Just two days after losing its beloved coach in a helicopter crash, Orange Coast College’s baseball team played its season opener Tuesday, honoring him with an on-field ceremony.
Coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri and his youngest daughter Alyssa were among the nine people killed — along with NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna — Sunday afternoon when the helicopter they were in crashed into a Calabasas hillside.
Altobelli, known as Coach Alto, had never missed the Pirates’ opening day in his more than 25 years at OCC. Nate Johnson, his associate head coach, said it was “Alto’s favorite day.”
“On opening day, he was always here super early,” he said in a ceremony before the first pitch. “But today I beat him to the field, and it’s going to be the only time that I ever do.”
A sign over the stadium entrance Tuesday declared it “the house that Alto built,” playing on Alicia Keys’ words to describe the Staples Center at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards.
In his honor, every Pirates player wore the coach’s number, 14.
Before the game, the coach’s brother Tony Altobelli asked the players to smile and have fun. He lightened the mood with a joke about an umpire who approached him before the game and “broke down a bit.”
“It was beautiful, it was touching,” he said. “The only thing that could come into my mind was, ‘Could you imagine my brother making an umpire cry?’”
Altobelli led his Pirates to their fourth California community college championship last year. He compiled a 705-478-4 record in 27 seasons at OCC and was named national coach of the year in 2019 by the American Baseball Coaches Association. He coached OCC to the state semifinals eight times and won seven conference championships.
Altobelli leaves behind a daughter and a son
Altobelli was a “giant on campus,” OCC President Angelica Suarez said Tuesday.
“He loved his students, his colleagues and he loved this college, and this loss has broken our hearts,” Suarez said. “It is a tremendous loss, one that will be felt for years to come.”
Altobelli is survived by his daughter Lexi, 16, and his son J.J., a 29-year-old scout with the Boston Red Sox.
He was ‘always excited to ride with Kobe’
Alyssa and Gianna, both 13, were basketball teammates at Bryant’s Mamba Academy. They were flying to their basketball game in Thousand Oaks, and Bryant was expected to coach.
The Altobellis had flown with the Bryants to games before.
“He was always excited to ride with Kobe on the helicopter,” Johnson, now OCC’s acting head coach, told CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday.
“This wasn’t the first time that he or Alyssa or Keri went on this flight,” Johnson said. “So, he was telling us on Saturday that he was going up to Thousand Oaks and get to ride the helicopter with Kobe.
“And Sunday morning I was just kind of sitting around in my apartment with my wife, and one of my friends texted me and said, ‘Hey, did you hear about Kobe?’ I was like, ‘No, what?’ He goes, ‘Well, his helicopter went down.’
“And my heart sank because I knew Alto was on that.”
Kobe Bryant brought out Alyssa’s love of basketball
Altobelli was very proud of Alyssa’s basketball exploits, Johnson said.
“He shared everything. I knew every game, I knew every practice that Alyssa was a part of, and he was so proud of Alyssa and so proud of what she was doing,” Johnson said.
“She found a love for basketball, and Kobe brought that love out for her, just like he did for a lot of people. And Alto was so happy that she was able to get coached by someone that was elite.
“Alto is an elite person as well. And I think that’s why Kobe latched onto the Altobelli family. They were elite. And Kobe, obviously, being elite, he found that family to be someone that he could invite into their inner circle and Alto and Keri and Alyssa, those three, they were special.”
KTLA’s Erika Martin contributed to this report.