What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called The Second Annual Broadway Bound Blog-A-Thon which is being hosted by Taking Up Room. This is the third blog-a-thon she has hosted in which I’ve taken part, and I’m always glad to do so as she always comes up with great topics…and this time is certainly no exception. Be sure to check out her page, along with all the tremendous blogs featured in our blogroll!
You can view all the contributions to this blog-a-thon here:
In the summer of 1912, a traveling salesman, calling himself “Professor Harold Hill” (played by Robert Preston), arrives in River City, Iowa with the intention of swindling the townsfolk. The scam is Hill purports to be a traveling band instructor; as such he plans to con the citizens of River City into paying him to create a marching band. The idea is to sell them on the vision of a town band complete with instruments, uniforms, music instruction books…the whole shot. Hill’s real intention was to skip town once the instruments and uniforms arrive…and he has everybody’s money.
To get the townsfolk to feel the need for a band, Hill enlists the help of Marcellus Washburn (played by Buddy Hackett). The con starts with Hill and Wallace convincing the parents in River City that their children on are the verge of being drawn into a maelstrom of vice; the vortex which will suck in the town’s youth is the recently-arrived pool table. Once that hook was set, Hill dangles the bait that a marching band is the only way to keep the kids away from the trouble the pool table represents.
Hill’s first obstacle comes in the form of Mayor Shinn (played by Paul Ford), who is not only town’s leader, he just so happens to own the billiard parlor where the new pool table resides. This leads to a race between Hill’s plan and Mayor Shinn’s discovery of who he really is; Shinn has the school board investigate Hill’s background. Being the consummate con man, Hill runs a series of evasive actions, all to maintain the effort to get to the money.
However, one of Hill’s evasive moves draws a complication. Originally, Hill tries to charm Marian the Librarian (played by Shirley Jones) figuring that she will be yet another obstacle. He proves to be right; Marian “gets the goods” on him. But because Hill has charmed Marian’s mother Madam Peru and has extracted her reclusive little brother Winthrop (played by Ronny Howard) from his shell, the very same Marian who is “Gloria Steinem”-level distrustful of men just so happens to find herself falling in love with Hill. Subsequently, she buries the dirt she’s dug up on him.
As the romance between Marian and the “Professor” grows, trouble arrives in the form of Charlie Cowell, a disgruntled anvil salesman who had been run out of another town because Hill poisoned the proverbial well for all traveling salesmen with another of his scams. After Cowell spills the beans on Hill, the populace of River City becomes the classic “angry mob” which intends to tar and feather the so-called “professor.”
Both Marcellus and Marian implore Hill to get out of town before the mob gets their hands on him, but he realizes he too is in love and refuses to leave. Naturally, he is captured by the crowd, but before they can exact their revenge, Marian comes to his defense, reminding them that Hill has brought the townspeople together by his efforts, no matter how illusory they may have been. Mayor Shinn throws the counter-argument about of how much money Hill has taken from them to form a band…and has not yet shown a result.
At the moment Shinn boisterously demands to know “Where’s the band?” Hill’s neck is saved by several boys led by Winthrop who march into the town meeting playing Beethoven’s Minuet in G on their instruments. Despite the fact they are terrible, the parents of River City are taken by the fact their children are in a band, and that’s all they see.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
Today’s sports analogy took place during the fall of 1996 through the spring of 1997 when a huckster named John Spano agreed to buy the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders from longtime owner John Pickett for a total of $165 million. Without diving deep into the intricacies of the deal, it really centered on two main components; $80 million would go to acquiring Pickett’s 90 percent stake in the Islanders, with another $85 million ear-marked for the purchase of the team’s lucrative cable television contract with SportsChannel New York. Spano later sweetened the deal by agreeing to buy the remaining 10 percent of the team held by the management group that had been running the Islanders’ day-to-day operations since 1989.
You need to understand that by the mid-90s, the marriage between Pickett and the Islanders was dying a slow, lingering death. The Islanders were best known for being an NHL expansion team founded in 1972 as part of the that league’s efforts to block the rival World Hockey Association (WHA) from placing a franchise in the newly-built Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in the Long Island suburb of Uniondale. In very short order, they became one of the best teams in the NHL; starting with their third season, the Islanders made fourteen straight playoff appearances. During that stretch, the Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983. Their 19 consecutive playoff series wins between 1980 and 1984 is a feat that remains unparalleled in the history of professional sports; as such the New York Islanders remain in any major professional North American sport to win four consecutive championships.
But by 1996, the Islanders’ dynasty had clearly declined; they had missed the playoffs in five of the last eight seasons. On top of that, attendance was in the doldrums and rumors were being bandied about that John Pickett was entertaining offers to relocate the team to cities such as Atlanta, Nashville, or Houston; none of which had an NHL presence at the time.
In other words, the stage was set for Spano’s entry; Pickett wants out, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t really want to see the Islanders move. To make a long story short, Spano is ready to buy and Pickett is ready to sell, but there’s one small problem.
Spano doesn’t have the money.
Pickett and Bettman are so starry-eyed over the thought Spano could be the savior of the Islanders they never bother to do the due diligence on him. This proves to be particularity embarrassing for Bettman; I’ll come back to that in a bit.
For reasons we may never know, Spano almost got away with this scam. What we do know is he got as far as he did because he kept saying all the things everybody wanted to hear. Spano not only promised not to relocate the team, he said he would either renovate or replace the aging Nassau Coliseum. As long as he was singing that song, Pickett and Bettman took Spano’s story at face value. Spano was selling himself as the owner of a leasing operation that he’d built from one company with four employees to a group of 10 companies with 6,000 employees worldwide in just six years. He claimed to have a net worth of worth $230 million due to a trust set up by a very wealthy relative.
