LAKEWOOD – There were cheers, tears and numerous fond memories in the Lakewood High School gymnasium.
Its floor was named the Robert J. Nastase Court in honor of the Piners’ head boys varsity basketball coach. He died March 13, 2022, at the age of 86 of natural causes. Markers in his handwriting are on both sides of the court. He helped design the facility. An estimated 100 fans, including nearly 40 of his former Lakewood and Toms River players, attended the ceremony, which took place on a recent Friday afternoon prior to the Piners’ 69-47 loss to Keansburg.
Jay Nastase, one of the family’s five children, and Kevin King, who starred at center on Lakewood’s 1974-75 New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Group III state championship team, unveiled the markers to cheers and tears. Both spoke to the crowd after the unveilings. Nastase’s widow, Agnes, attended the ceremony with each of the couple’s children.
The family posed with a plaque listing the Piners’ accomplishments under Nastase, a taskmaster’s taskmaster and an old schooler’s old schooler who believed that anything short of perfection from himself, his players and coaches was a failure. The family posed with a plaque containing a picture of Lakewood’s 1966-67 Group III state champion powerhouse.
Ex-Lakewood football player Steve Peacock, a Lakewood High School faculty member, emceed the event. When Nastase was in power, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the Harlem Globetrotters’ famous theme song, was played prior to the Piners’ home games at what is now the nearby Lakewood Middle School and the current gymnasium. Lakewood performed jazzy layup drills in which several of the hands of its players soared above the 10-foot high rim as the Piners’ fans roared their approval, intimidating many an opponent. The song was played after the ceremony. A one-hour alumni social preceded the ceremony.
King spoke before Nastase, stating, “Coach Nastase meant so much to me as a player and especially when I was in college (King competed for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte). He coached me when I was a senior in college. He was an assistant coach. We talked about life in general, but he always got back to basketball. He kicked me off the team at one time.
“I thank his family for bringing me into their family. I appreciate all of you. One of the biggest supporters we had was Carol Frank-Brown (a 1974-75 team aide under the name of Carol Frank).”
One of the 1974-75 team’s managers, Nastase, at times fighting back tears, said from notes, “Thank you for coming out and celebrating this moment of my dad’s accomplishments. I could never fill his shoes, but I am wearing his sport coat. Dad coached Lakewood from 1965-78 (and Toms River High School, now known as Toms River High School South, in 1964-65). A lot of his input was used in the designing of this gymnasium. The first game here was played in 1972. Some of that team’s stars are here today. We had a capacity crowd of 1,000 (fans). The game was against Brick Township. We trailed through three quarters, but won 61-57.
“In dad’s first year here, we lost in the Group III semifinals of the state tournament. Harold Sutton (a team member) said, ‘Coach, we demand a state championship. You are not working us hard enough.’ That group had such conviction and want and drive, we became the first Ocean County team to win a state title in 1967. Dad’s games were community events. He said, ‘I will never lose a game because the other team out conditioned my team.’ If one player missed a time goal in the sprints during practice, everybody ran.
“Dad treated everyone with respect. He never cut a player from the team. You earned that uniform. I think they out ran our track and field teams. His teams ran, played aggressive in your face defense and ran some more. Dad was one of the first coaches to have videos taken of his team’s practices and games. He went over everything. Thank you Larry Bushman for being our team’s cameraman.
“Dad was very enthusiastic about education. He and mom privately tutored the players. He was a life coach before it was a (popular) thing. His players listened to motivational cassette tapes on the bus. He worked with intensity. He had strong faith in Jesus Christ. He emphasized defense, dedication, discipline and desire (the mention of Nastase’s beloved Four D’s drew a cheer from the crowd). He emphasized to his players that if the Four Ds were applied they would be successful in life.
“They knew he had their backs. Willie Troy (who played for the Piners during the early 1970s and attended the ceremony) said, ‘He was my dad.’ One guy said Bob Nastase was the reason he graduated high school. He said, ‘Without Bob Nastase, I would be in jail.’ Everyone in the Lakewood community worked together. We put Lakewood basketball on the map.”
T-shirts saluting the Four Ds were sold at the event for $10 each. Lakewood athletics director Oscar Orellana was the man behind the idea. Proceeds will go to the Piners’ athletic program. To obtain a shirt, email Orellana at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nastase, a retired Captain in the Charlotte, N.C., Fire Department, read the words to a tribute written in 1975 by then-Lakewood assistant coach Rich Gelbstein, who died in 2021. Gelbstein also was a Lakewood educator and musician.
“Hats off to Lakewood basketball, the greatest in the land. Our spirit keeps us winning. Our friendship makes us grand. Defense, Dedication, Discipline, Desire represents the fuel igniting all the fire. Boom boom boom – boom boom boom boom Here’s to Piner Pride, the symbol of success. We wear the crown of kings which sets us from the rest. Hats off to old traditions, hats off to all our fans, hats off to Lakewood basketball, the greatest in the land.”
