What to Know
- John Altobelli coached at Orange Coast College for nearly three decades, winning more than 700 games a several state and conference titles
- Three members of the Altobelli family died when a helicopter crashed into a Calabasas hillside Sunday
- The group was on its way to the Mamba Sports Academy for a girls basketball tournament
The first game of a new baseball season is usually a time for optimism about what's ahead, a care-free point in the season when anything seems possible and teams are just happy to see what unfolds after months of practice.
For members of the Orange Coast College team, the season opener will begin with a moment of silence to honor veteran head coach John Altobelli, a beloved figure on the Costa Mesa campus and his Orange County community, his wife and daughter. All three died in a helicopter crash along with six others, including Lakers star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.
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"John Altobelli was a stand-up guy, salt of the Earth, and the best neighbor I've ever had," longtime friend Rich Dunn told City News Service. "He was a wonderful neighbor and friend. He'd be so empathetic. For whatever reason, I could always talk to John. It was easy to talk to him, he was so caring and had such a big heart."
Altobelli has been part of the Pirates baseball program for nearly three decades, leading the team to four state titles en route to more than 700 career wins. Last year, he was the American Baseball Coaches Association as an ABCA/Diamond National Coach of the Year.
In 2015, the team pulled off a stunning run when it stormed to three-straights wins -- all on the road -- to win a state title as the tournaments No. 10 seed.
Altobelli is survived by his son, J.J. and daughter, Lexi.
His father, Jim Altobelli, visited the baseball field to speak with coaches and players.
"It's the shock and the loss," he said.
Dunn said the Altobelli family is "legendary" in their Newport Beach neighborhood. They started a decades-old tradition ago of setting up luminaries in Santa Ana Heights for Christmas, he said.
Sports worlds collided when Altobelli became friends with Bryant through the basketball great's involvement in the Mamba Sports Academy. Altobelli's daughter, Alyssa, was a teammate of Bryant's daughter, Gianna.
Ensign Intermediate School issued a statement about Alyssa, who was in eighth grade.
"Our school community is heart-broken at this tremendous loss, principal Dr. Michael Sciacca said. "Alyssa was an amazingly bright and kind person and she has left a lasting imprint on our school.
"Many students left heart-warming notes on her desk, brought flowers, and shared their memories of Alyssa. We are working with our students and our community to continue to honor Alyssa."
The group was apparently flying to a girls basketball tournament at the Newbury Park academy when the helicopter crashed into a hillside in nearby Calabasas.
Associate head coach Nate Johnson will take over for Altobelli this year.
The college's baseball foundation has started a fundraiser to help the family with expenses and the team has placed a banner bearing his No. 14 on the outfield wall.
The team also will hold a moment of silence before Tuesday's season opener against Southwestern College at OCC's Wendell Pickens Field.
Altobelli's brother, Tony Altobelli, works for the college's sports public relations department. He posted a touching tribute delivered as a thank-you letter to his brother.