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Virgen: Helicopter tragedy hits home

In this July 26, 2018 file photo former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine, Calif. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday. Gianna also died in the crash. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, file)

The tragic news of the death of Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, hit close to home. And, then it hit closer to home after it was learned that Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter, Alyssa, also died in the helicopter crash along with four others in Calabasas, California, Sunday morning.

Whenever tragedy strikes there are so many more stories than one. Mine is on the periphery, yet as many who are still in mourning, the memories are meaningful.

Before I moved to Albuquerque two years ago, I worked as the sports editor of the Daily Pilot, a community newspaper that had primary coverage in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa among other cities in Orange County.

I remain grateful, and perplexed, the Daily Pilot was granted a credential for Kobe’s farewell game at Staples Center in April of 2016, when he closed out a remarkable 20-year career, all with the Los Angeles Lakers, with a 60-point performance.

It was proof that he appreciated the small newspaper and acknowledged that it was a part of his community.

I learned during my reporting on Kobe that he loved Orange County and also had a strong admiration just to be among the families of his daughters’ sports teammates.

He was no saint, and his persona could be seen as polarizing in some circles. Yet, the Kobe Bryant I knew went beyond the extreme competitiveness that led to great success on the basketball court.

He did not want media to report the myriad stories of his dedication to children in the Make-A-Wish-type category. He made himself available to them countless times.

Around town, he was extremely friendly.

At Orange Coast College, Altobelli will be remembered as a legendary coach who impacted many lives, including a young and raw reporter who was in his first job out of Fresno State 20 years ago. OCC athletics was my first beat out of college.

Altobelli, known to everyone as “Alto,” knew everything about baseball and never scoffed at me for not being as well-versed in the game. On the contrary, Alto gave me advice and instructed me with patience, knowing that football and basketball were my loves.

Alto, 56, was about to start his 28th season at OCC this week. He was 705-478-4 with four state championships. He knew his baseball for sure. But he also knew how to get the best out of his players. He changed lives. He inspired and motivated many, including me.

His brother, Tony, worked at the Daily Pilot with me and is now the sports information director at OCC. Tony continued with his S.I.D. duties and wrote a press release about his brother for the Pirates’ athletics website. My heart hurts for him and for all the families associated with the tragedy.

I hope the memories and this perspective will provide some comfort.

Orange Coast College head baseball coach John Altobelli. his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa were among those killed in the helicopter crash with NBA icon Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in Calabasas, Calif., Sunday. Alyssa played on the same team as Gianna, said Altobelli’s brother Tony, who is the sports information director at the school. (Orange Coast College via AP)

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