The morning of Sunday, Jan. 26 dawned in typical fashion for the University of Washington’s baseball team.
Players milled in their locker room, preparing to head out for stretching before an intrasquad scrimmage. The Huskies’ season opener was less than three weeks away, and a sense of urgency was setting in.
The reverie was broken by the jolting news hitting everyone’s cellphones simultaneously – former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, unbelievably, had died in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. Davis Delorefice, the Huskies’ junior-transfer outfielder-pitcher from Orange Coast College, instantly flashed on his former coach at OCC, John Altobelli, whose friendship with Bryant was legendary among Pirates players.
“I was thinking of Alto and how devastating the death of Kobe and Gianna would be to him,” Delorefice recalled.
But when they hit the field, Husky coach Lindsay Meggs pulled aside Delorefice and another transfer from OCC, infielder Tommy Williams, to deliver news that would shake them to their core. Altobelli, his wife Keri and their 14-year-old daughter Alyssa had perished in the crash as well.
“It was just instant disbelief,” Delorefice said. “Tommy and I both broke down.”
Meggs allowed the disconsolate players to go home, where they spent a fitful day commiserating with friends and family, coping as best they could with their grief.
With the passage of time, the pain has lessened slightly. Williams and Delorefice are back and immersed in baseball, and they will play key roles as the third baseman and left fielder, respectively, of a promising Husky team that opens the season Friday at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.
But the hole in their hearts will never heal, especially as the shock wears off and the reality sets in. As they reminisced about their former coach last week, both players inadvertently lapsed into present tense, almost as if willing him to still be alive.
“It’s kind of gotten tougher, lately, because we’re moving on with life,” Williams said. “Now you realize, it’s happened.”
Altobelli’s influence on college baseball, from his perch as the longtime coach at the junior college located in Costa Mesa, Calif., was vast. Everyone on the West Coast and even beyond, it seems, had some sort of link – and an accompanying fond memory – of the man who built OCC into a powerhouse.
Williams and Delorefice had been key players on the squad that delivered Altobelli his fourth state title last spring. And Altobelli’s close ties to Meggs and Husky assistant Ronnie Prettyman, in turn, had helped deliver Williams and Delorefice to Montlake.
Long ago, in 1993, Meggs and Altobelli had been opposing coaches – Meggs as the head man at Long Beach City College, Altobelli early in his tenure at OCC – in a game to get to the state JC final four. Meggs suffered an excruciating loss, but a lifetime friendship was borne from the experience. Altobelli guided players to Meggs’ coaching stops before UW – Chico State and Indiana State – and now had developed a pipeline of sorts to the Huskies.
“I think that’s what distinguishes the great JC coaches, their willingness to put themselves out there to help their players advance and to make sure they’re doing what they can do to help their guys get to the next level,” said Prettyman, who estimates he took six or seven trips last year during UW’s season to scout Williams and Delorefice.
“He would definitely push his players in the right direction. But he was also honest. He would tell you, ‘Hey, this is where their strengths are, but these are their weaknesses, too.’ He knew we were trying to get to the next level, and he wasn’t going to oversell his guys.”
A recent ESPN article referred to Altobelli, who was 56 when he died, as “a collector of lost baseball souls.” Williams and Delorefice weren’t lost, but both were searching. They were mired in four-year programs where they felt they couldn’t reach their full baseball potential.
That’s the world where Altobelli thrived, welcoming “bounce-backs,” in the vernacular, to OCC from all over. Then he would coax the best out of them at the JC level before sending them on their way to the pros or Division I.
Williams had played his freshman season at West Texas A&M in his hometown of Canyon, Texas, before realizing that he needed to move on. He researched junior-college programs online and was intrigued to read about the exploits of Altobelli at OCC. Williams then got on Instagram, found a former OCC player, and messaged him for feedback. The player said Altobelli was the best coach he had played for.
The next step was to cold-call Altobelli, who impressed Williams with his honesty. He told Williams bluntly that there were no scholarships, and no promises. As many as 90 kids were likely to turn out, and it was survival of the fittest.
“He said it’s going to be a hornet’s nest with how many kids are out there,” Williams said. “There’s no guaranteed spots, no one’s on any money or anything. It’s just every man for himself.
“I just had the feeling this is where I need to be. I trusted him and my ability. I just showed up there one day.”
Williams and Delorefice, who transferred from Utah, fought their way through that maelstrom of candidates to become stars. And they soon found out what Altobelli meant to OCC.
“He’s the heartbeat of that place,” Williams said. “There’s a sign that says, ‘The House that Alto built.’ He’s everything to that program.”
“Alto loved being at the field,” Delorefice added. “He was there too long. He’d show up at 6 in the morning for a 1 o’clock game, he was so prepared. He loved everything about it.”
What every OCC player also learned quickly was Altobelli’s close relationship with Bryant, developed through their daughters’ friendship on Kobe’s Mamba Sports Academy basketball team. They knew the previous year’s Pirates team had received a surprise visit from the Lakers legend. The 2019 squad begged Alto – as he was universally known – for a reprise, but instead the coach delivered a note from Bryant urging them to greatness.
As is the way in smaller programs, they also became friendly with Keri Altobelli (“the ultimate baseball wife – a gamer,” Delorefice said) and young Alyssa, upon whom Alto doted.
“My first impression of OCC and Alto, he was with his daughter,” Delorefice said. “My dad and I flew down there to visit when I found out I was transferring.
“It was him and Alyssa in her (Mamba) uniform. It was about 9 in the morning, and they had already finished one practice, and Alto said Kobe had them doing double days in the afternoon later that day. She was in, I think, seventh grade at the time. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ “
Those memories add immeasurably to the poignancy of the loss, of course. In Altobelli, they remember a coach who lived up to every promise, who was nearly “insane,” in Delorefice’s words, in the lengths he went to help guide his players to their next stop, and who stayed in touch regularly after they left.
“He was just a stand-up guy, a loving guy,” Delorefice said. “He was so charismatic. Man, he was a blessing to play for. Just being in his presence, some people have that way where just being around them, you feel better and you feel smarter. Alto was one of those guys.
“Really, he expected so much out of us, and we expected to give that to him. When we didn’t give that to him, we felt we failed. That’s probably why we won the championship. The way Alto handled us, I’ll take that with me for the rest of my life.”