‘Hope is a powerful weapon’ – the forty-year story of Mandela Warriors

As you head north on the Sheepscar interchange away from the city centre of Leeds, the slip road takes you onto Chapeltown Road and into Chapeltown.  

Before the big metallic ‘C’ that welcomes you into the ward, there’s a red-bricked building on the left-hand side known as the Mandela Community Centre.

On its exterior wall facing the road, a mural created by the pupils of Hillcrest and Potternewton primary schools depicts Nelson Mandela and reads: ‘Nelson Mandela, a hero to millions, visited Leeds on the 30 April 2001. He was presented with a golden owl as part of the freedom of the city. This historic event was marked by celebration, which welcomed the greatest ambassador to the struggle for peace and equality. His courage is admired and respected worldwide’.

Inside the centre is a basketball court, which is the home to arguably Leeds’ most influential basketball club: The Mandela Warriors.

Started by the children of the Windrush Generation in the 1980s, the club has been changing lives across Leeds and West Yorkshire for over 40 years and has been principally steered over the decades by three key characters: Norman ‘Too Tall’ Francis – one of the founders, Peter Broderick – coach and administrator and Shahid Bashir – head coach.

The club’s name is in part honour of Madiba – the man who ended apartheid in South Africa and became its first Black head of state – and in recognition of the club’s own fight against the tides of racism, prejudice, poverty and social unrest during Thatcher’s Britain.  

Norman Francis (right)

'Nobody plays basketball in Leeds'

Francis is a figurehead of the Leeds basketball scene.

The 62-year-old has been encouraging generations of Loiners into basketball through the Warriors, and more recently as the head coach of Leeds City College and Leeds' Let’s Do More Basketball (LDM).

His journey into basketball began when he attended Primrose Hill High School, and his PE teacher press-ganged him into playing upon noticing his athletic and tall stature – hence the nickname ‘Too Tall’.

He says he fell in love with the sport and would ‘play non-stop’, eventually trialling for England as a junior.

As a young man, he played for the Primrose Hill Cajuns, who were attached to the youth club of his former high school. However, once that closed the basketball stopped.

Undeterred, Francis rounded up his mates and set up a new basketball team at the Chapeltown boys’ club (as it was known before it became the Mandela Centre).

Initially, named the Mandela Wildcats, the Warriors' current team manager/club administrator, Peter Broderick, was one of the first to join the fledgling club as a 14-year-old in 1986.

Broderick says that the Wildcats were quite successful in the old Yorkshire junior league, winning the league after only two seasons and getting to the quarterfinals of the Junior National Cup only to be bested by the Birmingham Bullets.

His basketball skills, under the tutelage of Francis, would prepare him for national league, as well as playing for England U19s, but not for the ‘elitism’ he and his teammates faced about their basketball pedigree when they travelled to play.

“We were dismissed because people were surprised that basketball was played in Leeds. Until they saw us play that is,” said the 51-year-old funeral director.

“Birmingham and London had established basketball programmes and if you went through one of those school or club programmes you had a good chance of being put forward for England.

“We never had any of that. We had Norman and what he set up, that's all we had. We were kids from the street who played basketball.

“I remember me, Matthew Onyett, and Louie Clarke were all selected for the England training squad and people were looking at us thinking ‘you guys play basketball, and you are from Leeds, nobody plays basketball in Leeds’. That was the kind of attitude that we were met with.

“But Norman managed to get a really diverse group of guys with different mindsets to come together and play the game that we all loved and that was what held us all together.”

‘Defence first, then worry about offence’

The blueprint of the club’s and its players’ successes was Francis instilling a no holds barred, Rodman-esque defensive playing style that got the man himself a stint of junior college in the States, as well as professional playing opportunities in England.

“Defence first, then worry about offence,” said Francis.

“Back in the day, people would say, if you want a proper game of basketball go down to Mandela. We never gave anything easy. You go down there; you were going to get a proper workout.

“The first Wildcats junior team I ever coached are all successful men. One’s a barrister, and others are in the digital and financial world. The majority would say that if it wasn’t for basketball then they wouldn’t be where they are now.”

Norman Francis (far left) and Peter Broderick (far right) with the 2011-12 Leeds District Basketball League and Knockout Cup winning Warriors team

Cowboy boots and Bolton and Bury Giants

As a working professional, Francis would leave the (eventually named) Warriors intermittently to further his playing career with various teams across the then named English Basketball League, including the Larson Lions, Bradford Myth Breakers, Doncaster Ziebart Panthers, and playing for cowboy boot wearing coach Mark Stevens of the Bolton and Bury Giants in Division 1, which featured on Channel 4 way before the British Basketball League existed.

He also had stints at Ellesmere Port and Manchester Giants before he went to Teesside Mohawks and was coached by his friend Bashir.

The pair then set up the Barnsley Generals at the Barnsley Metrodome and entered the National Basketball League (NBL), getting promoted from Division 2 in their first season.

