In search of Starter

THIS IS THE story of a jacket. Or rather, the absence of one. This spring I spent many hours online searching for a Starter jacket in Seahawks blue, a childhood dream too long deferred. After coming up empty -- the selection was scarce and mostly XL -- I settled for a cheap knockoff, a polyester parka that looked like the desiccated corpse of Papa Smurf. The zipper broke with a single tug.

It's been 15 years since Starter Corp. went bankrupt. Since then, the brand's ugly-beautiful jackets, spliced into jarring colors like Mondrian paintings, have accrued mythical status. Rare editions sell for hundreds of dollars online. Some are impossible to find.

Their inventor is not. David Beckerman, 71, is a semiretired real estate investor in New Haven, Connecticut. When I emailed him recently, he responded immediately. A few days later, I walked into his office, passing an SUV with a startr license plate parked outside. Beckerman sat cross-legged, one foot tapping a green turf carpet. He used to give business lectures, he said, but it has been awhile. "Out of sight, out of mind." He paused. "That's why I was surprised when you called."

Entrepreneurs tend to overemphasize the role willpower plays in their success. Beckerman, though, dwells on his lucky breaks. The first occurred in the '70s, a few years after he founded Starter. One of the company's truck drivers, a man named Tony, asked him for a church donation. Beckerman obliged, brushing away his offer to connect him with powerful people he knew. One morning, while Beckerman was setting up a booth at a trade show, he saw Tony walking toward him with another man: Joe Torre. The then-Mets manager -- whose sister, a nun, had taught at Tony's son's parochial school -- was impressed with Beckerman's generosity. From then on, Torre wore Starter whenever he could.

There were more chance encounters. Beckerman's son, Brad, attended the University of Florida. Starter owned a plant in Florida, and one of the workers introduced Brad to a relative, also a Florida student. "What's his name?" Beckerman asks, cackling. "Emmitt Smith!" When the running back made it to the pros, he wore Starter. So did Dr. J and Larry Bird.

Athletes made Starter credible. But musicians made it cool. Beckerman shrewdly anticipated the convergence of sports with hip-hop culture. After graduating from Florida, Brad -- who was briefly married to Paula Abdul -- moved to Philadelphia and befriended Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, who both became Starter supporters. Beckerman held focus groups at local schools, taking notes on trends like backward hats. (He drew the line at certain slang: "Can you imagine me going into schools and saying, 'It's the bomb'? I mean, oh my god ...")

By the 1990s, Starter was booming, with more than $400 million in annual revenue. When Nike offered to buy the company, Beckerman said no. Then, suddenly, his luck ran out. The '94 MLB strike and subsequent NBA lockout dented sales, and leagues demanded higher royalties. Skate fashion came into vogue. Eventually, Starter went under.

Since then, the company has changed hands several times. Nike bought it in 2004 for $43 million, then sold it; G-III launched a limited run of throwback jackets last year. But Beckerman stayed away, switching to real estate. He also coached high school basketball, guiding several teams to state and regional championships. One of his players, Brandon Knight, now plays for the Bucks. The trophies and newspaper clippings in Beckerman's office vastly outnumber the Starter artifacts.

Yet some relics remain. He hands me a dusty VHS tape labeled "Jazzy Jeff Breakdown" -- one of two Starter commercials with the musician. In the other, Jeff teaches Rodney Dangerfield how to wear a hat. At the end, Dangerfield puts on a Starter cap, brim forward. "Now I'll get some respect!"

The commercial is incredibly weird. It's also wonderful. Sports today are marketed with such self-seriousness -- athletes are warriors, games are battles, T-shirts are armor. By contrast, Starter's goofy irreverence delights. It's why nostalgia for the brand runs so strong and the old jackets are so hard to find. It's why the mere mention of the name makes adults of a certain age glaze over, as though recalling their first love.

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