A single bouquet of flowers sat on home plate as dozens of Orange Coast College former and current baseball players and coaches, and their family members and friends filed into Wendell Pickens Field on the school’s Costa Mesa campus Sunday.
Under ominous gray skies, with an early afternoon chill in the air, they hugged each other tightly, cried on each others’ shoulders and prayed together as they tried to come to grips with the tragedy that claimed their baseball coach Sunday morning.
John Altobelli, 56, who guided the Pirates to four California community college state championships and racked up more than 700 victories in 27 seasons at Orange Coast, was among the nine victims in the helicopter crash that killed former Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
Tony Altobelli, John’s younger brother and the school’s sports information director, confirmed that John Altobelli’s wife, Keri , and daughter, Alyssa, 13, who played on the Newport Beach-based club basketball team with Bryant’s daughter, Gianna, were also killed in the crash.
“I don’t have any magic words — everyone is going to deal with this differently,” said Nate Johnson, the team’s associate head coach, clutching his wife, Jonai, and fighting back tears as he addressed a group that swelled to about 150.
“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. 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. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t have the words.”
Johnson, 30, said his heart sank immediately when he heard about the crash. He knew that Altobelli had grown close to Bryant and had flown in Bryant’s helicopter several times. Altobelli told Johnson on Saturday that he would be flying with Bryant again Sunday to their daughters’ basketball tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, which Kobe owned.
“When I heard the news I kind of knew what was going on,” said Johnson, who coached seven years with Altobelli. “I tried calling him about 10 times, hoping he’d pick up. I tried calling his wife. His son [J.J., a scout for the Boston Red Sox] eventually told me it was true.”
Tony Altobelli said he was walking on the Balboa Peninsula when he heard the news that Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. Pirates assistant coach Tim Matz informed Tony about John, Keri and Alyssa.
“He could barely get a word in — he just said, ‘They’re gone,’ ” Tony Altobelli said. “I think I’m still kind of in shock at this point. It hasn’t really sunk in.”
Tony Altobelli, 49, is the youngest of seven children. He said he had just spoken to John, the sixth-eldest child in the family, on Saturday, when he stopped by a Pirates’ intrasquad game in preparation for Tuesday’s season opener against Chula Vista Southwestern.
“He was talking to the parents beforehand, and he introduced me as the best SID in the state, which was nice to hear,” Tony Altobelli said. “It’s tough to get a compliment from your brother.”
As large as the Altobelli family is, John had an extended family at Orange Coast, one that included the hundreds of players he coached, his fellow coaches and athletic administrators and campus officials across numerous departments.
At one point Sunday, a Costa Mesa Fire Dept. truck drove past the field, and on the truck’s loudspeaker a firefighter said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you. Coach Alto was a friend of ours too. God bless you guys.”
Sophomore first baseman Justin Brodt said the turnout and outpouring of love for Altobelli was a reflection of the coach’s impact.
“He cared about every single player in this program — you’re part of the Pirate family and he meant that,” Brodt said. “You’re not going to remember the games, the strikeouts, the hits, the home runs. You’re going to remember stuff like this, the guys you played with, the guys who coached you, how great of a guy he was.”
The very field Brodt and his fellow teammates stood on was part of Altobelli’s legacy. The coach spearheaded the $2.1-million fund-raising effort to upgrade the facility four years ago, a renovation that included a new artificial playing surface, scoreboard and sound system, batter’s eye, batting cages and bathrooms.
“This park is beautiful because of him,” Orange Coast athletic director Jason Kehler said. “We always joked about the swimming pool we’d get at third base [when it rained]. Then the turf went in, and his favorite thing to say on a rainy day was that we’re the only team in Southern California practicing today.”
Tony Altobelli described his brother as “intense, he demanded perfection, but … he was one of the biggest-hearted guys you could ever meet. At the end of the day, every player knew he was there to support him and love him. He did everything he could to make them successful.”
Altobelli was named national coach of the year by the American Baseball Coaches Association in 2019 and Orange Coast won state titles in 2019, 2015, 2014 and 2009. Yet what brought him the most joy, Johnson said, was seeing his players move on to Division I programs. Approximately 10 Pirates off last year’s state championship team received scholarships to four-year schools.
“He wanted them to move on to their dream school — that’s what drove him,” Johnson said. “He knew this was a steppingstone.”
Johnson said players will meet Monday to decide whether they will play Tuesday’s game. Whenever they return to action, Tony Altobelli implored those players to “do things the right way,” the way his brother would.
“If you’re going to take anything and make it a legacy to my brother, make it that,” Tony Altobelli said. “Be a good person. Be a hard worker. Do the right things, even when nobody is looking. Take care of each other. Take care of your family. And he’ll look down upon you and smile.”