Chapeltown community basketball coach continues to inspire the city's youth after amputation

After losing his leg in June this year, coach Norman Francis fought hard to return to the basketball courts to support the youth of Chapeltown.

By Abi Whistance
Saturday, 27th November 2021, 4:45 am
Norman Francis (pictured) fought hard to carry on mentoring the youth of Chapeltown after going through the amputation of his leg in June this year. Photo: Simon Hulme
Norman Francis (pictured) fought hard to carry on mentoring the youth of Chapeltown after going through the amputation of his leg in June this year. Photo: Simon Hulme

Affectionately known to his friends and colleagues as 'Too Tall', Norman Francis has been helping people and playing basketball all his life.

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From a young age Norman, now 60, fell in love with Chapeltown, befriending nearly every individual and becoming a fundamental cog in the workings of the suburb.

Norman coaches two teams in Leeds, the under 16s basketball team and the under 18s basketball team at Leeds City Academy. Photo: Simon Hulme

"Back in those days there was a lot of racial tension so we were usually very insular," he explained.

"But at that time my sister was in Jamaica so my mum would let me stay over at my friends' houses.

"There were three or four families that basically adopted me as one of their own. I'd socialise with their kids and help them solve problems.

"I think a lot of that has to do with me being around people as a job. It definitely started something for me."

The Norman Francis: Salute A Hero party is taking place today at the Prince Philip Centre. Pictured from the left are Lutel James, Norman Francis, Patricia Jones and Will Bowler. Photo: Simon Hulme

It was this initial love for people that propelled Norman into his line of work now.

A coach to both under 16s and under 18s basketball teams, the ex-professional player combined his love for sport with his desire to help people and forged his own path over thirty years ago.

However, in a devastating blow earlier this year, Norman went through the amputation of one of his legs after a bout of illness.

Against all odds, less than six months later, he is back out on the courts doing what he loves most - mentoring young people.

"About eight weeks after [the amputation], I was out in my wheelchair coaching again. [The kids] inspired and supported me, and still do," Norman said.

"I’ll never forget that first session. No one knew that I was coming in, and as I wheeled myself in [the kids] were like ‘Oh my God! Coach!’ and came running up to me.

"They just responded to me as normal. It’s like they didn’t see the wheelchair and that’s how it’s been all the way through.

"It was really touching, and from there it just pulled me back in."

Wanting to fully return to the two teams he coaches as soon as possible, Norman's powerful journey to recovery began.

"My wife and my son - that’s where the healing started, with my wife," Norman said.

"Waking up in the morning, she’d encourage me and help me get dressed and do what I needed to do.

"She’s strong in heart and in mind and she passed that over to me."

Yet Norman's miraculous perseverance was no surprise to the people that know him.

Close friend and Chapeltown Youth Development Centre chief executive Lutel James said: "I didn’t have any doubts about Norman’s resilience when he lost his leg.

"Norman’s resilience is massive; sometimes in communities you need that resilience because it’s a thankless job at times. That’s why we all have so much respect for him.

"There’s no doubt about his character. Community is an easy word to throw around but he is a community leader by example, an unelected leader."

Today, marking both the love for Norman and his journey to recovery, the community will come together for the Norman Francis: Salute A Hero party.

Held at the Prince Philip Centre in Chapeltown, the celebration is open to all those that Norman has helped during his time as a youth mentor and basketball coach.

Party organiser Patricia Jones, the editor of Chapeltown magazine Community Highlights, said: "Just the event alone has brought awareness to how much of an icon he is.

"I’ve had loads of people phoning me from across Leeds and the country saying 'he’s done this for me, he’s done that for me'. People have been calling all the time telling me amazing stories about him.

"Everyone knows him as a hero, and I thought he’s done so much for the community that someone should be giving back what he’s put in."

The party kicks off at 4pm, with people from across the country travelling to celebrate and support Norman after a difficult year.

It will serve as a reminder of the impact he has had on Chapeltown and give him the chance to be reacquainted with some of the people whose lives he has touched over the span of three decades.

Yet even as others line up to thank him, Norman remains eternally grateful to the young people he continues to coach week in and week out.

"It’s knowing that I’m helping somebody else, but at the same time they’re helping me," he said.

"The coaching has given me the strength of mind and the strength of spirit to continue. It might seem very simple to other people from a distance but it’s very special to me."

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