Coach Nastase’s 1974-75 team edged East Orange 72-71 in the Group III state championship game on two free throws in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter by Kelvin Troy, Willie Troy’s brother, who starred for the Piners, Rutgers University and at the professional level in Ireland after being released by the Milwaukee Bucks of then-coach Don Nelson. Lakewood wound up ranked first in New Jersey by the New York Daily News.
Nastase also guided Lakewood to several Holiday Jubilee titles, three Shore Conference Tournaments and 13 straight Shore Conference division titles. Among the Piners’ fiercest Shore Conference competitors were Neptune and Long Branch. The coach of the latter, Gerry Matthews, attended the ceremony, walking with the aid of a cane. His Green Wave team, led by Alex Bradley, bested Lakewood 78-68 in a Group III state semifinal at Princeton University and trimmed Lakewood 65-49 in the SCT championship game two and a half weeks prior to the Group III clash.
“Bob was a successful coach because he didn’t settle,” Matthews said. “He demanded – and got – the respect and effort from his players. We coached the same kind of kids. We had a lot in common and became very good friends. Coach Nastase did not settle for less than your best effort – and he had kids who were willing to give it. Kids can tell when you are real.”
Willie Troy said Nastase touched the Piners’ lives on and off the court.
“I could talk to you all day long about coach Nastase,” he said. “He gave us something – the Four Ds – that we were able to utilize for the rest of our lives. He gave me the blind faith and courage that I could overcome anything. Coach said, ‘A quitter never wins. A winner never quits.’ “
Barry Haber was a key reserve on the 1974-75 team which was 28-1 overall. He attended the ceremony.
“I have incredible memories of the hard work and all of the success coach Nastase had,” Haber said. “He was a great man. He taught us life. I am so glad to see his signature on this court for perpetuity. He taught me to set goals and that if I work as hard as I can I will reach them. He said, ‘Always be yourself. Work hard. So much can be accomplished when you do that.’ “
Jodi Nastase, one of the family’s children, wept as she said, “Dad’s players loved and respected him. This (event) is overwhelming. The most precious thing is time and all of these people came out to honor our dad. Today is special, very special. You don’t get time back and here people are here spending their time to honor us. It is just overwhelming.”
Agnes Nastase was the recipient of kisses and embraces before, during and after the ceremony. The couple was married for 61 years.
“I am pleased at the turnout,” she said. “I am pleased that so many people remembered him…The markers honoring Bob are wonderful. I have to say he certainly did work at it. He’d leave the house at seven in the morning and be home at 10 at night. His players became our family members. He yelled at his players the way he yelled at our own kids.”
The Piners often gathered at the family’s home on Toms River for dinners that lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
“The players always said, ‘Dinner at coach’s,’ ” Nastase said. “There was spaghetti. There was garlic bread. There was dessert. Man, they sure loved garlic bread. The boys stayed for as long as they needed to. Bob took some of them home. Our home was an open door.”
Nastase said she was impressed with the shape of the players who attended the ceremony.
“They looked great, absolutely great,” she said. “It was so good to see them. I saw some old friends who I had not seen in a long time. Bob’s methods could work today. He would get them across in the right way. He pushed education and got kids special help. He was very concerned.”
Cara Nastase, one of the couple’s children, said her dad was a fierce competitor.
“He just had a competitive nature and he worked hard at everything he did,” she said. “He had a very good high school coaching record. He basically taught himself how to coach. He worked at something until it was the way he wanted it.”
Perhaps best known as the Piner Palace because of its beauty, the current Lakewood gymnasium was dedicated the John “Pott” Richardson Gymnasium on Feb. 7, 2013. Richardson starred on the 1966-67 team (24-3 overall) and was an assistant coach under Nastase from 1973-78. He coached the Piners from 1985-2007, producing a 401-152 record and leading Lakewood to numerous championships, including the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III title in 2002.
“Coach Nastase played the kids who had the best attitudes,” Richardson said. “His family and myself are intertwined. With no Bob Nastase, there would be no John Richardson. He taught us hard work. He taught us not to quit.”
A teammate was Harold Sutton, who remembered Nastase’s grueling practices that would wear down champion Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis, stating after the ceremony, “I’m ready to run.”
Nastase guided the Toms River High School North Mariners to Class A South titles in 1995, 1996 and 1997 and a berth in the 1996 Shore Conference Tournament championship game in his first of two tours of duty at the school. A relative who attended the ceremony was Ron Signorino, who enjoyed a legendary career coaching football at Toms River High School and South.
One of North’s top players in Nastase’s initial tenure was Mike Ritacco, who issued a statement to the media after attending the ceremony.
“I am not sure where to even begin when I start to describe coach Nastase,” he said. “In the high school arena, I would rank him with the coach K’s, the Dean Smith’s and the John Wooden’s of the basketball universe. When I heard that coach Nastase had passed away, I was filled with so much regret that I didn’t have a chance to thank him and tell him how much I appreciated how he shaped me as a basketball player and more importantly as a man.
“As I spoke to his daughter, Cara, I couldn’t hold back my emotions as I remembered the time and effort that this man put into my life! Coaches these days – not all of them but many of them – look for every excuse to cut a practice short or cancel if there is a conflict. That was unheard of in coach Nastase’s world. Our practices would start right after school and he preferred to get the time slot after the girls varsity because there was no end time.
