dating.”

After moving to Australia to play for Melbourne United, Alex proposed in September 2019, while the pair were 120m up in the air on the city’s giant Ferris wheel. He’d just returned from a six-week trip to China with the New Zealand men’s national team, the Tall Blacks.

The bride surprised her girls with Dior slingbacks on the morning.

“I’d been thinking about proposing for a while and after I got back from the World Cup, I took Bailee on what she thought was a long-overdue date night,” the groom tells. “When we were at the top of

the Ferris wheel, I told her to turn around to look out over the view of Melbourne and I’d take photos. While she did, I fluffed around getting the ring box out of my pocket and when she turned back around, I proposed.”

Although a nervous Alex had rehearsed his speech twice that day, he completely forgot what to say. He chuckles, “Bailee grabbed the ring, and I put it on her finger and said, ‘I’m assuming that means yes.’ Then there were tears.”

After returning to Aotearoa to play for the Southland Sharks early this year, the pair chose their wedding day and venue to fit around the basketball season, never anticipating how quickly their 2021 could change.

Alex with his groomsmen and pup Boris

“I’d had symptoms for five or six months and went to a few doctors before I was actually diagnosed at hospital, after I rushed in with heavy bleeding,” recalls Alex, who lost around four litres of blood that night.

“Colorectal cancer is very uncommon for someone my age. The first 48 hours after the initial discovery were the worst two days of my life. They couldn’t tell me how long the cancer had been there, or whether it was terminal or even operable. When I found out it was contained to one area, it was like a tonne of bricks had fallen off me.”

Nonetheless terrified for her fiancé, Bailee tells, “Suddenly the next 100 days leading up to the wedding looked really different. In those times, though, you get to know the people who are always there for you. Also, Alex’s outcome wasn’t looking grim and so it was about getting the drive to fight it, so we could have a long and happy marriage.”

‘We didn’t want lots of tears. We just wanted to celebrate’

The pair admit they considered postponing their wedding.

“But my long-term prognosis is actually quite good in terms of it being curable, and the timing and length of the treatment coincidentally worked around the date we chose for the wedding,” enthuses Alex, who needs a minimum of two operations to remove the cancer.

“We haven’t thought at all about planning a honeymoon at this stage.”

Alex’s pup Boris was always going to be part of the big day.

It was during trips between their Invercargill home and Dunedin Hospital that the duo chose their wedding song Wild Love by James Bay.

“When I was getting my cancer treatment for five weeks, it was only during the weekdays, so we’d drive to Dunedin on the Monday and stay there, then drive back on the Friday afternoon,” Alex explains.

“It’s a two-and-half-hour drive, so we listened to music and the more we listened to that song, the more we realised it was the one.”

The cutting of the cake

Between hospital trips, Bailee continued planning their wedding, which included a very unconventional cake. Grinning, the sweet tooth explains, “I ended up ordering custom-built acrylic tiers from the UK, which Jane from the Seriously Good Chocolate Company in Southland filled. I asked for one tier with donuts, another with macarons and the top tier with Jane’s chocolate shots, which have fillings from the wines at the vineyards. Then a small cake at the top to cut.”

The newlyweds also opted for canapés and a giant grazing table instead of a sit-down dinner, not wanting any guests to have to sit far away from them. “This is the first time in years we’re seeing all our favourite people and I want to be able to really hang out with everyone,” Bailee tells.

“It feels like everyone who’s here is 100% meant to be. We’re surrounded in love and the best support.”

Bestie Erin and Bachelor husband Zac Franich have been a wonderful support. ‘We’re surrounded in love,” says Bailee

With the wedding now behind him, Alex’s next goal is to get back on the basketball court this year, even if it’s just for a minute.

“After all we’ve gone through these past few months, with the usual stress of wedding planning and the diagnosis, standing there in that one special moment kind of makes you forget about all the difficulty and tears,” he confides. “Being called Mr and Mrs Pledger for the first time, with all the people who’ve supported us there, was really pretty incredible.”

Pictures: Jordan Tawhai, photosbyjordi.com.

Hair: Amy Phengsavath. Makeup: Louise Rae.

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