SACRAMENTO — Loren Leath, a member of Sacramento State University’s Sports Hall of Fame, and his daughter recently spent a precious moment with Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna “GiGi” Bryant before the Bryants were killed – along with seven others – in a tragic helicopter accident on Jan. 26.

Loren Leath, right, who played collegiately at Sacramento State University, crossed Kobe Bryant’s path a lot over the years.

Leath, who played for Sac State’s men’s basketball team from 2005 to 2009, is the Director of the Soldiers Elite Amateur Athletic Union Basketball Organization out of Oakland. The AAU program represents boys and girls and plays all over the country.

During the holidays, Leath posted an Instagram photo of him, Bryant, former Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Young, and Young’s son Nick Young Jr. Nick Young is one of Leath’s best friends. The photo was taken after the Lady Soldiers and Bryant’s Lady Mambas played a series of AAU games at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.

The image is, of course, priceless. It shows Young, Leath, and Bryant enjoying the love of teaching the game of basketball to young people. Above all, it’s a photo of Black men showing their love for the game that has brought them many successes.

A couple of days later after the accident, Leath flashed another photo on Instagram and Facebook showing him seated with Bryant, GiGi, and Alyssa Altobelli at the Mamba Sports Academy.

Alyssa, her parents, Keri and John Altobelli – who was the head coach of Orange Coast College’s baseball team in Orange County – died along with the Bryants and four other victims. Alyssa was GiGi’s teammate.

Leath, Sac State’s all-time leader in career points (1,489) in the school’s Division I era, single points in a season (526) and made 3-point goals, was devastated following the news of the helicopter crash.

“It’s surreal. It’s crazy,” Leath told The OBSERVER of his feelings in a low voice. “It wasn’t anything new. That’s just how he traveled to get from point A to point B.”

Also of note, a couple of days later after the accident, Leath flashed another photo on Instagram and Facebook showing him seated with Bryant, GiGi, and Alyssa Altobelli at Mamba Sports Academy.

Alyssa, GiGi’s teammate, died along with the Bryants, her mother Keri Altobelli, and her father John Altobelli, who was the head coach of Orange Coast College’s baseball team in Orange County. Three other passengers and the pilot also perished in the accident.

Loren Leath, far left, is shown in a photo with Alyssa Altobelli, second left, Gianna “GiGi” Bryant, second right, and Kobe Bryant, far right. Altobelli and the Bryants died in the Jan. 26 Southern California helicopter crash.

Leath was inducted into Sac State’s Men’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Coaches’ Circle in the fall of 2016. He stands alone in the program with the highest score in a single game (41). Not only did he break that record, Leath had nine made 3-point shots, to eclipse Jameel Pugh.

Pugh, a former Sac State Hornet from Grant Union High School in Del Paso Heights, had the single-game record (40 points) and made 3-pointers (8). They played in different eras. Leath and Pugh are cousins.

Pugh is in Sac State’s sports Hall of Fame (2009) and he was there to see Leath get inducted years later. Pugh was the runner-up at the 2005 ESPN College Slam Dunk Championship.

“Loren called me that night he broke my (records) at Sac State just to rub it in,” Pugh said in a telephone interview with The OBSERVER. “He broke the only records I had at Sac State. So, he is competitive and funny at the same time. I am proud to see his success.”

Leath has a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications-Media Studies from Sacramento State. Following his career, he played one season professionally for Besançon Basket Comté Doubs basketball team in Besançon, France.

Leath, whose oldest daughter plays basketball as well, couldn’t see himself stepping away from the game after his career at Sac State ended and the professional game kept him away from his family. So he decided to accept a role with the non-profit Oakland Soldiers to expose youth to the essentials of education and athletic disciplines.

Notable alumnus from this Oakland Soldiers’ program include Los Angeles Lakers’ small forward LeBron James and former Detroit Pistons’ point guard Chauncey Billups.
As time passed, Leath would eventually run across Bryant’s path on the AAU circuit. Especially since the Lakers star had retired and had become an advocate for women’s sports.

Bryant was involved with his daughter GiGi’s development as she played for Bryant’s Lady Mambas. Both teams, the Lady Mambas and Leath’s Lady Soldiers finally met through MADE Hoops – Maximizing Athletes Development and Exposure.

MADE Hoops hosts a series of athletic programs, workshops, and tournaments throughout the country. One of the “stops,” Leath said was recently at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Calabasas, Calif.

The event at the facility also gave Leath time to talk about women’s sports with Bryant. Leath and Bryant had already met many times before during different occasions, particularly when Young was playing with the Lakers. Leath said it was all “fun, games and business.”

“It was cool, you know. He was just coaching his girls and his daughters when we were about to play against them,” Leath said of Bryant. “Of course there was some trash talking, fun and games. But we also talked about empowering the girls. We agreed that the boys have everything. He was talking about paying attention to details. He was really involved with his daughters.”

Kobe Bryant and Gianna “GiGi” Bryant, were buried in Pacific View Memorial Park cemetery in Corona del Mar on Valentine’s day. The 18-time NBA All Star, his daughter and the other victims were honored at a Feb. 24 public memorial at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Before the tragedy, the Lady Mambas and Ladies Soldiers were set to play again in another AAU tournament this month in Las Vegas, and again, in Oakland in March. “He actually was going to invite us back to (Southern California) to play, too,” Leath said of Kobe Bryant.

Leath was unsure that any of the dates would stay intact until he received a phone call recently. Both female teams will play in Sin City at an undisclosed location. There will be no cameras or press. Just both of the teams and the young players’ parents.

The decision to go forward with the plans, Leath said, was simple.

“Honestly, I think the girls want to play in Kobe and GiGi’s honor. That’s kind of like their rites of passage,” Leath said. “It’s kind of like their freedom out there on that basketball court.”
Leath said he would not attend the festivities at the Staple Center on Feb. 24 in Los Angeles. But he is fortunate to hold on to valuable photos and memories of people he was able to share a space and a moment in time with.

“I feel like it was a blessing to grow up and idolize someone like that; like Kobe,” Leath said. “To be able to rub shoulders with him and everything. He was one of the greatest. The world was starting to see the ‘dad Kobe.’ Not so much as the fierce competitor that no one could get close to but the loving dad, the coach that would hold it down for big-time winning sports. He became a teacher.”

By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Photos courtesy of Loren Leath