Months before Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in Southern California, he sent coach John Altobelli a text message to share with his baseball team.
Altobelli’s team had just lost a major game, and he wanted his friend Bryant to give the players a pep talk. Unable to appear at the baseball field in person like he’d done before, Bryant sent a text message about how fragile life is and urged the team to play like there’s no tomorrow.
“No waiting. F**k patience. F**k injuries … PLAY as if every at bat may be ur last because it very f**king well could be,” part of the message read, according to ESPN. “So let’s make every single f**king one count. Lets go get these f**kers!”
Altobelli hung a printout of that March 28 message in the team’s dugout under a photo of a smiling Bryant with his fist in the air.
Ten months after Bryant sent that message, on January 26, both men and their daughters, Alyssa Altobelli and Gianna Bryant, died in a helicopter crash on their way to the girls’ basketball game in Thousand Oaks, California.
Altobelli’s wife, Keri, was also killed. So were four others: Christina Mauser; Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton; and the pilot Ara Zobayan.
Two sports veterans who admired each other
The people killed when the helicopter slammed into a foggy hillside that day were connected to the basketball legend in different ways.
Altobelli was the longtime coach for the Orange Coast College baseball team, and shared a fierce competitive drive with the retired NBA star who coached their daughters at his Mamba Sports Academy.
The two men had a deep admiration for each other and considered their daughters the heirs to their sports legacies, ESPN said. With more than 700 wins under his belt, Altobelli was a star in his own right, and his team had recently won its fourth state championship.
As their daughters thrived at the basketball academy and their friendship grew, Altobelli and his family regularly caught a ride to games in Bryant’s helicopter.
“Kobe … found that family to be someone that he could invite into their inner circle,” said Nate Johnson, who was Altobelli’s assistant coach.”This wasn’t the first time that he or Alyssa or Keri went on this flight.
When Johnson heard the helicopter had gone down, his heart sank. He knew his boss was aboard.
A coach who became a family friend
To Christina Mauser, a gritty but warm defense specialist for the girls’ basketball team, Bryant was more than a fellow coach.
He handpicked her to help him after he watched her coach at Gianna’s Harbor Day School. She was so passionate about coaching the girls, Bryant and the players affectionately called her the MOD – the Mother of Defense.
Her husband recalled the first time Bryant talked about giving her a job.
“Kobe was incredible at recognizing talent. He called me and he said, ‘I wanna offer Christina a job,’” Matt Mauser told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I said, ‘she can’t do that. She’s … got three kids, she’s teaching full time. She can’t.’”
Not one to give up easily, Bryant cut out the middleman and reached out to Christina Mauser directly. He persuaded her to coach with him, and the two families became intertwined from there on.
Just like Altobelli, she was a fixture on the regular helicopter rides Bryant took to the academy’s games to avoid the notorious Los Angeles traffic. The Mausers’ daughter, Penny, 11, also played for the academy’s younger team, the Little Mambas.
“Kobe absolutely loved my daughter. They had a secret handshake. He called her Pen Pen,” Matt Mauser said. The two had such a special bond, Bryant once attended Penny’s game and cheered her on while waving a big bobblehead.
“It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Having him there, my wife, watching my daughter. It was very surreal,” Matt Mauser said.
Parents united by their kids’ dreams
Chester and her daughter, Payton, were part of a tight-knit group of Team Mamba families – all brought together by their kids’ passion for the game.
Payton was 13 – just like her close friend, Gianna. And like Gianna, she was a rising basketball star.
Payton, Gianna and Alyssa, 14, were typical teens who made silly videos of themselves dancing with other members of the basketball team. They giggled and made funny faces, at times in their black and white Team Mamba uniforms.
Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, shared some of those videos on social media. In one posted in December with the hashtag Team Mamba, she described the girls as “goofballs.”
“Love these girls!,” she captioned it.
Chester was a former college volleyball star who saw her daughter thrive under Coach Bryant and her squad of friends, and always made time to take her to the games.
“Payton loved her Team Mamba girls more than anything in the world and considered them her second family,” her father, Chris Chester said at a memorial for his wife and daughter.
“I am heartbroken for her brothers, my family and her friends. But I am also heartbroken for the rest of the world, because we lost someone who was going to do great things and make the world a better place.”
A loss that goes beyond five families
In the sprawling and traffic-choked Southern California, where helicopters are used like cabs, Zobayan was not just Bryant’s longtime pilot.
His neighbor, Robert Sapia, told CNN he loved his job and would show him photos of the celebrities he flew around.
“He’ll be like, ‘I just dropped Kobe off and he said hello,’” Leonard says.
Bryant was a big fan of helicopter commutes, and has said he took them to free up time to spend with his family. Zobayan flew him to his many sports events and award ceremonies, local media said.
When the white and blue striped Sikorsky S-76B crashed into a fiery heap of debris that day, it killed members of five families who were connected by their love for their children, their jobs and basketball.
With their deaths, the next generation also lost visionary luminaries.
The man known as Coach Alto was preparing to lead the baseball team for the 28th season.
Coach Bryant’s goal was to help shape his daughter and her teammates into legendary WNBA players.
MOD Mauser will no longer sit on the edge of the bench, calling out defense tips for the Team Mamba girls.
Gianna, Payton and Alyssa will not get a chance to grow and showcase their basketball talents, and inspire other young players.