Most of the world mourned a deadly helicopter crash near Los Angeles on Sunday for the loss of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter. But for Orange Coast College, in Costa Mesa, Calif., the incident hit far closer to home. Among the others killed in the crash was John Altobelli, its beloved head baseball coach.
A revered sports figure in his own right, Altobelli, 56, led the college to more than 700 victories in 27 seasons, including four state titles, and coached several baseball players who would go onto the major leagues.
Altobelli grew close to Bryant while their daughters competed together on a basketball team coached by the five-time NBA champion. Both families were headed to a tournament in Thousand Oaks, Calif., when the helicopter carrying them crashed and burst into flames.
Altobelli’s wife, Keri, and 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, also died in the crash, the college said in a statement. The family is survived by two other children, son J.J. and daughter Lexi.
Tony Altobelli, John’s younger brother and OCC’s sports information director, said his older brother’s demanding but caring approach earned him deep respect from his players and fellow coaches on the Pirates. Following the team’s most recent state title last season, the American Baseball Coaches Association named him national coach of the year.
“At the end of the day, every player knew he was there to support him and love him,” Tony Altobelli told the Los Angeles Times. “He did everything he could to make them successful.”
On Sunday evening, family, friends and players gathered at the OCC baseball field to remember “Coach Alto,” as they called him. The home plate was covered in baseball caps and flowers.
“If you’re out here and you played for him, or you’re parents, you know: Alto was one of the best men I’ve ever met,” Nate Johnson, the team’s associate head coach, told a crowd of about 150, as he fought back tears.
In an interview with ESPN, Johnson called John Altobelli “his own Kobe of the junior college baseball world.”
Justin Brodt, a sophomore first baseman at OCC, said Altobelli could be tough on players but never stopped caring for a baseball program he considered to be family.
“He treated every player like his own son,” Brodt said at the baseball field on Sunday, according to the Orange County Register. “He wanted the best for everybody involved. That’s what made him such a successful coach and such a great guy.”
In recent years, that meant spearheading a $2.1 million fundraising effort to secure the team a new turf as well as a renovated scoreboard, batting cages and sound system. And at a smaller junior college program like OCC, it also meant preparing his players for the next challenge.
“He wanted them to move on to their dream school. That’s what drove him,” Johnson told the Times. “He knew this was a steppingstone.”
Altobelli was happiest seeing the Pirates move on to Division I programs, Johnson said, and about 10 of his players on last year’s championship team received scholarships to four-year schools.
His work went beyond Orange County. From 2012 to 2014, Altobelli managed the Brewster Whitecaps, a college summer baseball team on Cape Cod, where he coached future major league players like Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees and Jeff McNeil of the New York Mets.
McNeil had struggled as a college player, he told ESPN, but Altobelli took a chance on him anyway. “He’s one of the main reasons I’m still playing professional baseball,” the player said.
Judge has also credited his summer with the Whitecaps as a key part of his development as a player. Months after playing under Altobelli, the Yankees picked him in the supplemental first round of the 2013 Major League Baseball draft.
“This isn’t real…” Judge wrote on Twitter on Sunday evening, reacting to the helicopter crash.
Altobelli passed his passion for sports down to his children: His son J.J. played baseball in college and became a scout for the Boston Red Sox. His daughter Alyssa turned to basketball instead.
When she joined a team at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy that was coached by the Los Angeles Lakers great himself, Altobelli began attending as many practices as he could.
“He put it in baseball terms,” Johnson told the Daily Beast. “He was like, ‘What if Derek Jeter was teaching your son how to play baseball? Are you going to miss his practices or are you going to be at every single one?’ ”
As coaches, fathers and sports lovers in general, the two men rapidly developed a bond. Altobelli flew with Bryant in his helicopter several times, and on social media, the NBA star praised Alyssa, who played on the club team alongside his own daughter, Gianna.
Two years ago, Altobelli invited Bryant to give the Pirates baseball team a pep talk before they faced off in the state final four. As the players sat in the third-base dugout, Kobe parked his Range Rover behind the bench and walked out to surprise the team.
“The guys were floored and super excited,” Johnson told the Daily Beast.
On Sunday afternoon, the scene at the dugout was grim. Under gray skies, the Pirates grappled with the news of their coach’s death. A firetruck passed through a nearby parking lot, and a voice on the loudspeaker rang out.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” a firefighter shouted out. “Coach Alto was a friend of ours, too.’”
The Pirates decided they would play Tuesday’s game, an OCC spokesperson told The Washington Post, to honor their beloved coach.