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Friday, September 18, 2020

Baseball

UH remembers, honors former captain John Altobelli after his untimely death


Former captain John Altobelli was honored by UH with a scoreboard tribute after the 56-year-old was killed along with his wife and daughter in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles on Sunday that also claimed the lives of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and five others. | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

Former captain John Altobelli was honored by UH with a scoreboard tribute after the 56-year-old was killed along with his wife and daughter in a Sunday morning helicopter crash near Los Angeles that also claimed the lives of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and five others. | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

At first, head coach Todd Whitting could not believe it.

“For a split second,” he said in a Monday afternoon news conference, “I was like, ‘No way Alto was on that helicopter.’” 

It was not until hours later, what felt like a lifetime, that Whitting’s fear became true and the helicopter crash that left legendary NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna among nine dead hit home.

John Altobelli, a 56-year-old former captain and UH assistant coach in the 1980s and longtime friend of Whitting, died along with his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa after the helicopter he was riding in with the five-time NBA champion and others slammed into a hillside 30 miles outside Los Angeles.

All onboard, en route to a youth travel game in Thousand Oaks, California in which Gianna and Alyssa were set to play, were killed.

Just a day after the accident, a mournful Whitting at Schroeder Park discussed the “unbelievable tragedy” and remembered Altobelli for his “unique” persona that attracted everybody from his former teammates to the players he coached.

“He was a people guy,” Whitting said of the 2019 ABCA National Coach of the Year, who was set to start his 28th season as head coach of Orange Coast College. “Everybody loved him. The players that played for him loved him. The guys who played with him loved him.”

Over three decades after Altobelli played and coached at UH, the feeling remained.

Houston, as a tribute to a man who “loved this program and wanted to see it do well,” lit up its scoreboard at Schroeder Park with a photo of a younger Altobelli in his days with the Cougars in the mid-1980s.

Despite over 1,500 miles separating Houston and Orange Coast College, the West Coast college baseball legend, as Whitting called him, kept a close connection with his alma mater.

It wasn’t unfamiliar to see one of Altobelli’s OCC players make the jump to Division I and join Houston on the diamond, most recently pitcher Ryan Randel in 2018.

“If a year went by,” Whitting said, “and we didn’t have one of his guys, he would give me a hard time about it.”

When the first Cougar steps up to the plate in Houston’s Feb. 14 season opener against Youngstown State, take a look at his batting helmet.

On it will be a decal in memory of the Altobellis, a season-long commitment to honor one of Houston’s own and his family whose untimely deaths devastated many in the world of the sport, including Whitting.

“Really sad day for the program, me personally,” Whitting said, “College baseball lost a great one yesterday.”

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