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Love of basketball put Bryant, others on final fatal flight

By The Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The six passengers traveling with Kobe Bryant and his daughter in the helicopter that crashed into a Southern California mountainside last month were joined by their love of basketball. Among them, two teammates of Bryant's 13-old-daughter, a coach with a rising profile in girls' basketball and three parents of basketball-crazed children. Their pilot, who was taking them to a basketball tournament, was a veteran flier whose friends and customers said was exactly the guy a passenger would want at the controls.

KOBE and GIANNA BRYANT:

Kobe Bryant liked to tell the story of how fans would approach to ask the father of four daughters when he was going to have a son who could carry on his basketball legacy. His precocious 13-year-old would respond, saying, "Oy, I got this.”

Gianna Bryant, known as Gigi to family and friends, was infused with the same burning desire for basketball greatness that had driven her father to 18 All-Star Game appearances and five NBA championships during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The pair could sometimes be seen courtside at Lakers games, where Bryant, his arm around her, would explain the intricacies of a sport he'd dedicated himself to since age 6, determined to become one of its greatest players.

Four years into retirement, Bryant, 41, had moved into a second career as a storyteller and advocate for women's sports. He'd won an Academy Award in 2018 for the animated short film “Dear Basketball” and was taking his daughter, a budding basketball star herself, to a girls tournament sponsored by the Mamba Sports Academy he'd co-founded two years before.

___

JOHN, KERI AND ALYSSA ALTOBELLI

John Altobelli was a renowned figure in college baseball.

Altobelli, 56, had led his Orange Coast College baseball team to more than 700 victories and four state championships during a 27-year career that earned him national coach of the year honors in 2019 from the American Baseball Coaches Association.

Basketball was his 14-year-old daughter Alyssa's sport, however, and she was a teammate of Gianna Bryant who hoped to someday play college ball. She also loved animals, according to friends, so much so that she took home turtles from her school's science class if she feared they were being mistreated.

Friends remembered her 46-year-old mother, Keri, as a dedicated mom and wife who made it a point to attend all of her children's games, joking that she'd sat in a particular spot in the bleachers so many times she should have a plaque there with her name engraved on it.

Bryant, friends with Altobelli, had offered him and his family a ride on the helicopter that day so he could beat traffic to the tournament.

TheAltobellisare survived by two other children.

___

SARAH AND PAYTON CHESTER

Sarah Chester, a former college volleyball player, was traveling to the game with her 13-year-old daughter, Payton, who was also a teammate of Gianna Bryant.

Payton played on both the Mamba girls team and for St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, where she was an eighth-grader and her 45-year-old mother was a member of the board of trustees.

Payton, her father said, had hoped to play in the WNBA someday.

“She found joy on any court and loved all of her teammates and coaches," he said shortly after her death.

Of his wife he said, “Sarah was full of life and the glue of our family.”

___

CHRISTINA MAUSER

Christina Mauser, an assistant coach of the Mamba girls team traveling that day to the Mamba Cup tournament in Thousand Oaks, was establishing herself as a superior basketball coach.

Kobe Bryant had personally recruited her for his Mamba Sports Academy after seeing her coach girls basketball at the private school in Southern California that his daughter attended.

Mauser, 38, had been a star athlete herself, in volleyball and basketball, at Huntington Beach's Edison High School, where she was inducted into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame.

A wife and mother of three, Mauser drew praise from players, several of whom called her a second mom.

___

ARA ZOBAYAN

When you went up in a helicopter, people said, Ara Zobayan was the guy you'd want at the controls.

He not only greeted everyone with a big grin but was one of the most experienced helicopter pilots around, with top ratings and more than 8,200 hours of flight time amassed over two decades.

“That’s a guy who you ask for to fly you from city to city," said Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard. He often flew with Zobayan, whom he said would tell him from time to time that Bryant had asked him to remember to say hello.

Zobayan was chief pilot for Island Express Helicopters and had flown Bryant to another Mamba Cup game the day before.

“He was one of their best pilots,” Leonard said.

The 50-year-old native of Lebanon had fallen in love with helicopters as a teenager after a chopper mechanic who happened to be sitting next to him on an airline flight loaned him a helicopter magazine.

It was a love affair sealed a few years later after he took a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. Soon after he was saving up for flight lessons.

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