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In 'Big Shot,' Kevin Connolly looks at a new kind of game misconduct

They may not be immediately obvious, but the actor-director Kevin Connolly sees some similarities between the story of notorious sports con-man John Spano — the subject of his new documentary "Big Shot" — and "Entourage," the Hollywood comedy that, of course, put Connolly on the map.

"The thing that everyone liked about 'Entourage' is that these are fish-out-of-water guys living this dream. And that's what John was," Connolly told The Times, adding, "I’m sure he quietly thinks of himself as Vincent Chase."

Viewers might be reminded more of Ari Gold — and then some — upon watching Connolly’s film, which airs as part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series Tuesday night after a well-received screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in the spring.

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“Big Shot” tells of Spano, a small-time Dallas businessman who in 1996 bluffed his way into ownership of the struggling New York Islanders franchise. A hockey fan who believed, essentially, that it was his God-given right to own a team, Spano had made an ill-fated attempt to buy the Dallas Stars the year before. When he learned the Islanders were up for sale, he began wooing the team’s owner and the NHL.

Soon Spano, just 32, had reached an agreement in principal to pay $165 million for the Nassau Coliseum team despite — wait for it — possessing little means to do so. Eager for the cash, the club and league didn’t really bother to check.

As Spano took over as owner — strutting through team events, making executive moves, luxuriating in media attention — he somehow evaded scrutiny. The months wore on and the questions mounted, but not very fast, and even when Spano was engaging in bald-faced deceptions (“erroneously” wiring a check for $5,000 instead of $5 million), he somehow managed to keep the charade going. ("He hung out with rich people so we thought he was rich,” is a common refrain among many he duped). It’s a story so outrageous you’d roll your eyes at the implausibility if you saw it in a scripted film.

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Connolly, a longtime Islanders fan, recounts the wild story, even landing a rare interview with Spano, who comes off as equal parts sheepish and slimy reflecting on his bid for sports-savior status.

"Spano wanted to be what Mark Cuban became,” Connolly told The Times. “He had the idea first. Mark Cuban just had the money.”

Spano eventually was uncovered by a Newsday investigation and convicted of numerous fraud and forgery charges (in this scandal and others). He wound up spending a total of seven years in prison on two different occasions.

But it’s the story of why he did it that proves so revealing in the film.

In Spano's attempt to basically trick his way into team ownership lies an intriguing case study of how two uniquely American dysfunctions — self-entitlement and debt — can lead to someone getting in well over their head. The particulars are funny: Spano comes up with tall tales that make a delinquent third-grader's excuses look convincing. But the ideas behind them are dead serious. "Big Shot" reminded this viewer of "The Great Gatsby's Jay Gatsby (an assessment Connolly agrees with, saying,  “John wasn’t driven by greed — he was way more interested in the Coliseum chanting his name than he was flipping the team and making X number of dollars.")

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The movie also shows the collective delusion that is sports fandom. In one of the more heartbreaking moments, fans chant "Save Us Spano" with wide-eyed desperation as Spano beamingly looks on, the former not knowing and the latter not acknowledging that he could barely afford to buy a skybox, let alone the whole team.

At least the fans had reason to delude themselves. At the time Spano bought the club, the Islanders had become a shell of their former selves, their four straight Stanley Cups a distant memory. (The team is slowly beginning to recover. Slowly.) What's perhaps more remarkable is how the NHL, Islanders brass and the media went with the Spano narrative, which included a rich mythical relative named Angelo who bequeathed him millions of dollars. (He had no relative named Angelo.) Even in a pre-Google age, the collective ignorance that allowed Spano’s lies to flourish verges on the astounding.

Connolly, who continues his television acting career, is also building a resume as a director; he’s currently in postproduction on “Dear Eleanor,” a period indie about teenage girls who take a cross-country trip to see Eleanor Roosevelt. (He also hopes to star in the “Entourage” movie next year.) He actually was originally set only to narrate this movie — which is the latest in ESPN’s long-running “30 for 30” series —  before coming on as a director. The filmmaker, who gets a producing assist from veteran sports-film producers Mayhem Pictures (“Miracle," “Secretariat”), has a kind of everyman interview style that effectively brings out many of Spano’s pathologies. 

“Big Shot” is evidence of a kind of sports movie (several others, including ESPN’s “The Fab Five” a few years back, also come to mind) a million miles away from the kind of cheesy uplift many Hollywood sports movies traffic in. Instead, the film gets at the quirky flawed characters common to a good feature drama. Viewers will watch the movie and find themselves wondering just what exactly is going on inside Spano's mind.

Connolly said that he thinks it misses the point to view Spano as simply a garden-variety shaman. There was a deeper self-delusion going on, he says.

"In his head, John Spano was the owner of the team," Connolly said. "He wasn’t playing a role."


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