May 5, 2005
Mike Desper was a young girls basketball coach when he walked into the gym at Gilbert High School in 1991 to take on Miner Webster’s Tigers.
Still, there was a seasoned aura about him that left an indelible first impression.
"He knew he had a lot of work to do," said Webster, now the girls coach at Highland, "but you could just see from the way he talked that he was going to get it done."
Desper accomplished that mission, capturing three state titles and sowing the seeds for a fourth in his eight seasons as Chandler High’s coach.
But the man who resurrected Wolves basketball and pumped enthusiasm into a school and community couldn’t overcome another opponent. Desper died Tuesday afternoon after a three-year bout with colon cancer. He was 45.
"Mike was more than a basketball coach," said Meg Gianesello, a director of secondary education for the Chandler Unified School District who took over as Wolves coach for one season when Desper retired. "He was a great educator, a great role model and an ambassador for the program and women’s athletics.
"He was able to take a diverse group of kids, bring them together with a common vision, develop commitment and create a family atmosphere to
achieve a goal."
The season before Desper arrived, Chandler’s girls team won one game. But in his tenure, Chandler posted a 187-55 record and the Wolves captured 5A state titles in 1996, 1997 and 1999. They added a fourth in 2000 the year after he left coaching for health reasons that wouldn’t be fully diagnosed until two years later.
"Mike and I were always good friends, but boy we had some classic battles," said Hamilton girls coach Ed Dawson, who squared off with Desper several times while coaching Mountain Pointe and WNBA standout Nicole Powell. "I went to the finals five times and four of them I lost to him and Chandler. We had some pretty good teams, but Mike was just a tremendous coach. He just had a real good temperament for the game."
Desper taught history when he arrived at Chandler from Page. But he would later affect scores of students, teachers and administrators, serving in the capacities of dean of students, assistant principal and director of secondary education for the Chandler school district.
‘‘The impact of Mike’s passing is everywhere,’’ said district spokesman Terry Locke, who once covered Desper’s teams as a correspondent for the Tribune. ‘‘We’re trying to provide support today for our staff more than anyone else. But he had a huge impact on many of our graduates, too.’’
One of those was Phoenix Mercury center Lindsay Taylor. "He was just a great person. He was always smiling, laughing and being sarcastic," said Taylor, who played for Desper on the 1998-99 state championship team. "We knew (this) would be coming, but it was still tough."
A memorial service for Desper is tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Chandler’s Coy Payne Gymnasium, where the court was named in his honor on Jan. 25.
Desper is survived by his wife, Tori, and daughters Tate and Riley.