“If we started after school, the girls threw us off the court at four. But if we started at four, mom better keep dinner warm because we were home at eight! Saturdays, we would show up at 8 (a.m.) and wouldn’t leave until early evening. We spent just as much time in a classroom with coach watching film or reading inspirational quotes such as ‘Man in the mirror.’ I still keep the quote book he gave us behind me at to this very day! His passion and dedication to teaching us about the game he loved so dearly and about how to be a better person, how to work harder than the guy next to you, perseverance, discipline, desire and dedication were unmatched and unlike anything I have ever experienced i organized sports.
“On one occasion, during the blizzard of ’96, schools were closed for multiple days. We weren’t allowed to leave the house due to a state of emergency. I remember coach getting in touch with my father (Michael J. Ritacco, then the superintendent of the Toms River Regional School District and chiefly responsible for bringing Nastase back to the town) and telling him that I had enough time off and he was meeting me at the gym. On our way, we saw coach Nastase’s car off the side of the road in a snow drift, but he wasn’t there.
“He left his car and walked the last half-mile to the gym. When we arrived, he had the court set up with garbage cans all over the place to simulate defenders and screen. For the next four to six hours, he drilled me on shooting on the move, landing on two, getting quicker! Our ’96 team might not have been the most athletic, but we outworked and outhustled our opponents in each and every game. We won games on the defensive side of the floor … a common theme among all of Nastase’s teams. We were laughed at in a state tournament quarterfinal game in Atlantic City only to come out victorious, later losing to (eventual Tournament of Champions) winner Shawnee in the semifinals to end my high school career.
“Learning the game of basketball from coach Nastase and becoming a way better player than I ever imagined are great memories of a coach who gave his all to us; however, it pales in comparison to the life lessons he taught us all along the way. When you are going through those long film sessions, an eight-hour practice where your parents didn’t even believe you were there that long, the 25 plus time four stagers you would run … as a teenager, you never get a chance to sit back and appreciate what you are truly being taught!
“It wasn’t much later in my professional life that I realized who I became personally and professionally had so much to do with this one person who gave me his all. I commonly tell people I don’t think I am half the person I am today if it wasn’t for having been coached by Bob Nastase.
“I only wish I got the chance to tell him that before it was too late!”
Nastase also aided North’s girls team, according to former North player Sandy Bisogno. The Mariners’ head coach was Ray Cervino, who died recently. The Mariners’ gymnasium was named in his honor after his death.
“Coach Nastase was so passionate about educating his players about the game,” she said. “Coach Nastase and coach Cervino worked so well together. They worked together to assemble North’s patented fast break offense, Yankee. During my junior and senior years of high school, I would go to his house on Sundays. He would make pasta and we would spend hours watching old game films from when he coached in North Carolina.
“Those were special times that I will never forget. He taught me about not just playing the game, but being a student of the game.”
Nastase also coached Bisogno in the summer of 1994 when she played on the Shoreliners’ 17-under Amateur Athletic Union team. Nastase played basketball for Penn State University.
Signorino played for the Nittany Lions of then-coach Rip Engle and was recruited by Joe Paterno, who coached under Engle before enjoying a legendary coaching career at Penn State.
Signorino suggested to then-Toms River High School athletics director Bob Hawthorne that Nastase be hired as the school’s boys coach. He guided the Indians and served as an assistant coach under Signorino.
“There is no greater boys basketball coach than Bob Nastase,” Signorino said. “He was an endless, endless, tireless worker who hated to lose, hated to lose. He could have been a head coach at a major college (Nastase also was an assistant coach at Oral Roberts University). He knew his college coaches were not doing the best things. He coached with intensity.
“He had his team’s games and practices filmed. Films don’t lie. His kids could not deny what happened. Using the films, he told his players such things as, ‘You did not step with the correct foot.”
Signorino said he misses Nastase to this day.
“I wish Bob could be here,” he said. “He was a major factor in the building of this gymnasium. He was never totally pleased with it.”
A major reason Nastase came to Lakewood was the township’s Biddy Basketball League.
“He saw the talent he had at Lakewood and he developed it,” Signorino said. “He developed it. His motto was, ‘My opponent will never outwork me.’ Talk to any of his players. They will tell you that.”
Signorino noted that Nastase, an only child, played basketball at Beaverdale High School in Beaverdale, Pa., a small coal mining town 60 miles from Pittsburgh.
“Bob was the team’s highest scorer,” Signorino said. “He played quarterback as a high school sophomore. He was a very good athlete. He was so interested in basketball. There was a gym next to his house and he’d go in its backdoor and play for hours. The superintendent of schools caught him sneaking in without supervision and threw him out.”
Signorino recalled that Nastase’s parents ran the Nastase Hotel in Pennsylvania.
“His dad was easy going and his mother was a very dedicated nurse,” Signorino said. “She worked her ass off. Bob ran the bar room. Bob and I were born in the hotel.”