When it was announced in 1996 that John Spano had reached an agreement to buy the New York Islanders, he was seen as the owner who'd restore the struggling franchise to glory. Spano appeared to be exactly what the team needed: a deep-pocketed owner committed to not only keeping the franchise on Long Island but to improving the on-ice product. But Spano was too good to be true: In 1997, it was revealed that he wasn't the uber-wealthy businessman he claimed to be, and that he'd forged documents and told all manner of lies to become owner.
In the excellent 30 for 30 documentary Big Shot, premiering Tuesday on ESPN, director Kevin Connolly tells the story of Spano's emergence and fall. Connolly -- a lifelong Islanders fan best known as for his role on HBO's Entourage -- spoke with Sports on Earth about Spano's motives, where the blame lies, and why Mike Milbury is a documentary director's dream come true.
Q: How difficult was it to get Spano to talk to you?
A: It was pretty difficult, and involved. For obvious reasons, he was hesitant. It wasn't something he was looking to do. I've said this before, I think most people are afraid of what they don't know or understand, and I think the fact that I was coming to him, and that it was in the form of an ESPN 30 for 30, there's sort of a brand recognition there. I think he had an idea of what it was that he was getting himself into. I really think that was it. He knew who I was. He knew a little bit about me. He also just took me at my word that I was going to give him a fair chance to tell his side of the story.
Q: This played out in public as his story started to unravel, so you obviously knew a lot about Spano going into the project. But what did you learn doing it that you didn't already know?
A: The biggest thing for me --- and I was actually hoping to find this out, and now I firmly believe -- is that John wasn't driven by money or greed. He really wanted to be Mark Cuban. He wanted to be in the newspaper. He was intoxicated by the attention. You know, walking into a room and getting a standing ovation. And he'll be the first one to tell you, that's what sort of drove it. He wanted to be that guy. He wanted to be who Mark Cuban later went on to become.
Q: The film shows how little he was vetted during the process. Obviously, the real fault is with Spano, but who should have tripped this up? The Islanders? The NHL?
A: It's so easy to point the finger at the NHL, but me personally, with what I saw, I think it starts with Fleet Bank of Boston. How do you [loan] this guy $80 million? How do they let him show up with an $80 million check from their bank? How did that happen? Explain to me how they gave him $80 million. That to me is first and foremost .
And in terms of the NHL, I think it's a classic example of everybody assuming that everybody else is doing the vetting. Obviously, it's the NHL's responsibility, and I think that would never happen again. But I think that the NHL probably gets a little too much heat for it, to be honest. Fleet Bank of Boston looked at a phony piece of paper that he made in his house, and gave him an $80 million loan. And it's part of the problem of why our banking system is such a mess today. Because of that. In the 90s, they were just giving money away. And that's, to me, where it all starts. $80 million. I mean, can you imagine? With a phony document that you make in your house? And then you walk into the bank, and they give it to you? And he said they pressed him on it. Because he knew that once he took out that loan, he was really in the game. So he was kind of hesitant, and he says the bank was actually calling him and pressuring him. They actually pressured him into coming and signing for it. They were like, "Are you coming to get this money or not?"
Q: He went to increasingly absurd lengths to keep his lie going. Was there one thing in particular that stunned you?
A: The one that always jumps out to me was the IRA bombing in London. [Editor's note: In the wake of an IRA bombing in London, Spano had said the bombing had prevented his courier from delivering a $17 million payment he owed.] It's just so random and so far out there. I asked him in the movie, but even off camera, I'm like, "John, do you really not remember saying that? It's such a big lie. Do you not remember that?" And he's like, "Honestly Kevin, obviously I said it. But I don't remember that specific one. There were so many of them that I don't remember saying that one, but I don't doubt that I said it. I said lots of things." There were so many stories, he lost track of them. But that one to me is just on another level.
Q: As an Islanders fan, what did you think of Spano, before everything came out about the fraud?
A: Well, I'll tell you, I remember getting a call from a panicked Rangers fan. There was this big article on Spano and all these things that he was going to do. A good buddy of mine is a Rangers fan, and he and I our whole lives had always gone back and forth. And my buddy was nervous. He was like, my God this guy's gonna do all these things. How is that legal? What do you mean he's gonna sign Messier, and all these things he was gonna do. It was almost too good to be true. It was exciting. And then when it fell apart, it was kind of strange. It was hard to piece together. More bizarre than anything. The whole saga -- it was like a perfect storm of weirdness.
Q: There's an Alan Hahn quote in the movie that Spano actually sort of saved the Islanders, by extending their cable deal. What do you think of that idea that Spano may have actually saved the franchise?
A: You know, it's funny, I definitely did my homework for doing this movie, and the Alan Hahn and Peter Botte interviews are so insightful. I had no idea -- that was news to me the second it fell out of Hahn's mouth. I couldn't believe it. But yeah, laugh if you want, but it's true. And this is a fact for sure, that they sold the team four months later for $30 million more. All that coverage drove the team up $30 million in value. They say there's no such thing as bad publicity -- that is a perfect example.
Q: It seemed like Mike Milbury was an especially good person to talk to for this, because he had a unique relationship with Spano.
A: Yeah. The other thing is, I'm a hockey fan, I'm an Islander fan, but I'm also a filmmaker, trying to make an entertaining film. And my goodness, Milbury is just great. He's just great TV. He was just a blast to interview. Say what you want about Milbury, he was just phenomenal in the movie. He's outspoken. What you see is what you get. And the back and forth between him and John -- that was a real relationship. But I'll tell you what, out of all the people, their stories match up the most. Even though there's that thing of who fired who, and whether or not [Milbury] stepped down [as head coach], those guys still had a similar idea of what happened. Those guys who were at the core of it tell the same story, generally.
This interview has been edited and condensed.