Sunday, Jan. 26, should have been a day filled with adrenaline-pumping competition set to a soundtrack of cheers and the scuffle of sneakers on a basketball court.
It wasn’t supposed to be a day marred by a tragedy that took the lives of nine people and left a city heartbroken.
Many of the victims of the Calabasas helicopter crash were united in their love of basketball, headed to a tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks. They included Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, a budding basketball player who was ready to follow in her father’s footsteps; baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their basketball-playing daughter Alyssa; mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester; Mamba Academy basketball coach Christina Mauser; and pilot Ara Zobayan.
As Los Angeles collectively mourned their Lakers hero, multiple families and friends reeled as the reality set in.
Kobe Bryant, 41
Bryant was an NBA MVP who had a 20-year career with the Lakers that began when he was 18.
He had a 19-year marriage with his wife, Vanessa, and was a father of four daughters, including 13-year-old Gianna, who died along with Bryant on Sunday morning.
By the end of his basketball career— all of it spent with the Lakers — Bryant was a five-time world champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist with the U.S. team and 18-time All-Star. He ranks fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Over the weekend before his death, he was surpassed for third place on that list by Lakers star LeBron James.
“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother,” Bryant’s final tweet reads.
Full coverage of the basketball star’s life and legacy is available here.
Gianna Bryant, 13
Gianna Bryant was quick to remind people that her father, who was the son of a professional basketball player, didn’t need a son of his own to continue the family’s basketball legacy.
Bryant had four daughters. Gianna was “something else” on the basketball court, he told The Times last year.
Gianna was “hellbent” on playing for Geno Auriemma, the longtime coach of the famed women’s basketball team at the University of Connecticut — and, one day, for the WNBA, Bryant said.
Los Angeles Sparks coach Derek Fisher, who won five titles with Bryant, said the former NBA superstar and Gianna had a “similar demeanor and personality.”
Gianna attended Harbor Day School in Newport Beach. A video of Gianna’s basketball highlights that went viral last year showed her using moves she learned from her dad. Another video, shared by her mother, showed Gianna goofing around after a formal event, dribbling and lobbing basketballs while wearing a ruffled skirt and high heels.
Gianna played on the top-tier team at the Mamba Sports Academy, which her father coached. Last year, Bryant took his players, including Gianna, to watch the Sparks play the Las Vegas Aces. They discussed plays and strategies, and met WNBA all-stars A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage.
John Altobelli, 56; Keri Altobelli, 46; Alyssa Altobelli,13
John Altobelli and his wife, Keri, were on board the helicopter with their daughter Alyssa, who played on the same club team as Gianna Bryant.
Altobelli was the longest-tenured baseball coach in Orange Coast College history. He guided the Pirates to four California state community college championships and more than 700 victories in his 27 years at the school.
“Alto was one of the best men I’ve ever met,” said Nate Johnson, the team’s associate head coach, addressing family members and friends at the school’s baseball field on Sunday. “If your son played for him, he treated him like a son. If you coached for him, he treated you like a brother. If you worked for him, you were part of his family.”
Johnson said that Altobelli had grown close to Bryant and had flown in Bryant’s helicopter several times.
Altobelli, who lived in Newport Beach, helped hundreds of players earn scholarships to Division I programs over the past three decades. The American Baseball Coaches Assn. named him the national coach of the year in 2019.
A standout outfielder at Newport Harbor High School and Golden West College, Altobelli was a two-year starter at the University of Houston and played one season of minor league baseball in the Florida Marlins’ system.
“I get the credit for a lot of things, but it’s a team effort, and we all pull the rope in the same direction,” Altobelli told the Daily Pilot after his 600th career victory in 2017. “And that’s what this program is all about.”
Todd Harrell was Alyssa’s basketball coach at Ensign Intermediate School for the last two years. He credited the eighth-grader with being a key player in the team’s success and described her as “a great girl and a great basketball player.”
“She always had a smile on her face,” he said.
Harrell previously coached Alyssa’s sister, now a junior in high school. He knew John and Keri Altobelli as well as Mamba Academy coach Christina Mauser, whom he coached against when she worked at Harbor Day School.
The day after the crash, Harrell said that Alyssa’s jersey sat at a table surrounded by flowers in the middle of the school quad where students could place remembrance letters.
“Today was a difficult day. We’re just trying to think about some things to do to remember her.”
In November, Kobe Bryant posted a video on Instagram that featured daughter Gianna Bryant playing against Alyssa.
“I hate seeing my #TeamMamba girls play against each other. This is GREAT defense by our Mamba [point guard] Alyssa Altobelli,” Bryant wrote.
Christina Mauser, 38
Mauser was the top assistant coach of the Mamba girls’ basketball team, and her players included Gianna Bryant and Alyssa Altobelli, said Samantha Doucette, another coach at the Mamba Sports Academy.
She also led clinics for WNBA players at the academy.
Mauser was a mother of three. She was witty, technologically savvy and had a mind for defensive basketball that Kobe Bryant immediately identified, her husband, Matt Mauser, said in a “Today” interview.
“She was extraordinary ... funny like nobody you’ve ever met. She could imitate anybody,” he said. “She was just an amazing person.”
It was Matt Mauser who met Bryant while teaching at a private school the basketball legend’s daughters attended. He was also the basketball coach at the school, assisted by Christina. Impressed by her mind for basketball, it wasn’t long before Bryant asked her to teach defense at Mamba Academy, which Matt Mauser described as a supportive community filled with “amazing people.”
Until 2018, Christina Mauser worked at Harbor Day School, where she and her husband coached the eighth-grade girls’ basketball team to their first championship, according to the school’s magazine.
She “put her heart and soul” into teaching physical education at the school, where she had worked for 11 years, the magazine said. During her time there, she reformed the physical education curriculum to include yoga and Pilates.
