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College Baseball Coach Died In Helicopter Crash That Killed Kobe Bryant

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and his daughter on Sunday also killed seven other people - among them, three members of a different family. John Altobelli, the basketball coach at Orange Coast College, died with his wife and daughter. From our member station KPCC, Adolfo Guzman Lopez reports.

ADOLFO GUZMAN LOPEZ, BYLINE: Sports define John Altobelli and his family. Sister Gina Sanchez says the family brought it with them when they moved from Chicago to Southern California. She was 10 years old.

GINA SANCHEZ: I was the official scorekeeper while they were all in Little League. I would - just a baseball-loving family - Cubs fans, Angels fans.

GUZMAN LOPEZ: Those teams say a lot about their roots - an Italian American family from Chicago that moved to Orange County in 1974. Even Keri Altobelli, John's wife, became an honorary Italian, Sanchez says. She remembers some of her favorite dishes.

SANCHEZ: Spaghetti, Italian beef. All my mom's famous dishes, she learned how to make.

GUZMAN LOPEZ: Sanchez says she wants people to know that Keri was the glue in her family.

SANCHEZ: My father's 86 years old, and I hope he can get through this. John was his favorite son, you know, his favorite child.

GUZMAN LOPEZ: Keri Altobelli, 13-year-old daughter Alyssa and John died on Sunday on their way to a teen basketball tournament. Kobe Bryant's daughter Gianna was going to play in the tournament, too. The day after, John Altobelli would have led practice as head coach of the Orange Coast College Pirates. This was his 20th year coaching baseball there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Amen. Amen.

(APPLAUSE)

GUZMAN LOPEZ: Instead, to honor him this week, two dozen of his players and staff walked to the Pirates' left-field wall. They hung a 7-foot-tall orange banner with a giant No. 14 on it, Altobelli's number. John Altobelli's dad Jim watched from the bleachers.

JIM ALTOBELLI: You know, this is the house that John built. This is his.

GUZMAN LOPEZ: Eight years ago, his son helped raise money to build this baseball stadium. Jim Altobelli says there's a reason his son was good at coaching college baseball.

ALTOBELLI: You know, I think working with the kids, as I did. And a lot of them call them a parent - you know, this is my other father. And some of them didn't even have a father.

GUZMAN LOPEZ: Jim Altobelli says his son's relationship with Kobe Bryant was more than just two dads with daughters on the same basketball team.

ALTOBELLI: I really liked how much he and John got along. They were just very close. I think each one thought the other one was a celebrity.

GUZMAN LOPEZ: One of the players who helped raise the banner in tribute to their coach was freshman catcher Chris Ortiz. He says John Altobelli's coaching style emphasized the human side of the athlete.

CHRIS ORTIZ: He cared more about us as people, as, like, almost his son - more than just, hey, Chris, how's the arm?

GUZMAN LOPEZ: Ortiz is tapping into what he learned from his late coach to get through the loss.

ORTIZ: Before every practice started, he would clap his hands, and he would say, let's make today a good day. It was very simple. But I think it's something that we can all focus on.

GUZMAN LOPEZ: Ortiz says he's only known Altobelli since the summer, when he joined the team, and even in that short time, he feels the coach's lessons about hard work and kindness will stay with him for a long time. The Altobellis are survived by two of their three children.

For NPR News, I'm Adolfo Guzman Lopez in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI'S "FOUR DIMENSIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 29, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
In this story, we incorrectly say John Altobelli was the basketball coach at Orange Coast College. We should have said that he was the baseball coach.

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