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Big Shot a look at major league scam artist

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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 premi®res 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 shallow-pocketed 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 economics 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 all-time 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 figure-skating scandal that rocked the U.S. Olympic team in the run-up to the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 G3

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