John Spano used to own the New York Islanders. Sort of. Back in 1996, he made a deal with longtime owner John Pickett to purchase the hockey team for $165 million. The terms were impressive, including an innovative $85 million cable television contract with SportsChannel New York. He signed the contract, he owned the team. And then he didn’t have the $80 million he had agreed to pay Pickett for his 90 percent share of the team.
It’s not surprising that Spano’s deception was discovered, that he was tried and convicted of multiple counts of bank fraud, wire fraud, and forgery. What is surprising is that he managed the scam as far as he did, that he convinced so many people, including the NHL as a legal entity and major sports league, and was able to sign documents that made him the Islanders’ legal owner. The story of how he did it is the focus of the new 30 for 30 film, Big Shot. Sort of.
Directed by lifelong Islanders fan Kevin Connolly (who may be better known for his work on Entourage), Big Shot features interviews with a number of people involved, including Pickett, a couple of Islanders, a couple of fans, former coach Mike Milbury (who was removed from that position by Spano), former US attorney Joseph Conway, and Newsday‘s John Valenti, whose investigative reporting uncovered Spano’s deception before any of the official bodies who were supposed to uncover exactly that. It also features an extended interview with Spano, released from prison in 2004, then jailed again in 2005 on another set of charges, and released again in 2009.
While the specifics of the scam—and especially the social and political circumstances that allowed it to go as far as it did—are surely intriguing, the film’s center is obviously the interview with Spano. That’s not to say it reveals details previously unknown or even that it exposes some aspect of the man’s character that might be surprising. But it does indicate the kind of thinking that gives rise to such possibilities, the kind of thinking that might be seen as well in other high stakes financial industries, like, say, banking or housing. The Islanders saga stands as something of a cautionary tale in this context, but also as something of an exemplary instance.
This instance is premised on the essential deception embodied and enacted by Spano. As New York sports journalist Alan Hahn says early in the film, by way of introducing the story, “That’s what we’ve gotten to know about him, there’s no real truth to this man.” As you come to see, such lack of “real truth” is more typical than not. The movie goes on to lay out the situation that led to Spano’s entry, the initially upstart brilliance of the Islanders, the desire by owners and fans and the League to institute a team in and for Long Island (as opposed to New York: “They wanted to be their own entity and that’s really what this franchise became,” says Hahn), and to make that team phenomenally successful, with regard to winning, setting records, and also making money.
During the ‘80s, the Islanders were all that, impressive and aggressive on the ice, winning multiple Stanley Cups, and drawing devoted fans. When this changed—when the franchise was struggling—NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says, all ideas were welcome as to how to correct the problem. Spano, according to interviewees, came on the scene as if from nowhere, a businessman from Dallas who promised to return the team to its former glory. The promise was so seductive, apparently, that the expected checks on his own story—where and how he had his money—were left unmade. And so the scam went forward, now perceived as remarkable, but also, as you see the pieces put together in hindsight, hardly difficult to run.
It’s Connolly’s interview with Spano that makes this odd dynamic clearest. While League and legal officials ponder the intricacies of the lies and lack of oversight at the time, Spano continues to sell the idea, leaving open the possibility that if only granted more time, he might have put together the necessary bank and other loans to make the deal go. His belief in the system and the system’s openness to his belief make up the most compelling aspect of Big Shot. “I always just believed I was going to get it one,” he tells Connolly, his eyes maybe misty. And you, in turn, might even believe him… sort of. If it appears his own ego was and is big, that the deception was and is egregious, it’s just as clear that his overstepping was a matter of degree, not kind.