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-Barre
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 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
He began coaching as a teenager at New Haven's Jewish Community
Center. In 1979 his JCC team won the Jewish Welfare Board
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."
Having Beckerman as your coach is like having the sultan of
Brunei as your old man: Anything seems possible. Every January,
on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Beckerman buses his players to
Madison Square Garden to see the New York Knicks play. The
Hornets hang out with the Knicks, then watch the game from a
skybox. The boys from Connecticut raised money so they could
spend last Christmas break in Orlando celebrating New Year's Eve
at Disney's EPCOT Center.
Beckerman's take on academics is anything but Mickey Mouse. The
coach makes each Hornet attend a daily two-hour study hall.
"Players who don't go, don't practice," Beckerman says flatly.
He doesn't recruit players: They recruit him. "David is
constantly approached by seventh-graders from other schools who
want to transfer to Hamden Hall," says Rich. "David always says,
'You've got to take the test to get in' and 'How are your
grades?' And 'Do you study?'and 'If you want to come here, it's
not going to be easy.'"
It's got to be easier than coaching while also functioning as a
CEO. Making an afternoon practice in Hamden is tough when you've
got a morning appointment in Los Angeles. "Out of necessity
David delegates a lot of the drilling to assistants," says Rich,
who shares those duties with fellow assistant Jack King, "but
he's always there on game day."
Beckerman flaps along the sidelines like a loose kite in a stiff
breeze. "I have no problem with a player who makes a mistake,"
he says. "But I do if he makes the same mistake twice. He either
didn't listen or didn't care. The same goes for business."
This season Beckerman applied boardroom principles to basketball
at Hamden Hall's Dec. 7 opener against The Gunnery School. He
had flown in that morning from a sales meeting in Miami and
would fly back immediately after the game. Clad in green Starter
uniforms, the Hornets controlled the ball from the opening tip
and led 22-7 at the end of the first quarter. Then they got
sloppy and by the half were leading only by 11. In the locker
room Beckerman exhorted the Hornets in a voice that would have
made a Marine drill instructor proud: "You guys decided that
because you came out and blew them out, the game was over. Well,
guess what? It's over when it's over."
Beckerman had just begun. "This is a thinking man's game," he
railed. "Out-think your opponents." The Hornets stared at him
blankly. "Did you accomplish your personal objectives? Did you
let the ball play you? The ball is like everything in life: You
have to go get it." More blank stares. "You're not communicating
out there. I didn't hear anybody say, 'I need help.' When the
second half starts, I expect the intensity to be there. Let me
know if you don't have it. It's no shame to admit you don't. In
fact, it's respectful."
The Hornets may have been shamed, but they were not admitting
anything. They filed out in a silent, respectful procession.
(They would win the game 84-49.) "It's a good thing I don't do
this for a living," Beckerman grumbled. "I would starve."