New Documentary Explores Fraud Involved With John Spano's Purchase Of Islanders In '97
Actor Kevin Connolly, whose ESPN "30 for 30" documentary “Big Shot” premieres Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival in N.Y., was determined to make his film on former Islanders Owner John Spano, whether the former con man agreed to be interviewed or not. Connolly, who starred in HBO's "Entourage," wrote and directed the film. He said, “I’d be lying if I said it was easy to get John. It took a while, but I told him, ‘I’m making this movie anyway. Why not use this one chance to tell your side of the story?' I think he did himself a huge favor by talking to us. He had genuine remorse.” In '97, Spano perpetuated one of the biggest frauds in sports history by purchasing the Islanders for $165M and operating the club for a few months. He was then sent to jail for five years on charges of bank fraud, wire fraud and forgery. Spano seems satisfied by the opportunity to make his case in the film. In a recent tweet about the film, he wrote, "Many things never discussed will be made public." The documentary is a passion project for the 39-year-old Connolly, who was raised on Long Island and is a life-long Islanders fan. When ESPN allowed him to take the film from the originally-scheduled 60 minutes to 90, Connolly was able to weave the Islanders’ dramatic and traumatic history -- which includes four straight Stanley Cups in the early '80s, but only two playoff series victories in the last 25 years -- around the story of Spano’s con. Connolly said, “Getting to tell the story of the dynasty and everything that came before John made a big difference in the film."
GETTING TO GARY: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman agreeing to be interviewed also lends gravitas to the film. Spano’s fraud was not just initially missed by the banks that lent him money, but also by the NHL. The episode, which led to increased background checks on prospective owners throughout sports, was not a happy time for the NHL. Connolly: "The commissioner was a cool customer and very, very honest. Let’s be honest -- it’s not like I’m Mike Wallace. The commissioner, I’m sure, wasn’t worried about my interrogation. He’s a smart man. I asked him about every aspect and he gave me his candid answers. If there was something he didn’t want to talk about, he just politely passed.”
WHY THIS TOPIC? Connolly said that his goals for the film were to shed some light on a fascinating moment in sports business history, but also to entertain. He said, "There are some light moments. Enough time has gone by and John certainly did his hard time. It’s really a story that transcends hockey, a story that not a lot of people know about.” In the documentary, Connolly does not pass judgment on Spano, but it is clear that he was moved by the man who got away -- at least for a little while -- with buying his favorite NHL team. Connolly: “I guess it’s like any reporter who spends a lot of time and gets to know their subject, no matter how troubled they may be. You start to see him as a person who has a mom and dad, as a person driven to buy a sports team and be someone like (Mavericks Owner) Mark Cuban. I think John’s out of trouble now. He has his friends and a life in Ohio, and he has moved on. I’m sure he could have done without this story being brought up, but I appreciate him talking about it. My hope is that it doesn’t set him back at all.” The film is expected to make its ESPN broadcast debut in the fall.