After Coach John Altobelli’s Death In Kobe Bryant Crash, Orange Coast College Starts Season
Orange Coast College began their season with an emotional filled game without their usual head coach John Altobelli who was one of the victims that died in Kobe Bryant’s helicopter Sunday. Nate Johnson was Altobelli’s assistant coach for seven years before being promoted to associate head coach last year. As he came into the dugout during his first game as manager, he left a seat open next to him honor Altobelli.
“You’re sitting there, and you’re making all these decisions that the man who you looked up to, who mentored you, was making the last seven years,” Johnson said. “It won’t hit me for a while. Maybe it’ll hit me tonight. Maybe it’ll hit me during the game tomorrow or Saturday. Whenever it is, it’s going to hit me that, ‘Wow, I am this person now. I’m running this team,” Johnson said.
Several times throughout the game, Johnson jogged down the right field line and hugged Altobelli’s daughter Lexi Altobelli. A high school junior, she also lost her mother Keri and her 13-year-old sister Alyssa who were also traveling in the helicopter en route to a travel basketball game.
Lexi was seen sitting next to her brother and Red Sox scout J.J. Altobelli most of the game. In the ninth inning the game was postponed because it was too dark to play in a stadium with no lights. Johnson came over to give Lexi another hug and asked, “Are you ok with hugs from the rest of the guys?”
“Absolutely,” she said. The players proceeded to form a line and hug both Lexi and J.J. in a very heartfelt moment. “When you look into their eyes and you see a piece of Alto there, in the flesh, it hits you a little bit,” OCC pitcher Brenden Argomaniz said.
“It was very heartbreaking because we only got a little bit of it,” OCC utility player Nolan Funke said. “He was just our coach. He wasn’t our father. Even though we all felt like he was, we didn’t experience that bond that they did. Just seeing them out there, it really put it into a different light.”
Altobelli won over 700 games and four state championships in 27 years as the Orange Coast Pirates head coach. During his time at the school, he helped raise $3 million to significantly renovate the school’s baseball facilities and was known as the face of the program.
“He was the program,” said Travis Clutter, a Huntington Beach resident who played for Altobelli in the mid-1990s. “He meant a lot to a ton of kids. Kids are vulnerable when they get here because they’re either really good at baseball and can’t get to the school they want or they’re not good enough for baseball. This was the most pivotal time in my life, and he was like the stabilizing adult in my life. That’s more important than baseball.”
Following the news Sunday, 300 players and coaches gathered together to honor and grieve for Altobelli at the baseball complex. Among the crowd were current players who were coming off a program-record 39 wins last season and they decided to pay tribute by not taking a day off. Instead, they took the field Monday for practice and followed it up with their first game of the season on Tuesday.
A memorial was assembled by the entrance of the field as several people brought candles, pictures and flowers to honor him. Newly signed Yankees’ pitcher Gerrit Cole, who attended a nearby high school, made a surprise appearance in the Pirates’ dugout along with Altobelli’s father Jim who’s been coming to his son’s games since 1993.
Jim was very shaken up and told ESPN, “A lot of emotional ups and downs. It’s very difficult. You know, kids are not supposed to die before I do. And that’s something that I’ve heard for years and realize how tough that is. But in learning through all this, I’ve learned, ‘Don’t take tomorrow for granted.’ You don’t know if you’ll have a tomorrow. And that’s a perfect example of that.”
The Pirates got off to a rough start and were down 7-1 heading into the bottom of the sixth but fought back and scored five runs before the came had to be postponed.
“There was no quit tonight,” Johnson said. “Most teams, they’re not going to come back from down six like we did today and make it a game with what we had to deal with these last few days. Honestly, any result would’ve been a win. Just showing up today was a win.”