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Orange Coast College coach John Altobelli helped teach his players hard lessons

Former Orange Coast College baseball player LaBarian Willis and J.J. Altobelli pose for a photograph at Tuesday’s game.
Former Orange Coast College baseball player LaBarian Willis and J.J. Altobelli pose for a photograph at Tuesday’s game.
(Photo courtesy of LaBarian Willis)

LaBarian Willis was so mad about being cut from the Orange Coast College baseball team in the fall of 1995 that he kicked in the car door of Pirates coach John Altobelli, an act of vandalism that got Willis thrown in jail for a few hours.

The lessons Willis eventually learned from Altobelli in the wake of that arrest and his one season as an OCC infielder helped him later in life.

“Coming here, if this wasn’t going to happen for me, if I didn’t make this team, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now,” Willis said during Tuesday’s OCC season opener, which was played just two days after Altobelli, 56, his wife, Keri, 46, and their daughter, Alyssa, 13, died in the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and five others.

“I’d probably be behind bars, to be honest with you.”

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Of the hundreds of players Altobelli coached in his 27 years at OCC, three — Donnie Murphy, Boog Powell and Brandon Brennan — made it to the major leagues and dozens went on to play Division I baseball.

Two days after the death of Orange Coast College coach John Altobelli, the Pirates took the field for the first time in 28 years without Altobelli.

Willis, now 43, was not one of them. He played some ball at Compton College and Iowa Western College, but the extent of his post-college career was an eight-game independent league stint in which he hit .118 for the Yuma (Ariz.) Scorpions in 2008.

But Willis benefited from Altobelli’s guidance, which is why he was among the hundreds of former Pirates in a crowd of about 2,000 that honored Altobelli and his family Tuesday.

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“He cut me because I quit on the team the summer before,” said Willis, who grew up on the south side of Chicago before moving to Anaheim as a teenager. “That was the lesson.”

Altobelli’s messages didn’t sink in right away. All Willis felt initially was rage.

Willis made the team as a walk-on in the spring of 1995, his slick fielding skills separating him from others at tryouts. Willis started a handful of games that season but was mostly used as a defensive replacement. Then, when summer workouts began, “I just stopped showing up,” Willis said.

That fall, Willis wanted back in. He loaded up on his school work, passing 24 units to regain his eligibility. He hit better than .400 in fall ball. But when Altobelli posted the roster outside his office door, Willis’ name was not on it.

Stung by Altobelli’s decision, Willis drove to UC Irvine, where Altobelli was working at a baseball camp, and put a big dent in Altobelli’s car door.

Willis admitted what he did and spent part of the next day in jail, but he didn’t hold a grudge for long. The following spring, he apologized to Altobelli “because I was embarrassed, and I didn’t want that hanging over my head,” Willis said.

About four years later, Willis, who said he sells insurance out of his home in Huntington Beach, began popping into OCC practices and games to talk to Altobelli. He shared his struggles with the coach, and the two developed a bond they did not have when Willis played at OCC.

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“I’d come over all the time during baseball season, and he’d greet me with that big smile and say, ‘Hey L.B., how you doing?’ ” Willis said. “He was never mad at me personally, he was mad because I quit on my team. His whole thing was team-first, selflessness, helping the person next to you, trusting your teammate.”

Vanessa Bryant posted on Instagram on Wednesday to express her grief over the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Kobe, daughter Gianna and seven others.


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