The victims of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna included two of her basketball teammates and their family members.
Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester were on their way to a tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy, co-founded by Kobe, who coached his daughter’s team.
Altobelli’s parents, John and Keri, were along for the ride, along with Payton’s mom, Sarah, basketball coach Christine Mauser, and the pilot of the Sikorsky S-76b, Ara Zobayan.
“This has just rocked everybody really really hard,” said Todd Schmidt, who was the principal at Harbor View Elementary School when Payton Chester was a student there and her mother was a parent volunteer.
“It’s just really hard because she just brought so much light to so many people,” Schmidt said of Payton. “People were just drawn to her. She had a heart of gold and she liked everyone and everyone liked her.”
He recalled a holiday performance one year in which Payton was tasked with being a dancing snowman. “She was laughing, she was happy, she had the whole crowd just grinning and laughing with her,” she said.
That’s exactly how Mamba assistant coach Sammy Doucette described Alyssa Altobelli.
“Super nice kid. Always smiling or laughing,” she said. “Worked super hard. Great teammate. Just super grateful to be on the team.”
The Altobelli family had grown close to the Bryants through the Mamba team. John, the head baseball coach at Orange Coast College, never missed a chance to see Alyssa play under the tutelage of a legend.
“He loved going to every single practice, because it’s Kobe Bryant. So you’re seeing that guy coach. And he’s seeing him coach his daughter in a sport that she loved to play. He didn't miss many practices and he loved going out and Kobe would talk to him and stuff,” Nate Johnson, the assistant baseball coach at Orange Coast, told The Daily Beast.
“He put it in baseball terms,” Johnson added. “He was like, ‘What if Derek Jeter was teaching your son how to play baseball? Are you going to miss his practices or are you going to be at every single one?’
“He and Kobe had a special thing just because they did coach and play and understood sports and I think Kobe saw that in Alto and that's why that relationship was able to kind of take off.”
Before the Orange Coast baseball team went to the state final four in 2018, Altobelli invited Kobe to give the team a surprise pep talk.
“He had all the guys sit in the third base dugout which you're able to drive behind that one. And Kobe parked his blacked-out Range Rover back there and he was able to walk out without anyone seeing him. The guys were floored and super excited,” Johnson said.
Jason Kehler, the Orange Coast athletic director, told The Daily Beast that John Altobelli was “an amazing coach” who “personified everything that you would want from a baseball coach, and a co-worker in general.”
His teams won four state championship in the last 10 seasons and many more conference championships, and he was just named the American Baseball Coaches Association Coach of the Year.
After news of the coach’s death broke, the school opened up the field so team members and alumni could be together.
Kehler said Altobelli’s brother Tony, who is the college’s sports information director, addressed the group.
“He echoed what one of the assistant coaches said, that John was really excited about this team and that it was going to be really tough but we were going to take it day by day,” he said. “And that was how we were going to get through this.”
Mauser, a mother of two, was on the helicopter because she was an assistant coach for the Mamba team. She had also worked as a coach at Harbor Day School, where Bryant’s older daughter, Natalia, had been a student.
“My kids and I are devastated. We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash,” her husband, Tijuana Dogs drummer Matt Mauser, wrote on Facebook after Sunday’s tragedy.
Friends identified Zobayan as the man at the controls of the chopper when it went down. He received his commercial pilot certificate in 2007, according to the FAA.
Jared Yochim, a fellow pilot who called Zobayan his friend, wrote in a Facebook post that he was “not your typical egotistical helicopter pilot like most of us honestly are.”
“Ara was an incredible pilot, instructor pilot, charter pilot and truly a great man,” he said.
Actor Lorenzo Lamas, a pilot himself, said he viewed Zobayan as a mentor “who was always the guy who asked if you needed help.”
“Whether it was planning a route or tying down an aircraft, he always made himself available,” Lamas tweeted. “He’s the guy who trusted me and gave me confidence in my own abilities in aviation. Ara impacted my life in so many ways, and I will miss him so much.”