Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli among helicopter-crash victims

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- John Altobelli, a highly successful baseball coach at Orange Coast College, was among the victims of the helicopter crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant on Sunday morning. Altobelli died alongside his wife, Keri, and 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, the family confirmed to ESPN.

The three were traveling with Bryant and his daughter Gianna to a youth basketball game when the helicopter crashed in Calabasas, California. Alyssa and Gianna, who is also 13, were teammates. Altobelli, 56, coached at OCC for 27 years, leading the Pirates to four state titles and more than 700 wins.

"He kind of gets overshadowed by Kobe a little bit," OCC associate baseball coach Nate Johnson said, "but he was his own Kobe of the junior college baseball world."

Johnson, 30, will take over for Altobelli as head baseball coach. Hours after word spread of Altobelli's death, nearly 300 players and coaches from every phase of the program's history gathered at the baseball field to honor the legendary coach and his family, placing flowers atop home plate. Altobelli has another daughter, Lexi, who is a junior in high school, and a son, J.J., who is a scout for the Boston Red Sox.

The OCC baseball team was set to defend its 2019 state championship and begin its 2020 season Tuesday, with a 2 p.m. PT home game against Southwestern. Johnson asked his players whether they wanted to honor the schedule and received a quick answer.

"Players want to play," he said.

"John meant so much to not only Orange Coast College, but to baseball," OCC athletic director Jason Kehler said in a statement. "He truly personified what it means to be a baseball coach. The passion that he put into the game, but more importantly his athletes, was second to none -- he treated them like family."

Altobelli, known simply as "Alto" by those who played for him, had been named National Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association over the offseason. He posted a career record of 705-478-4, led the program to eight trips to the state final four and became one of only five coaches in the history of California community college baseball to win four or more state championships.

But those who knew him best remembered him Sunday for his unrelenting selflessness. For the way he pushed his players but still managed to keep the game fun. For the family atmosphere he created. And for the fundraising efforts he led, which paid for major upgrades for the school's baseball stadium.

"He built all of this," Johnson said. "This is all his."

One of Altobelli's brothers, Tony, has spent the past 14 years as the sports information director at OCC. Tony spent Sunday grieving while also fulfilling his job requirements, which included contacting about a dozen reporters with information about his brother and writing the story about his death for the program's website.

"I think the fact that I've been going nonstop today, I haven't had a chance to let it process and sink in yet," Tony Altobelli said in a phone conversation. "I think the minute I do, I'll probably cry my eyes out and wet the bed. But in the meantime, I'm doing the best I can to tell everyone about my brother. Not just how good of a coach he was, because he was one of the best at this level, or quite frankly any level. But just what kind of an unbelievable human being he was. He cared about his team, he cared about his players, more than life itself. He cared about his family. He's what everyone wants to be when they grow up. He was my older brother. He set the bar for me, and he set it pretty flippin' high."

Altobelli spent some time in the prominent Cape Cod League, coaching players such as Jeff McNeil and Aaron Judge. McNeil, an All-Star with the New York Mets last season, played for Altobelli in the summer of 2012 while with the Brewster Whitecaps and told ESPN's Jeff Passan that he is "one of the main reasons I'm still playing professional baseball."

McNeil had a poor first two years at Long Beach State, but the coaches there asked Altobelli to bring McNeil to Brewster anyway.

"He took a chance on me, kept me the whole summer," McNeil said. "Him taking that chance on me, having me on his team, got me drafted."

Altobelli struck up a friendship with Bryant in recent years through their daughters, inviting Bryant to be a surprise guest speaker in 2018 and riding with him in his helicopter on several occasions. Altobelli told Johnson he would be riding with Bryant again Sunday morning and was noticeably excited about the trip. They would land at Camarillo Airport then take a 15-minute drive to the Mamba Sports Academy and watch their girls play.

But the helicopter crashed 30 miles south of its destination, killing nine people. Johnson confirmed the devastating news during a phone conversation with Altobelli's son. Tony was exercising and listening to music in Balboa Island when the crash occurred. He heard about Bryant but didn't know his brother, sister-in-law and niece were with him until being notified by one of the team's assistant coaches an hour later.

"Kobe's the top of the one percent, and so is Alto," said Travis Moniot, a minor leaguer in the Chicago White Sox system who played for Altobelli as a sophomore. "I imagine Kobe wouldn't associate himself with anything less than the top of the one percent as people and character, and I think that just speaks volumes to both of them -- about the type of people they were."

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