Release: Tuesday, October 22, 2013
The minute I realized that ‘E’ from Entourage would be directing one of ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary films, Big Shot, I was set on focusing my eyeballs on the nearest T.V. that would be showing it. Annnnd then I missed it the evening it came on.
Fortunately it was airing a couple of times over the next night and I was able to catch it, and now here I am, giving Connolly even more credit than what he’s already due from me with his role on one of my favorite T.V. shows of all time. To me, Connolly’s been a highly likable, intelligent actor who is overlooked more than he should be (I will forever gloss over his minor role in The Notebook, though not on purpose. . . ). But as a native Long Islander and huge supporter of the Islanders, here he comes with a fascinating look into one of the greatest scams in all of sports history.
The year was 1996. The team? The New York Islanders. Desperate to get back to where they once were — the Islanders in the decade prior were perhaps the most dominant team the NHL had ever seen, winning four consecutive Stanley Cup trophies from 1980 to 1983 — the Islander front office hired a man by the name of John Spano to take over ownership of the team. In thinking this move was the team’s best (heck, their only) answer to getting back on track, it would later become obvious that this was one more chronic mistake made by management, a choice that would demote the team from former dynasty to the laughingstock of the entire league.
The team’s new owner was arrested and incarcerated less than a year later on multiple counts of bank and wire fraud and forgery, acts which were committed not only in New York but also in Texas, where previously, before taking over the Islanders he had made an attempt at owning the Dallas Stars team. His purchase of the Islanders was worth $165 million — half of that going to the television rights and the other half to John Pickett, the former team owner who held a 90% stake in the team. Later on, Spano then would buy up the remaining 10% share. The new owner’s upbeat attitude, hard-work and apparent wealth seemed to be everything this team needed, especially after going several seasons without even so much as making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the wake of their early 80’s dynasty. At the time of his purchase, Spano was maybe worth $5 million, and had no legitimate way of paying his share of the team.
Connolly’s documentary weaves in and out of interviews with Spano and many high-profile figures representing the New York Islanders. There’s an extended section wherein Connolly gets to chat with the former owner and 72-month-long prison term-serving Spano face-to-face. Footage of the Islander’s facility springing leaks and floods throughout the building demonstrated the state to which this community had deteriorated prior to Spano’s arrival. A couple of statements are made by former players as well to further emphasize the dramatic changes surrounding this team pre- and post-Spano. The numbers are staggering, as is the other data that gets presented — all of which prove just how associated Spano’s name is with the term ‘fraud.’
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Big Shot is hearing the story in Spano’s words. Time and again he explains away his reasons for how he was able to keep the Islanders in the dark on just how little money he had at the time, describing the dread he would perpetually awake with, having the knowledge of needing to extend a lie of his own epic construction for just another day. He even claims at one point that ripping off a professional hockey team for millions of dollars was never his intention; that he had indeed at first been honestly committed to doing whatever he could to bringing this team back from the dead. Unfortunately, his legacy would leave the team reeling even more.
It also should be noted that this Spano guy was a bit of a slop, on top of everything else. His involvement in several lawsuits at the time of his purchase of the Islanders went unnoticed for a time, though this would ultimately contribute to his demise. The extent to which he lied about his wealth and his professional background slowly started to become evident as Newsday began conducting investigations into the man’s life. The team’s suspicion of his credentials reached its fevered pitch in the summer of 1997, after Spano had failed to come up with much money at all, on numerous occasions. At one point, he even had mailed in amounts as little as $5,000 and $1,700 in an attempt to fool management into thinking these were misprinted checks (when they were meant to be amounts of $5 million and $17 million, respectively).
Indeed, the life story of John Spano devolves from something of an honest reputation, to becoming a pretty good liar and a cheater, to becoming a full-blown fraud, and, finally, a prisoner. One would think such a fall from grace would be enough to learn from once around. However, when Spano was released after his six-year term, his appetite for ruinous business deals still not satiated, he was subsequently indicted on additional charges of fraud in February 2005 having moved to Cleveland and ripped off several companies there.
What Big Shot is great for, ultimately, is demonstrating the ease with which one man had pursuing what most would likely call ‘the American Dream,’ but doing it with such little money! The story of John Spano and the Islanders is almost cartoonish at times. But sometimes the truth is harder to accept than the lies. Just go ask an Islander fan.
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Recommendation: Connolly’s work here is quite impressive. Sports fans are obviously the target here, and hockey fans may take more to this kind of story than others. Even if you don’t call yourself an Islanders fan, or even much of a follower of any sport, his documentary is eye-opening simply considering the scope of this fraud and the terrible ways the team was managed in the 80s and 90s, and therefore has a broader appeal that should interest more than a few peeps who don’t like sports.
Running Time: 60 mins.
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