A decade ago David Beckerman and his sporting apparel company were visited by a plague of biblical proportions. First, an NFL strike blindsided sales of Beckerman's pro football wares. Then fire destroyed most of the goods in his New Haven, Conn., factory. Then his mother died, and he contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes temporary paralysis even in mild cases like Beckerman's. Then a tornado wiped out his Hamden, Conn., T-shirt factory. Then a hurricane swept away his windbreaker plant in Jamaica. Then several of his trucks laden with merchandise were hijacked. Then his left collarbone was broken in a hotel atrium when a rogue ashtray dropped on him from the 44th floor. "What could be next?" Beckerman asked. "Pestilence? Vermin?" Whereupon a shipment of 25,000 travel bags from the Philippines arrived at his Florida warehouse crawling with lice.
These days the only thing that plagues Beckerman is success. The founder and chairman of Starter oversees a clothing empire of sweatshirts, T-shirts, hats and uniforms that generates more than $400 million in annual revenues. Beckerman is also the boys' varsity basketball coach of Hamden (Conn.) Hall, the reigning team in Class D of the New England Prep School Association. On top of that, Beckerman is the father-in-law of pop icon Paula Abdul, who married his son Brad last fall. "I'm glad Paula hasn't attended any Hamden Hall games," says assistant coach Bruce Rich. "It would be tough for our players to go in for layups when they're looking up at the stands."
Over the last 20 years the term Starter jacket has become almost as generic as Kleenex or Jell-O. And Starter wear has become as much a part of the sporting scene as starter's pistols and starting blocks. Asked before the Super Bowl if he preferred the New England Patriots or the Green Bay Packers, Beckerman said, "It doesn't matter to me." Both teams, it turned out, wore Starter uniforms.
"Starter is about making you feel good," Beckerman says earnestly. "It's about having a dream. It's about belonging. It's about Pavlov's dog." Some sports fans slobber at the sight of leather jackets bearing the S-and-star logo. "I always wanted to be a starter," Beckerman says. "Maybe I called my company that because I never was one."
But Beckerman was always a self-starter. He grew up in a tough section of New Haven. Dad was an electrician; Mom worked in a bakery. "It sounds corny," Beckerman says, "but they taught me about values and standards and objectives." Basketball he learned on his own. When he was in college, his thirst for hoops knowledge was so intense that he played in three leagues at the same time. Beckerman graduated from the University of New Haven in 1966 intending to be a high school teacher, but he got waylaid into a local windbreaker business. Five years later he set out on his own.
For starters, Beckerman sold satin jackets to bowling and softball teams. Then he came up with an idea that would ensure the success of his company. Traditionally, pro leagues had granted manufacturers licenses to sell "official" merchandise that bore team logos. Beckerman went further. After he obtained a license from Major League Baseball in 1976, players and coaches began wearing Starter-designed team jackets. And the designation "authentic" took on new meaning. Soon Beckerman was doing the same thing for the NBA and the NHL. But he didn't bring authenticity to pro football until 1983.
The NFL had treated Starter's starter like an upstart. "I visited NFL headquarters 32 times over the course of eight years," he recalls. On visit 33 the league gave in and took Beckerman's money. The licensing racket has never been the same.
Starter sales rose so dramatically that in 1992 Nike CEO Phil Knight—seeking to expand into a new market—expressed interest in buying the company. "No thanks," said Beckerman, who took the company public in April 1993. He retained control of 65% of the stock, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange. Today, at 54, Beckerman has reached that enviable stage where he can do pretty much what he wants to do. And what he wants to do is coach basketball.
He began coaching as a teenager at New Haven's Jewish Community Center. In 1979 his JCC team won the Jewish Welfare Board national championship.
For the last four years Beckerman has been coaching at Hamden Hall, a private school with a small enrollment (110 boys) and, before Beckerman, an even smaller basketball rep. In Beckerman's first season the Hornets finished 15-7, reaching the quarterfinals of the New England Class D tournament. The next campaign they went 22-7, making the finals. Last year they finished 23-4, winning it all. This season, as of Feb. 27, they were 23-4 and in the semifinals of the tournament. "Kids want to play hard for Coach Beckerman every second," says Avery Esdaile, who played center on the Hornets' championship team and now starts for Wesleyan. "His success is like a magnet. Kids are drawn to him."