Coaches, parents, club basketball players among helicopter crash victims

Coaches, parents, club basketball players among helicopter crash victims

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Christina Mauser poured her heart and soul into coaching and teaching physical education at the school where young Gianna Bryant and her basketball star father, Kobe Bryant, were an integral part of the community.

The mother of three worked at the campus in Newport Beach for more than a decade and helped lead its eighth-grade basketball team to its first championship, Harbor Day School said in a statement.

Bouquets were laid at the entrance to the campus Monday, a day after a helicopter carrying Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Mauser and six others to a youth basketball tournament crashed. Everyone aboard perished.

“This loss is indescribable,” the school said in the statement, describing Gianna as someone who never left anyone out, was mature beyond her years and had an unmatched work ethic, “as is the loss of her father who was a respected and active member of the school community.”

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Harbor Day is a private school in the idyllic seaside community where Bryant lived. Mauser, of nearby Huntington Beach, taught and coached at the school from 2007 to 2018, the school said.

She and her husband, Matt, taught and coached basketball at the school, which is how they met Bryant, Matt Mauser told NBC’s “Today” show.

She had a keen mind for defense, he said, and Bryant brought her on to help coach that skill at his Mamba Academy training facility where Gianna’s club team, the Mambas, played.

“They called her the mother of defense: MOD,” he said.

“She was just an amazing person: beautiful, smart, funny,” Mauser said. “He didn’t pick her because she was a slouch. He picked her because she was amazing.”

In an interview with ABC News, Mauser called his wife “a savant” with a “brilliant eye for coaching,” before adding, “As good as she was at the X’s and O’s, she was also that good with how to treat the girls — they would come to her, they would confide in her … she really took a lot of pride in being there for those girls, and she absolutely adored them.

“And I was so proud of her, I said, ‘Christina, you’re doing something that, you know, no other person in the world is doing — you’re coaching basketball with Kobe, and I’m so proud of you.’ But at the same time it was a sacrifice on our end; every night she’d leave and they’d practice seven days a week — he’s not Kobe Bryant, Mamba mentality, because he played a couple days a week.”

Mauser said that he and his wife were apprehensive about her flying on the helicopter, though she had done it numerous times before. He told ABC News he knew something was wrong Sunday when she wasn’t answering his texts because “she is usually very good about letting me know when she lands, because it’s always in the back of both of our minds.”

The couple were preparing to celebrate their youngest child’s birthday next week, and their 15-year wedding anniversary in May.

At Harbor Day School on Monday, some students arrived wearing purple and gold, the colors of Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers.

Maria Paun, 81, stopped by to lay flowers at the campus where she said she remembered waiting to pick up her granddaughter more than a decade ago while Bryant waited for his eldest daughter.

“He said, ‘I like your accent, Grandma,'” she recalled through tears. “He was somebody. And I am a nobody. But he bent down to give me a hug.”

The pilot of the helicopter was Ara Zobayan, according to multiple reports and an ESPN source. Peter and Claudia Lowry, owners of Group 3 Aviation in Los Angeles, said he previously worked there.

In a Facebook post, the couple said Zobayan came to their company in 1998 to learn to fly after taking a sightseeing flight at the Grand Canyon and deciding he wanted to become a pilot.

“Ara worked hard in other businesses to save enough money to pay for training,” they said. “Flying was his life’s passion.”

Zobayan was Bryant’s private pilot. Zobayan’s flight student, Darren Kemp, told the Los Angeles Times that Bryant “doesn’t let anyone else fly him around but Ara.”

Also among the victims of Sunday’s crash were Payton Chester, a 13-year-old member of the Mambas, and her mother, Sarah, Payton’s grandmother Catherine George told KNBC-4 in Los Angeles.

“We’re just sad, I mean, we’re heartbroken,” Sarah Chester’s brother Andy George told the Orange County Register. “It’s starting to settle in a little bit, but I’m still in disbelief.”

A Tustin Memorial Academy representative told the Los Angeles Times that Sarah Chester previously worked as a teacher at the Santa Ana school and had left to spend more time with her family.

Payton Chester was a student at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School.

Orange Coast College’s longtime baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa were also on board, said Tony Altobelli, the coach’s brother. Alyssa also played on Gianna’s team.

Altobelli coached at the college for 28 years, won a state championship last season and was named National Coach of the Year last year for his division, his brother said.

On Sunday, coaches, friends and former players gathered at the baseball field on the Costa Mesa campus where Altobelli had been known to mow the grass until turf was installed. They swapped memories of Altobelli laying down carpet in the locker room, chiding the umpire during games, dressing as a pirate for Halloween and providing endless support to his students.

“He treated his team like they were sons of his,” said Jason Kehler, the school’s athletic director.

Nate Johnson, associate head coach, looked around the field and said none of it would have been possible without the man known as “Alto.” Flowers were laid at home plate.

“This whole thing — I joke, it’s the house that Alto built, because he built it all,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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