Dave White, the former longtime football coach at Edison High in Huntington Beach, said he coached Mauser on the basketball team. The 1999 Edison graduate went by Christina Patterson back then.
“Great player, better person,” White said. “I am heartbroken.”
During the “Today” interview, Matt Mauser spoke of the fear he felt in the wake of his wife’s death.
“It’s horrible. I’ve got three small kids and am trying to figure out how to navigate life with three kids and no mom,” he said.
On Sunday night, the children — 3, 9 and 11— hunkered down together in his bed. Unable to sleep, they turned on the television and caught a moment of SportsCenter, where coverage of Bryant’s death continued to dominate. Mauser said his daughter found solace in the collective mourning.
She said that “it was nice to know that everyone was hurting along with us,” he said.
Ara Zobayan, 50
When flight student Darren Kemp heard that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash, his heart sank. He knew that his flight teacher, Ara Zobayan, was Bryant’s private pilot.
“He doesn’t let anyone else fly him around but Ara,” Kemp said.
Kemp recalled Zobayan as a dedicated, caring instructor who wanted to help his students succeed. A video that Kemp filmed in the cockpit showed Zobayan in sunglasses and a mint-green headset, grinning and doing a mock salute at the camera.
When Kemp got divorced, he said, Zobayan helped him through it. When Kemp felt like dropping out, Zobayan encouraged him, telling him: “If you love this, then nothing will stop you.”
“It turns out, he was right,” Kemp said.
Zobayan was a veteran pilot, well-versed in the topography and weather patterns of the Los Angeles basin, said colleague Kurt Deetz, who with Zobayan flew Bryant from 2014 to 2016.
He was reliable and not known for risky flying, said Deetz, who knew him as “Big Z.”
“He loved calling himself that,” Deetz said. “He wasn’t big.”
Zobayan, he said, “was the type of guy you’d call at 3 a.m. with a problem — anything, this or that — and he’d help you out.”
Even though poor weather forced him to swing northeast of his usual flight path, Sunday’s route — from John Wayne Airport to Camarillo — would have been very familiar to Zobayan, Deetz said.
“It wasn’t a question of him not knowing the neighborhood,” he said.
Sarah Chester, 45, and Payton Chester, 13
Mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester were among the nine victims of the helicopter crash.
The Chester family expressed their devastation in a statement shared via St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, where Payton was a student.
“Sarah and Payton were the lights of our family,” the statement said. “Payton had a smile and personality that would light any room, and a passion for the game of basketball. She found joy on any court and loved all of her teammates and coaches. Sarah was full of life and the glue of our family. She was a tireless force in support of her family. The love we feel from so many today is a testament to the community she created for us. Our prayers and condolences go out to the Bryant, Altobelli, and Mauser families. We were all blessed to be a part of Team Mamba, and we will always remember the fun and love that we all shared. We also send our prayers and condolences to the Zobayan family.”
Todd Schmidt, former principal of Harbor View Elementary, shared the news of their deaths on Facebook, alongside photos of a beaming Payton, who was a teammate of Gianna Bryant and Alyssa Altobelli on the Mamba Sports Academy girls’ club basketball team.
“While the world mourns the loss of a dynamic athlete and humanitarian, I mourn the loss of two people just as important ... their impact was just as meaningful, their loss will be just as keenly felt, and our hearts are just as broken,” he wrote. “You were both the embodiment of #hvepride, and the world is just a little less without you both in it. May you both Rest In Peace and know the deep impact you had on our lives. You will be so sorely missed.”
Payton attended Harbor View from kindergarten through fifth grade, according to posts shared on Facebook.
On Instagram, Payton’s brother Riley shared a photo of his mother and sister that paid tribute to his family.
“Rest In Peace to the most amazing Mother and sister. I love you Pay Pay and Mom RIP❤️❤️,” he wrote.
Officials with Newport-Mesa Unified School District expressed sadness over the loss of those who died in the helicopter crash.
“There are no words to describe the unthinkable pain than many families are facing as a result of this incident. Our school community has been impacted by this tragedy and we have mobilized specialized support teams to assist our schools through the grief that a loss like this can cause,” public relations officer Annette Franco said. “Out of respect for those impacted, we will not be sharing any additional information.”
Sarah Chester graduated from Whittier College in 1997, according to a statement from college President Linda Oubré. It was there that she met her husband, Chris.
Chester’s Facebook page is filled with photos of her family of five at the beach and dressed up for holiday celebrations and family vacations. In several, Payton stands smiling between her twin brothers, wearing a school uniform or beach attire. In one, she’s dressed up as the Dr. Seuss character the Cat in the Hat, with a brother on each side dressed as Thing 1 and Thing 2.
A representative of Tustin Memorial Academy in Santa Ana said Sarah Chester previously worked at the school as a teacher and had left to dedicate more time to her family.
Lainie Johnson-Mann, the mother of one of Sarah Chester’s former students, described her as a proud mom who dedicated herself to her children.
“Family was her world,” she said.
Chester taught Johnson-Mann’s son Travis, 27, when he was in kindergarten. The news left the family reeling.
“The world lost a beloved athlete and a basketball star. But in our world, the people that knew Sarah lost far more,” she said.
In a statement following the crash, the city of Newport Beach named each of the nine victims.
“As information was released throughout Sunday on additional victims of the Calabasas helicopter accident, tragedy was compounded upon tragedy as it became clear that other beloved and respected members of the Newport Beach and Orange County communities were traveling with Kobe and Gianna Bryant. We wish to extend our deepest, deepest condolences to the families, friends, and neighbors of John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, Christina Mauser, as well as Sarah Chester, [Payton] Chester and pilot Ara Zobayan during this devastating time.”