'Today really hurts': Families, friends remember those who died in Kobe Bryant crash

"I got three small kids and am trying to figure out how to navigate life with three kids and no mom," Matt Mauser said of the death of his wife, Christina.

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By Ben Kesslen and Tim Stelloh

An assistant coach. An aspiring basketball star. A father of three.

They were among the passengers who died Sunday morning accompanying former NBA star Kobe Bryant to his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California, for a basketball tournament.

Bryant, his daughter Gianna, 13, and the pilot, Ara Zobayan, were also killed when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed into a field near Malibu, in Los Angeles County.

As federal authorities investigate why their aircraft, a Sikorsky S-76B, went down, passengers’ relatives and loved ones are telling their stories.

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Christina Mauser

Mauser, 38, was an assistant basketball coach at Mamba who had been personally selected for the job by Kobe Bryant, her husband, Matt Mauser, said during a tearful interview Monday on the "TODAY" show.

"He picked her because she was amazing," Mauser said. "I was so proud of her and she was so happy."

With three children ages 11, 9 and 3, both were teachers working at a small private school that Bryant's daughters attended.

Matt Mauser said he was the basketball coach and his wife was the assistant coach when Bryant noticed "what an amazing mind" Christina Mauser had for the game and invited her to join his coaching team.

"He quickly realized that my wife, who was the assistant coach, was a much better coach than I was, and he brought her on and changed our lives," Mauser later told NBC News. "She loved every minute of it."

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"He asked her to teach the kids defense," Mauser said of his wife, adding Bryant said that wasn't his specialty. "They called her the mother of defense."

"She was beautiful, smart, funny," he said. "She was incredibly deep ... just an amazing person."

"It's horrible," Mauser added. "I got three small kids and am trying to figure out how to navigate life with three kids and no mom."

"He picked her because she was amazing," Mauser said. "I was so proud of her and she was so happy."

Mauser said he and his family have been trying to avoid watching the news, but when he briefly turned on SportsCenter last night, one of his daughters turned to him and said it was "nice to know everyone was hurting along with us."

"I feel for everybody involved and everybody who is hurting right now," he said. "Because as hard as it is for us, I know it's hard for everybody else too."

John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli

John Altobelli was a respected baseball coach, a man who treated his players like family and was known as "Coach Alto."

During his 27 years as the head coach of the Orange Coast College Athletics baseball program, in Costa Mesa, the school said in a statement that he racked up four state championships. Last year, he was named National Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association.

“John meant so much to not only Orange Coast College, but to baseball,” the school's athletic director, Jason Kehler, said in a statement. “He truly personified what it means to be a baseball coach.”

John Altobelli’s brother, Tony Altobelli, told NBC News that his family was in disbelief when they heard about the crash Sunday.

“We were all kind of going on adrenaline and denial,” he said. “But today really hurts.”

He said that Alyssa, 13, who was best friends with Kobe's daughter Gianna, loved playing basketball for the academy and had ambitions to be a star player. He described Keri Altobelli as a great mom to the couple’s children. They had two others, he said — Lexi, in high school, and J.J., who is in his 20s.

Tony Altobelli worked with his brother at Orange Coast College as the sports information director; he wrote the school’s statement announcing John Altobelli’s death. He’ll also announce the school’s next baseball game, scheduled for Tuesday at 2 p.m. local time.

“We’ll have a ceremony of some kind beforehand and there’s talk down the road of memorial service and maybe another game in honor of John,” he said. “But for now, we’re kind of — it’s the opening week of school. It’s a hard time. It’s a hard time to have all of this thrown upon us.”

He added: “I had the words yesterday. I’m kind of out of words today.”

Sarah and Payton Chester

Payton Chester, a 13-year-old basketball player, and her mother, Sarah, were also passengers on the helicopter. Calling the crash a "freak accident," Payton's grandmother Catherine George told NBC News that "they had to get on the helicopter as a convenience today, they usually drove by car."

Payton's uncle, Andy George, told the Orange County Register the family is "heartbroken" over the news.

“She’s the one that everybody counted on. She was there for everyone," George said of his sister and Payton's mom.

George said Payton had been playing on Bryant's team for years and hoped to play basketball in high school and college.

"She had this sweetest soul, the kindest, most gentlest person you would ever meet," George said.

Ara Zobayan

Zobayan was certified as a commercial pilot, flight instructor and ground instructor, Federal Aviation Administration records show.

A student, Jacob Chambers, described him as a dedicated and capable aviator, someone "who worked hard to become the pilot that he was" and always made sure that he flew safely.

"He was always making sure that every box was checked and, and we never — we never — flew in something that wasn't comfortable," Chambers told NBC Los Angeles. "We never flew if you know there was a problem."

"He was one of the best pilots I've flown with," Chambers said.

Air traffic controllers gave Zobayan a special clearance to fly through foggy conditions along their route on Sunday, authorities have said.

During a news conference Monday, Jennifer Homendy, an official with the National Transportation Safety Board, said that shortly before the crash, the pilot had told air traffic controllers that he planned on ascending through a cloud layer.

Radar data showed that the helicopter climbed to 2,300 feet, then began a steep descent, she said. The aircraft's last radar contact was at 9:45 a.m., two minutes before the first 911 call reporting a possible helicopter crash.

Gisele Lamarre contributed.