May 27, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

Remembering lives of OCC Coach John Altobelli, his wife and couple’s youngest daughter

The Altobelli family in a photo from 2014, from top left-clockwise J.J. Altobelli, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alexis Altobelli and Alyssa Altobelli.  (Photo courtesy OCC Media Relations, For OC Sports Zone)

Orange Coast College’s interim baseball coach Nate Johnson planned to meet his players for practice Monday afternoon.

Johnson didn’t really know what to expect, one day after he and his players learned of the death of legendary coach John Altobelli, who died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas Monday. Altobelli’s wife Keri and the couple’s youngest daughter Alyssa, 13, were also killed.

The crash killed nine people including Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, according to reports.

“It’s an open book right now,” Johnson said Monday morning when asked about practice. “We’re meeting at one, we will talk, we will go whatever we need to go over and talk about whatever we need to talk about. It kind of depends on the mood and what guys are feeling.”

To see the slide show, please click on the first photo

Johnson opened the OCC field up to players on Sunday once the tragic news broke. Members of the Santa Ana College softball team brought flowers to add to a makeshift memorial around home plate.

“There’s only one spot where a baseball team can really gather is the baseball field so yesterday I told the team I would open the field up,” he said. “There were hundreds of people out here, all the way from the first year’s team to last year’s team. It was really cool to see.

“I addressed the team and everybody who was there. There’s not much to say but I tried to make sure that they knew we were there for them and that Alto’s legacy was not going to be forgotten and we’re going to go out and have the best season that we can to honor him.”

On Monday, Johnson and Orange Coast College officials tried to cope with Altobelli’s death and prepare for the team’s season opener Tuesday at 2 p.m. vs. Southwestern at Wendell Pickens Field. A ceremony honoring the Altobelli’s will be held at 1:45 p.m.

Grief counselors were available to players and coaches.

“They’re going to be out today to talk to the guys,” Johnson said. “The school is being really good and supportive in helping our program out as much as they can.”

Players are handling their coach’s death in a number of ways.

“Some guys are out here now and they’re just walking around the field and sitting in the dugout. Some guys tell stories, some guys just sit by themselves and thinking about Alto,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that Altobelli, 56, was special in so many ways. He had a record of 705-478-4 record and last year was named the national JC coach of the year by the American Baseball Coaches Association. He also led the Pirates to seven Orange Empire Conference titles, including the last three.

“He was a mentor to so many people, he was my mentor,” Johnson said. “The amount of people that he has impacted and that family has impacted…they were the ultimate sports family. Keri supported Alto like crazy and also loved Alyssa and how she was growing into being that great basketball star and they loved hanging out with the Bryant’s and they had a great relationship.

“The Altobelli family, they’re giants here at OCC. They’re the first family of OCC and also built this field from the ground up. He fund raised for everything. He fund raised for the turf field and fund-raised for the dugouts, the snack bar and the press box. Everything that is here at our field, he did it. This is the house that Alto built, he really built it and made it what it is today.”

Johnson is in his seventh year as a coach at OCC. Altobelli promoted him to associate head coach before the start of the season. He said Altobelli had qualities that stood out.

“The way he was able to relate to everybody, he was so good at making sure his door was always open,” Johnson said. “He didn’t always talk about baseball. He talked about other things as well. He made everyone feel special. All of his players felt special, his coaches felt special. He was the kind of coach that I wanted to be and it’s going to be hard to carry that on. He had a Pirate family as we called it and everyone here was part of the Pirate family.”

Johnson said Altobelli’s wife and youngest daughter were a big part of the program.

“K (Keri) was the most supporting wife I’ve ever known,” Johnson said. “She had a spot down the first base line that she would always sit at and her and the girls were there at every game unless they were playing. They came when they could, but they supported us.

“Alyssa was just starting to grow into becoming a great basketball player and Alto was so proud. She wanted to play at the University of Oregon. And she was well on her way doing that.”

The friendship between the Altobelli’s and the Bryant’s began about three years ago when Alyssa Altobelli started to play for Bryant’s youth basketball team.

“From there, they were able to have a connection, Alto being a coach for so long and Kobe playing for so long, Alto would go to every practice and he loved watching Kobe coach and from there they were able to create a relationship,” Johnson said.

Bryant did not attend any OCC baseball games, but came out to a Pirates practice in 2018 before the team headed to the state final four. The team wound up third in the state that season.

“Alto invited him out and he talked to the team about the Mamba mentality and gave them a pep talk before they played,” Johnson said. “It fired them up and they were super excited and Kobe was really generous and took group pictures with all the guys. He was a really genuine person, you could tell he was intense just talking to him. That’s what you need to be great.”

Johnson said Altobelli was looking forward to the season opener as the team goes for a second consecutive state title.

“He loves this time of year and he knew we had a great group this year and he was really excited, he knew this group was goinng to go a long ways and we’re going to make sure that happens,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the team appreciates the support not only from Orange Coast College but from people around Southern California. The Pirates will take the field with heavy hearts Tuesday missing their leader.

“There is nobody better than the Altobelli family.” Johnson said. “They took me in and made me feel like a son. They unique people and they’re going to be missed.”

The players and coaches will also be thinking of Altobelli’s surviving children, J.J., who played baseball at Woodbridge and Lexi.

“This season is dedicated to him for sure, the whole family,” Johnson said. “We’re a Pirate family and we’re going to take care of those two and they’re going to be part of our family and hopefully the season can be a special one.”

-Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone; timburt@ocsportszone.com