Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

30 For 30: Big Shot

Illustration for article titled 30 For 30: Big Shot

Big Shot tells the story of how a 32-year-old schlub named John Spano became the ultimate fantasy-sports hero. In 1996, Spano “bought” the New York Islanders and owned the team for four months, until it became clear, after weeks of bluffing and renegotiations, that he wasn’t being eccentric or difficult or playing hardball: He didn’t have the $165 million he’d agreed to pay when the contracts were signed. As con men go, Spano was far from a brilliant schemer. (Although his excuses for having missed his latest scheduled payment became increasingly baroque; his first chess move was to send a $1700 check when he’d promised to send one for $17 million, and then claiming to be astonished that all those zeros had somehow dropped off. Eventually, he tripped himself up by concocting forged documents from a bank and sending them from his own fax machine.) Nor did he have an end game in mind. He just thought it would be really sweet to own a sports team, and circumstances made it possible for him to own this one. (More than one interview subject refers to those circumstances surrounding the sale as “a perfect storm.”)  He refers to the experience of spending four months being cheered by fans and stalling lawyers as “the fulfillment of a dream.”

Interviewed today, with many years’ worth of hindsight at his disposal, Spano says that he’d do it all again; as he sees it, he didn’t hurt a soul, and if the big guys hadn’t been so pissy about getting their money and had just been cool and waited for his ship to come in, maybe something wonderful would have happened. (One witness here gives Spano credit for a cable-TV deal that, he says, is the main reason the Islanders are still in business, decades after their glory days.) The most jaw-dropping moment in the entire film may be when, at the end, Spano says that after his house of cards came crashing down, his father told him that he could take pride in having “rolled the dice” and taken his chances; unlike others, he said, he wouldn’t spend the rest of his life wondering, “What if?” Whether you find Spano—whose interview here marks the first time he’s agreed to try to publicly explain what the hell he thought he was doing—disgusting or pathetic or kind of likable or sort of heroic may depend on how you feel about the fantasy of life as high school with real money, and the celebration of maximum reward for minimal talent and effort, as enshrined in the HBO series Entourage. Kevin Connolly, who played the guy in Entourage who was supposed to have a working brain and who directed “Big Shot,” seems to get a kick out of the guy.

Originally, Connolly was only supposed to narrate this film, but he stepped into the director’s chair when the slot suddenly became vacant. His narration would be enough to give you shudders, even if it wasn’t reflective of the guiding sensibility behind the whole film. “Big Shot” opens with an extended tribute to the Islanders of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the team that won four straight Stanley Cups and 19 playoff series in a row, described by Connolly as “an incomprehensible winning streak.” (Just as incomprehensibly, he seems equally excited that the team is responsible for “the invention of the playoff beard, a tradition that survives today.”) The tone of this is summed up when Connolly wheezes, “For a young Islander fan growing up on Long Island, the Islanders were gods. Why am I so sure of that? Because I was that kid!” He seems to want us to know that, to a powerful degree, he still is: When he describes Spano taking “his folder of phony documents to Fleet Bank in Boston” and getting a loan for $80 million, he hammers the words “80! Million! Dollars!” as if he can scarcely believe it.  This is a story that calls for clear-sightedness, journalistic skills, and maybe an icy, cynical wit. Whether he’s gassing on about the unbelievable greatness of his favorite sports team’s “legendary dynasty” or laying out the details of Spano’s swindle, Connolly has only one attitude: Get a load of this!!

In his onscreen interviews with the older but no-damn-wiser Spano, Connolly sports a relaxed-press-junket look, wearing a light growth of facial hair and a blue T-shirt, and probably logging as much screen time as all the previous 30 For 30 directors combined. He listens sympathetically to Spano’s tales of self-deceived woe, sometimes signaling deep concentration by nodding his head vigorously, as if an invisible hand were trying to get the BB in the bear’s eye. He’s a distraction: His fan’s personal connection to this story matters less than he seems to think it does, and as a director, he doesn’t drill very deep; he stretches the material out, and he makes the same points and says the same things so many times that it begins to seem that he doubts the viewer’s ability to keep up. ( “A winning lottery ticket was just what John Spano needed. Because he wasn’t a tycoon. He wasn’t anything of the kind. From the minute he was announced as the new owner of the Islanders. John Spano made a strong impression. Spano was all business. A hands-on, “buck stops here” kind of guy. But he wasn’t really a high roller. And he wasn’t a tycoon. John Spano was not what he said he was.” Second verse, same as the first…)

The way “Big Shot” tells this story, it comes across as less interesting than it has any right to be. Spano did something that seems almost unbelievable, but from the testimony here, it wasn’t that hard: He was taken to be rich because he told people he was rich, and then when he bought something with money he didn’t have, he was able to keep the balls in the air for a while, because nobody could readily accept that anybody would have the chutzpah to do what he’d done. Aside from the fact that he broke the hearts of the team’s fans, who were so desperate by the time he showed up that they chanted “Save us, Spano” when he showed up at games, he dealt a serious blow to cause of reality, and the reverberations continue. (One witness identified as a hardcore Islanders fan and Skybox habitué says, “You gotta give him credit. He was a real capitalist,” which suggests a badly confused definition of capitalism that may be more widely accepted than it ought to be.)  Not surprisingly, the tartest comments come from former Islanders coach/general manager Mike Milbury, who got to the top on actual accomplishment, then had to deal with being a supporting player in Spano’s  daydreams while also trying to actually win some games. “He was a jerk,” says Milbury. “He was an asshole. He might have been a happy-go-lucky asshole with some right intentions… but call a spade a spade! He was a jerk.”