Big Shot a look at ma­jor league scam artist

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - BRAD OSWALD

BEV­ERLY HILLS — As a long­time mem­ber of the cast of HBO’s En­tourage, Kevin Con­nolly knows a thing or two about be­ing a team player.

And as a na­tive of Long Is­land and a life­long New York Is­landers fan, he also knows all about be­ing pas­sion­ately com­mit­ted to a team.

What Con­nolly — who played best pal/ man­ager Eric (E) Mur­phy on the hit HBO se­ries — couldn’t un­der­stand, how­ever, is how greed, ego and a com­plete lack of moral fi­bre might al­low one mis­guided in­di­vid­ual to dash the dreams of thou­sands upon thou­sands of or­di­nary peo­ple with a shared sense of team-first, fa­nat­i­cal sports-team loy­alty.

And his search for un­der­stand­ing led the ac­tor turned di­rec­tor to con­trib­ute a fas­ci­nat­ing new film to ESPN’s on­go­ing 30 for 30 sports-doc­u­men­tary se­ries. In Big Shot, which pre­mières this fall and will also be seen on Canada’s TSN, Con­nolly digs deep into the mo­ti­va­tions and machi­na­tions that led fraud­ster John Spano, a busi­ness­man who claimed to be worth hun­dreds of mil­lions but was ac­tu­ally a shal­low­pock­eted scam artist with vir­tu­ally no fi­nan­cial means, to at­tempt to be­come the owner and saviour of the strug­gling New York Is­landers fran­chise in 1996.

“Grow­ing up on Long Is­land, you know, this team was such a part of my child­hood,” Con­nolly said this week dur­ing ESPN’s por­tion of the U.S. net­works’ semi-an­nual press tour in Los An­ge­les. “It was a story that I jumped at the op­por­tu­nity to tell be­cause of the per­sonal na­ture of the Is­landers be­ing my home­town team, and be­cause hockey is my fa­vorite sport.

“Big Shot is about a guy by the name of John Spano, a con man that tried to buy the New York Is­landers for $165 mil­lion in 1996. In re­al­ity he wasn’t worth five bucks, but he man­aged to sort of, you know, lie and cheat his way into the owner’s box for a four-month pe­riod.”

Big Shot is a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­plo­ration of the huge egos, some­times-shady busi­ness prac­tices and wacky eco- nomics that ruled the busi­ness of pro sports own­er­ship — NHL hockey in par­tic­u­lar — dur­ing the last decade of the 20th cen­tury. Watch­ing this film, and re­vis­it­ing the mis­takes made dur­ing this Is­landers de­ba­cle, will un­doubt­edly give Win­nipeg sports fans a greater un­der­stand­ing of why the Mark Chip­man-led Jets own­er­ship group had to en­dure such in­tense scru­tiny be­fore our city was al­lowed back into the NHL fold.

As di­rec­tor, nar­ra­tor and a deeply in­vested fan, Con­nolly makes this film a per­sonal pro­ject, shar­ing pho­tos from his child­hood in which he’s clad in Is­landers colours and pos­ing along­side play­ers from the team’s run of four straight Stan­ley Cup ti­tles in the early ’80s.

The Is­landers are his team and he’s still up­set about the team’s fall from NHL con­tention af­ter the ’80s-dy­nasty bunch — led by Bryan Trot­tier, Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Clark Gil­lies, Billy Smith and beloved Win­nipeg­ger Butch Gor­ing — was dis­man­tled. And as bad as the Isles’ for­tunes were on the ice, the team’s front-of­fice woes hit an all­time low when Spano, who pre­sented him­self as a Texas-based ty­coon look­ing to buy an NHL fran­chise, en­tered the pic­ture.

“(Spano) re­ally wasn’t as much driven by greed and money as he was by want­ing to be able to walk into a room and have ev­ery­body go nuts and take his pic­ture,” Con­nolly said of the fame- and sta­tus-seek­ing scam­mer. “He wanted to sign au­to­graphs, and he wanted to be a star more than he wanted to be rich.”

The most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pect of Big Shot is that Con­nolly con­vinced Spano — who served jail time af­ter his Is­landers-pur­chase fraud was re­vealed — to agree to a sit-down in­ter­view for the film.

“Well, he def­i­nitely didn’t want to tell the story,” Con­nolly ex­plained. “I think he knew who I was from En­tourage, and I would be ly­ing if I said that didn’t play some part. I think I sort of played the hand of, ‘Lis­ten, I’m mak­ing this movie.’ And in hind­sight, it’s hard to imag­ine the movie with­out him, but in my head, I was mak­ing the movie with him or with­out him. So when I told him that, and he knew that I meant busi­ness, and I also gave him my word that I was go­ing to tell a cer­tain story and tell it a cer­tain way, he just had to take me at my word.

“And to his credit, he did, and if you asked him, he would tell you that I’m a man of my word and stood by ev­ery­thing that I said that I would do and didn’t do what I wouldn’t do... I wanted to tell sort of a fair and bal­anced story. More than any­thing, I just wanted to un­der­stand why he would do this, what was his sort of end game. So I would re­ally just stare at him and try to get in­side of his head, and some­how we landed on a fair ground. We had our fair share of (prob­lems) and we said re­ally hor­ri­ble things to each other.”

All in all, it’s a unique and cap­ti­vat­ing look in­side the busi­ness of hockey.

Also on the 30 for 30 ros­ter this fall are No Mas, an ex­plo­ration of the ri­valry be­tween box­ers Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Du­ran; This Is What They Want, a look back at Jimmy Con­nors’ stun­ning late-ca­reer run at the 1991 U.S. Open; and Tonya and Nancy, an ex­am­i­na­tion of the fig­ureskat­ing scan­dal that rocked the U.S. Olympic team in the run-up to the 1994 Win­ter Games in Lille­ham­mer.


Con­nolly (left), a life­long New York Is­landers fan, says he gave his word to Spano (above), who was re­luc­tant to tell his story, that he’d treat it in a fair and bal­anced way.


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