ANAHEIM, Calif. — Coach Bryant.
That’s how one mourner referred to basketball legend Kobe Bryant on Monday during a memorial service that honored three victims of the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people.
Bryant was a five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers. But in retirement, he was a coach to Alyssa Altobelli, a 14-year-old eighth grader who was a member of Bryant’s Mamba Academy girls basketball team that also featured Gianna Bryant.
On Jan. 26, Alyssa and her parents, John and Keri of nearby Newport Beach, were on the helicopter that took off in Orange County and crashed in Calabasas on the way to Bryant’s Mamba Academy in Thousands Oaks. On Monday, well over 1,000 people filed into Angel Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Angels, for a memorial service that honored the Altobellis and evoked laughter and tears.
Two of Alyssa Altobelli’s basketball teammates remembered her Mamba-like work ethic, bright smile and ability to lift the spirits of her teammates. Her friends created tribute t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Live Like Lyssa.”
The crowd at Angel Stadium watched quietly as a videotape of some of Alyssa’s basketball highlights, with glimpses of Bryant coaching, played on the Jumbotron in center field. She had dreamed of playing Division I basketball at the University of Oregon.
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“Angel Stadium could not be more appropriate because all of those angels are looking down on us,’’ said David Pierce, who played baseball at the University of Houston with John Altobelli.
Several area baseball teams paid their respects, with players wearing their jerseys in tribute to John Altobelli, a highly regarded college baseball coach who won four state junior college titles at Orange Coast College.
Much of the laughter stemmed from stories about John Altobelli, who was extolled for his character — and as a character. He was remembered for laughing so hard he’d end up in tears and as an enthusiastic drinker.
Said his grown son, J.J. Altobelli, “Tonight let’s all live by my father’s favorite motto: Be drinking or thinking.”
Laughter rippled through the crowd when one of John Altobelli’s former coaching buddies noted there was a big section of umpires in attendance.
“Where you guys?’’ said Cord “Buck” Taylor, now an assistant coach at Kansas State who was standing behind the lectern set up for selected speakers. “I’m assuming you all are here to say you blew the call and that Altobelli was right.’’
With a grin, Taylor recalled two times he and Altobelli watched from outside the stadium as their teams competed against each other because both coaches were serving suspensions for being ejected from previous games.
But Altobelli, 56, was remembered for his big heart. And his wife, Keri, was remember as a devoted wife and mother of two daughters.
The surviving daughter, Lexi, sat by her brother J.J. and his fiancee, Carly Konigsfeld. J.J. and Carly are set to be married in July and next year Lexi will head off for college.
The service concluded as pastor Erik Rees anticipated it would.
“We will laugh and we will cry,” Rees said at the outset, “and in the end will together show J.J., Lexi and Carly that there are loved and will never be alone.”
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