In the beginning, the idea of playing basketball was hardly accompanied with ambition for Desiree Harding.
Let the then-seventh grader at Fresno’s Wawona Middle School in 2009 explain it:
“I’m sitting on the couch with my dad, watching an NBA game, Kobe Bryant, and I’m like: I should try out for my school team, something new to mess around with, just to have fun.
“So, why not?”
Don’t ask why, say anyone associated with the Fresno High program, which became relevant in her presence.
The senior is one of the most accomplished players in Central Section annals, The Bee’s Player of the Year — only the second in school’s history — and, above all, “a history-maker,” says coach Dan Avila: “She changed the program.”
Fresno had won 24 games in four seasons before Harding arrived in the fall of 2011.
The program would then win 74 in Harding’s four seasons, including the Warriors’ first outright North Yosemite League title in 34 years this season and a runner-up finish to Mission Oak for the section’s Division III championship at Selland Arena in March.
The point guard delivered 27 points, 12 rebounds and four steals in that 53-50 loss to Mission Oak, closing a career 1,637 career points — No. 2 only to Janae Hubbard’s 1,852 in school history, according to section historian Bob Barnett. And it was Hubbard (1996) who earned the school’s other Bee POY honor.
Next assignment for Harding? Fresno Pacific on scholarship.
“I just feel very grateful to be given a chance to play varsity all four years,” she says, “and having Dan as my coach, him pushing me, our little arguments, which made us grow as a team and our relationship as well. I’m really going to miss that. He’s the best coach I’ve had.”
They arrived together at McKinley and Palm avenues in the fall of 2011.
Avila, a former Bullard assistant, had been out of coaching but his reputation appealed to Fresno athletic director Dave Barton. So the hire was made.
Avila was familiar with Harding and a promising incoming freshmen class that included Tiffany Smith, Hannah Tsutsui and Vernisha Sessions.
“I don’t know if I could have forecasted all the wins and how far we got,” Avila says, “but I knew Dez was special, that group was special and they could make a difference. I told them from Day 1: ‘When you leave, the program will be different from when you started.’ ”
Critical to the evolution was Harding remaining faithful to her neighborhood school and attending Fresno after she had established immediate identity in basketball while playing in middle school and on club teams, Central Cal Vines and Hanford Elite.
She said several coaches in the city made runs at her before her freshman year.
Yet she remained true to Fresno, unfazed by the program’s 4-21, 4-16 and 3-17 records in three previous seasons.
“I didn’t want to be like everyone else and be on a star team,” she says. “I wanted to build with a whole group of girls, develop as a team and, hopefully, carry on after that.”
The Warriors would go 13-14, 17-12, 20-9 and 24-6 with Harding, who shouldered the star role all along.
“She put it on herself every night, the responsibility, the pressure,” Avila says, “and there’s a lot to be said for that.”
No one agrees more than the player’s most adoring fan, Chantell Harding.
“From the moment Dez picked up a basketball,” the older sister says, “it just came natural. I love to watch her; it’s kind of like a hobby of mine. I take her to the parks just to watch her play and have fun.”