After a helicopter crashed this weekend with basketball star Kobe Bryant on board, fans across the country paid tribute, building a shrine of flowers outside Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he became a star, and carrying jerseys and basketballs to his high school near Philadelphia, where it all began.
At the same time, a quieter kind of grief played out in homes and schools across Southern California, as the details of the crash became public. Nine people aboard the helicopter were killed when it crashed in the foggy hills near Calabasas, California, while en route to a youth basketball tournament.
The victims included Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter and two of her teammates, as well as parents who were traveling to cheer for the team. A coach whom Bryant called the “Mother of Defense” also died, as did the pilot, who had years of flight experience.
Here are their stories.
Kobe and Gianna Bryant
A superstar invested in his daughter’s dreams.
As an NBA star who spent 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant gave himself the nickname “Black Mamba.” As his daughter’s youth basketball career took off, he called her “Mambacita.”
On Sunday, father and daughter were on their way to a youth basketball tournament at Bryant’s academy in Thousand Oaks, California, northwest of Los Angeles when the helicopter went down.
The news of their deaths spurred widespread grief, from current and former world leaders to the eighth graders at the Harbor Day School in Newport Beach, California, where Gianna was a student.
Bryant, 41, retired in 2016 with five NBA championship rings and more recently had been spending much of his time coaching his daughter and other young players. Gianna, who went by Gigi, was the second-oldest of Bryant’s four daughters with his wife, Vanessa.
A budding basketball star in her own right, Gianna was “hellbent” on playing for the University of Connecticut, and one day, in the WNBA, her father told The Los Angeles Times last year. Bryant’s company applied to trademark the “Mambacita” name in December.
“She looked out for the underdog and never left anyone out,” her school said in a statement. “Gianna was a strong leader, had a work ethic that was unmatched, and had a level of maturity beyond her 13 years.”
Bryant and his daughter sat courtside at a UConn game last year, wearing what looked to be matching Huskies shirts. In an interview with SNY, Bryant said he did not miss playing as much as he had expected.
“I watch the game through my daughter’s eyes,” he said.
John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli
A life lived on the baseball diamond, and with family.
As head coach of the Orange Coast College Pirates, a junior college baseball team in Costa Mesa, California, John Altobelli often arrived at the field as early as 6:30 a.m., hours before afternoon games. In recent weeks, he had been working six days a week to get ready for opening day.
But on Sunday, with just two days to go before the season opener, there was somewhere else Altobelli wanted to be: the basketball gym.
His daughter, Alyssa, was scheduled to play in the youth tournament on Bryant’s team, the Mambas, and Altobelli didn’t want to miss it. To avoid an 80-mile drive in traffic, the family hitched a helicopter ride with Bryant, a coach and fellow parent who had become a friend.
“I don’t know how you’d say what he was more committed to, the game or his family,” Tim Matz, a friend and pitching coach at Orange Coast College, said of Altobelli.
Altobelli, 56, died in the crash, along with his wife, Keri, and his youngest daughter, Alyssa, the college confirmed in a statement.
Matz had just finished golfing in Palm Springs when he got a call about the crash. “Oh my God,” he thought. He knew his friend, who was known as “Alto,” had planned to be on board.
“I called Alto right away, and it went straight to voicemail,” said Matz, 66, who began calling friends and family members until he reached Altobelli’s adult son, J.J.
“He was just distraught,” Matz recalled. “He had just heard the news.”
Altobelli, who was preparing for his 28th season as the head coach of the Pirates, “had a very uncanny ability to make you feel like family,” Matz said. Keri Altobelli had recently taken over a family business, and Alyssa was making her own way as a basketball player in a family of baseball fans. She dreamed of attending the University of Oregon, Matz said.
The crash devastated his family, which includes J.J., a former college baseball player who is now a scout for the Boston Red Sox, and a daughter, Lexi, who is in high school.
Their deaths also shook Altobelli’s larger baseball family, including players who gathered on the field at Orange Coast College upon hearing the news and decided to play the season opener, as scheduled, on Tuesday.
Altobelli had lived his life on the baseball diamond, and they would, too.
Sarah and Payton Chester
A mother and daughter ‘full of mischief and laughter.’
Sarah and Payton Chester, a mother and daughter who lived in Orange County, also died in the crash, family and friends said.
Payton, 13, had played for Bryant’s team for several years and had planned to develop her game in high school and college, her uncle Andy George told The San Gabriel Valley Tribune. “She had this sweetest soul, the kindest, most gentlest person you would ever meet,” he said.
Her mother, Sarah Chester, 45, also had two 16-year-old boys, George told the newspaper. “She was everything to her family, to our family,” he said. “Anytime I needed anything, she was the person I went to.”
One of her sons wrote on Instagram that he had lost “the most amazing Mother and sister.” He posted a series of photographs, including one that showed his sister at a basketball gym, smiling and laughing with Bryant.
Todd Schmidt, a former principal of the elementary school that Payton had attended in Newport Beach, California, said the Chesters were among the “amazing families” at the school: “engaged, supportive, encouraging, and full of mischief and laughter.”
“While the world mourns the loss of a dynamic athlete and humanitarian, I mourn the loss of two people just as important,” he wrote. “Their impact was just as meaningful, their loss will be just as keenly felt, and our hearts are just as broken.”
‘She was warm but also gritty.’
As a defensive specialist for the Mambas, Bryant’s club team, Christina Mauser had flown in a helicopter with him many times before. Things were no different Sunday when she joined Bryant and Gianna en route to a game, her husband, Matthew Mauser, said in an interview.
Mauser, 38, had a long history with the Bryant family: She worked at Harbor Day School, where Gianna was a student, for about 11 years as a physical education teacher and basketball coach. Then Bryant offered her a job as an assistant coach for the Mambas.
Bryant called her the “Mother of Defense” because she was so good at teaching the zone strategy to the eighth-grade players, her husband said.
“She just was really good with the girls,” Mauser said. “She was warm but also gritty.”
He said he had been grieving with the couple’s two daughters, who are 3 and 11, and their son, who is 9. “They’re doing as well as can be expected, but they’re hurting,” he said in an interview. “They miss their mom.”
In an interview on the “Today” show early Monday, Mauser said that he had cuddled in bed with his children as they grieved, and that his older daughter had been comforted by what she saw on television.
“We watched ‘SportsCenter’ for two seconds and everything was about how much everybody was mourning and hurting, and she said it was nice to know that everybody was hurting along with us,” he said. “And I know that sounds odd, but it still kind of helps.”
A pilot on board had at least 20 years of experience.
A sightseeing flight over the Grand Canyon was all it took to get Ara Zobayan hooked on flying. He signed up as a student at Group 3 Aviation, a helicopter pilot school in Van Nuys, California, eager to learn to fly, the school said in a statement Monday.
That was more than 20 years ago. Zobayan, of Huntington Beach, had been flying aircraft in Southern California ever since, even teaching others as a certified flight instructor, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
One of Zobayan’s flight students, Darren Kemp, told The Los Angeles Times that his teacher had been Bryant’s private pilot.
“He doesn’t let anyone else fly him around but Ara,” he said.
On Instagram, Kylie Jenner said she had also traveled on helicopters flown by Zobayan. “He was such a nice man,” she wrote.
Claudia Lowry, who owns Group 3 Aviation along with her husband, Peter, spent part of Monday afternoon arranging photos of Zobayan at the school’s reception desk at the Van Nuys airport.