The Warriors was the feeder club for the Generals, but after they lost funding, the club folded and Franics and Bashir decided to put their energies back in Leeds, and piloted the Warriors through a period of dominance in the 90s, winning several of the Yorkshire League Premier Division titles.

“We had a really strong side, including ex-England international Jimmy McCauley, Clive Sinclair, Norman, Daks Brown, me and Nigel Williams, who ended up playing for Thames Valley Tigers,” said Broderick, who has been involved in the coaching and administration of the club since 2000. Before him Terence Holiness kept the club going through the late 80s and into the 90s.

Ever since, the elder statesmen of Francis, Bashir, Broderick and a very experienced coach from Trinity and All Saints College, George Wright – who sadly passed away in 2015 – have been keeping the club’s junior and senior factions alive.

The COVID-19 years, however, were particularly hard for the Warriors, who had to give up their venue as a testing centre for the virus.

They then faced delays in getting back and re-establishing themselves in their rightful home because the court was damaged and needed to be replaced.

To top things off, Bashir was severely ill during the pandemic, and no one at the club thought he was going to come back.

But as of the 2023/24 season, the Warriors are back in their home, playing in the Leeds Basketball League – West Yorkshire’s main local league competition, which caters for over 450 players in the region – and with coach ‘Bash’, as he is known, at the helm.

Warriors' Head Coach Shahid Bashir (far left) wins the double in 2018-19

The atmosphere on game night was rocking

Chapeltown has many of its residents from diverse ethnic communities, and lots with African-Caribbean and African heritage.

The Caribbean connection to the club is significant and was an important factor to the team’s identity and joint mission says Broderick, whose parents came to the UK from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation.

Additionally, the Mandela Centre itself has been a bastion of the Chapeltown Caribbean community and not just for basketball, but for football, netball, badminton, and volleyball too. Francis says that at its peak, the centre would be packed with 100s of supporters to see their friends and family take on (and usually defeat) their rivals. 

“It was part of the heartbeat [of the community],” said Francis. “Back in the day the atmosphere on game night was rocking.

“The community, used to come and pile in for the games on a Friday night and of course that would be the start of the weekend. After that, we would go straight down to the West Indian centre around the corner and have a party. It was a big part of our social lives.”

Recently, the Warriors held a charity basketball match for Craig Wright the son of legendary coach George, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and collected nearly £2000 to support the Wright family.

However, this unity and togetherness was not just forged along geographical and cultural ties but also in the presence of adversity.

Prior to, and during the early years of the club’s inception, Chapeltown was subject to a background of racial tension, inner city poverty, poor housing and high unemployment – as a result of the recession at the time.

This brought high tension, particularly amongst the area's Caribbean community and the police.

“There was a lot of racism within society at the time,” said Broderick. “There was a job crisis within Chapeltown, particularly young Black men found it difficult to get work and get on employment schemes. They just weren't getting the opportunities and places like the boys’ club, as it was, was kind of a haven for them to be able to just meet up, crack a joke and play pool.

“There was also a lot of harsh policing, particularly for guys who were between 15 and 20. I think on one night in 1981, there was a huge raid and people were aggressively arrested and the community had had enough and took to the streets to protest.

“After everything died down, there were initiatives to bring jobs and work to the area, but also to improve the youth provision, which is why the Mandela Centre was extended.

“We were born out of a struggle in much the same way that Mandela overcame his struggle.”

“We grew up at time when most of the clubs at the centre experienced [racist] incidents, but we knew how to act in certain situations and respond to it,” said Francis. "I don’t think it was necessary, but it happened, and we dealt with it.

“For me once I stepped onto the court, I blocked it out. A lot of people were like that and that’s why the club was so important for the community, they looked forward to training and the games and just being together.”

Francis heads up the LDM Leeds basketball programme

Let’s Do More

Together with General Manager Loran Lewis, Francis is now continuing a dynasty of basketball in Leeds through LDM, which has seen its participations numbers balloon over the last 12 months and now boasts a senior men’s team in the NBL Division Three, an U19s team in the College Basketball League, U18s, U16s, U14s and U12s teams in the Jnr. NBL, a girls team, as well as other junior and senior development and local league teams run at various locations across the city.

LDM is now looking to house the growth in its own facility to better serve its players, coaching and administrative staff. “We’re getting more and more kids, and we just don’t want to turn them away,” said Francis.

“I use basketball as a vehicle for life. Whatever my players learn from me about the game, can also apply to the street, work and school. It’s the same principles. I've had people come back to me and say ‘thank you very much what you've done’. And that, that fulfils everything for me. To know that I've affected somebody in a positive way. Many people don't do that in their lifetime.”

“I'm really proud that Leeds has got a really thriving basketball scene,” said Broderick. “A lot of good fruit has come from the tree of Mandela.”

Check out the Warriors over the years in the gallery below.