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Late Newport Beach resident Kobe Bryant loomed large in Lakers’ NBA title

ORLANDO, FLORIDA OCTOBER 11, 2020-Laker players including LeBron James, center, celebrate.
Members of the Los Angeles Lakers including LeBron James, center, celebrate after winning Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday in Orlando, Fla.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Tony Altobelli flipped back and forth from Game 6 of the NBA Finals on TV on Sunday night, though he made sure to catch the ending.

The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat 106-93, concluding the NBA bubble in Orlando and giving the Lakers their 17th title in franchise history and first in a decade.

Altobelli, the longtime Orange Coast College sports information director and former Daily Pilot sportswriter who grew up a Lakers fan, said he watched this year’s run a bit closer than usual.

Much of the focus seemed to be on honoring the legacy of Kobe Bryant. The late Newport Beach resident died at age 41 on Jan. 26 along with eight other people, including his daughter, Gianna, in a helicopter crash in Calabasas.

Bryant won five championships in his 20-year career that was all spent with the Lakers. “Win it for Kobe” seemed to be the push for the 2020 team, led by superstars LeBron James — the Finals MVP — and Anthony Davis.

Yet, there were others on that helicopter. Altobelli lost his brother, John, sister-in-law, Keri, and niece, Alyssa, on that Sunday morning. Sarah and Payton Chester of Newport Beach, Christina Mauser of Huntington Beach and pilot Ara Zobayan of Huntington Beach also died in the crash.

Altobelli said he didn’t mind hearing more about Bryant over the past few months compared to the others on that flight. His brother, John, was no lightweight in the Orange County sports community, winning four California community college state championships in 27 years in charge of the OCC baseball team.

“I don’t mind hearing about Kobe,” Tony Altobelli said. “People have been asking me ever since this happened if I have any animosity toward Kobe because he gets more attention than the rest of the people in the helicopter. But, the answer to that question is no. He deserves it. It’s Kobe, you know? Why wouldn’t he get the attention? I totally get it.”

Still, Altobelli said he thinks of his brother whenever he hears the word “Kobe.”

“It’s amazing what [the Lakers] went through, doing the bubble and the COVID and having to have a heavy heart this entire year,” he said. “It’s been rough on everybody, especially my family and everyone else on the helicopter. But everyone that’s had a connection to this is still feeling from it. It was nice to see them overcome all that and win that title for Kobe, and vicariously the rest of the people that were involved with that day as well.”

Coaches and players weigh in on what Pirates coach John Altobelli meant to the game and to them personally. Altobelli, 56, died Sunday in the helicopter crash that killed nine people in Calabasas.

Bryant was obviously on the Lakers’ minds throughout. They wore the “Black Mamba” snakeskin-style jerseys five times in the playoffs, going 4-1 in them. “Kobe!” is what Davis yelled out after he made a game-winning three-pointer in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against Denver.

After winning the title, James told NBA TV that Bryant’s death brought the team even closer.

Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli are pictured in an undated photo.
Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, left, and Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli are pictured in an undated photo. Both were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas on Jan. 26.
(Courtesy of Orange Coast College)

“Obviously, we know it brought the whole basketball world close as well,” James said. “But when you’re internal and it hits home, it just means that much more. We locked in from that very moment and said, ‘This is bigger than us.’”

Other locals also celebrated the Lakers’ 17th title, which ties the rival Boston Celtics for the most in NBA history.

Sammy Marks of Costa Mesa, 31, said he considers Bryant his idol. When he was a child, his father bought him a road purple Lakers jersey the day after Bryant was traded to the Lakers in 1996. It was the first jersey he ever owned.

When Bryant died, Marks said he felt like he lost someone that he personally knew. He had met Bryant once as a kid, when he went to a UCLA basketball camp.

Marks was part of a golfing foursome that January day. After finding out that Bryant passed, they made sure they used carts Nos. 8 and 24, Bryant’s two numbers as a pro.

“It still hurts to this day,” he said. “The Mamba Mentality, how he’s kind of shaped my life all came crashing down on me.”

Marks said he watched the Lakers’ win Sunday night at Wingnuts in Costa Mesa with his fiancée and a friend.

“The bubble experience, it feels like Kobe has actually been there the whole time,” he said. “I’m not exactly a religious guy, but I am spiritual, and you felt Kobe throughout the entire playoffs … The Lakers made damn sure that this is for Kobe. The Lakers winning the championship is literally the only way to honor such a great, not just basketball player, but man, father, husband.”

Corona del Mar High School graduate Evan Zepfel, who has split time between Newport Beach and New York during the pandemic, said he was once a bigger Shaquille O’Neal fan but ended up warming to Bryant. On Monday, he said he dusted off and wore his gold and purple shirt from “Mamba Day” in 2016 that reads, “I feel like Kobe.”

“I remember Kobe being the first star athlete that I really even understood he was a big deal,” said Zepfel, 30, who played water polo at CdM and Harvard and now works as a lawyer.

“It was a little hard to understand he was a big deal, because you’d see him around Newport at Fashion Island or Pavilions in Newport Coast. He just seemed like a normal guy. It’s a little crazy now to see someone that the world is really idolizing, that for a long time people in Orange County and L.A. thought was just our idol, our guy.”

Zepfel said spending time on the East Coast has shown him the Lakers’ appeal throughout the country.

“I haven’t walked outside that much today, but I’ve seen at least five or 10 people who are wearing Lakers gear on the streets of New York, which is pretty crazy,” Zepfel said Monday. “Including a Kobe shirt.”

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