At first glance, Spano should have seemed too good to be true to Pickett, who for years had refused to sell his decaying franchise because nobody would meet his $75 million asking price. But to Spano’s credit, he ran a damn good financial version of “Three Card Monte” using a series of letters as his bona fides. One was from a vice president at Comerica Bank named Joseph Lynch, another was from an executive named “Clive Jones” from the British bank Lloyd’s of London, and a third came from a Dallas lawyer named “T. McCullogh Strother” who was supposed to be the administrator of Spano’s trust fund.
If that weren’t enough, Spano somehow managed to use those letters to nail down an $80 million loan from Fleet Bank. It was that loan, along with yet another letter from Fleet Bank that made everybody believe this guy was on the level. That loan along with his aforementioned burning desire to sell led Pickett to sign a five-year installment package for the cable rights, and the league’s other owners approved the deal in February 1997.
The first payment on the cable rights was supposed to be paid April 7th, 1997 for $16.5 million. When the money never showed up, Spano whipped out another letter from Lloyd’s of London promising Pickett the payment would be made. Again, Pickett took Spano for his word and closed the deal.
While he isn’t paying Pickett, Spano is already pumping money into the Islanders’ payroll. For $2.5 million, Spano bought enough power to force then head coach and general manager Mike Milbury to give his coaching role to Rick Bowness. This was a popular move with fans, and coupled with Spano’s promise he intended the Islanders to be a major player in the free-agent market. Pickett is still buying the dream, the fans are buying the dream, commissioner Bettman and the NHL are buying the dream…Spano’s scam is now 100% full-on.
At this point. Spano is totally playing the part of the team’s owner. He hosts friends, business associates, and celebrities in his luxury box, he’s traveling on private jets, hosting media members in limousine-chauffeured lunches, and holding court at parties in the swankiest New York hotels.
Now the problem is two-fold. Not only does Spano not have the money, he hasn’t actually bought anything yet…because he hasn’t paid for anything yet.
The proverbial “shit hit the fan” in June 1997 at the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting. Right before this meeting, Pickett sent a scathing letter to Bettman ratting out Spano for not having made Spano any of the required payments. Not only had Spano not paid, but he literally gave Pickett a never-ending supply of “the check is in the mail” stories.
By the time we get to the Board of Governors meeting, Spano was conspicuously absent. Instead, the Islanders were represented by two of Pickett’s men, who laid out the laundry list of Spano’s shenanigans. Out of the $85 million Spano was supposed to have paid for the cable contract, he’d only actually come across with $26,200. Another check for $17 million straight-up bounced. Subsequently, Spano sent a wire transfer to make up for the bounced check, but it was only for $1,700; Spano claimed that it was simply an error in where the decimal point was. He used that same story for a $5 million wire that arrived as only $5,000. The final straw for Pickett was Spano stopping payment on a check, who blamed the stoppage on a series of excuses ranging from his wife’s chemotherapy treatments to a bomb threat made against London’s financial district by the Irish Republican Army.
Once Pickett pulled the plug on Spano’s chicanery, New York Newsday started digging up all the dirt they could on the man now suspected of being a charlatan. What emerged from that investigation revealed this entire transaction was an amalgamation of greed, not doing the due diligence, and half-assed-pencil pushing all held together with a web of Spano’s lies.
By July, Newsday had discovered all sorts of non-truths about Spano. For starters:
The morass only gets deeper from here. Not long after Spano’s cover was blown, it emerged that he was being sued by South African cookware maker Lenco Holdings. Spano had signed a deal with Spano in which he would broker a deal with the American retailer Nordstrom to sell Lenco’s pots and pans in it’s stores. Again, this was a complete ruse; Nordstrom did not then sell cookware. He doubled-down on this fraud by using the venture to secure to secure a $1 million loan from his Comerica Bank.
Spano’s personal life was also largely a grand work of fiction. His palatial $3 million home in suburban Dallas was underwater on a nearly $2 million mortgage and was at the time in arrears to the tune $85,000 in back taxes and penalties. The limousines and the private jet were leased, and he had several “good friends” such as hockey Hall-of-Famer Mario Lemieux and Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach to whom he owed millions of dollars.
At this point, a very interesting thing happens; now that Spano’s cover has been blown, all the involved parties start looking for cover of their own. That’s because the Newsday investigation revealed that the federal government was also looking into Spano’s dealings investigation into Spano’s affairs was well underway. On July 23, 1997, federal prosecutors on Long Island charged Spano with multiple counts of bank fraud, wire fraud, and forgery. On August 14, 1997 federal prosecutors in Fort Worth indicted Spano with additional unrelated charges of bank fraud and wire fraud for bilking two lenders out of $5.1 million. The dominoes continued to fall as soon afterward, federal prosecutors in Boston (home to Fleet Bank) began investigating Spano regarding the $80 million loan.
All these criminal charges brought out all the ugly details. From 1995 onward, Spano had forged numerous letters from bank officials to support his business dealings; including those he used in the attempt to purchase of the Islanders. Another fact which had people running for cover was many of the banks who lent money to Spano had ignored their traditional safeguards. In the case of Fleet Bank, they handed Spano the $80 million loan on nothing more than the aforementioned Lynch letter from Comerica Bank. Fleet later admitted the letter was “unverified,” and when it came to light Spano had bribed Lynch to write it, the Fleet loan officer who approved the $80 million deal was forced to resign.
Then there’s the matter of T. McCullogh Strother, the Dallas attorney who was supposed to be the administrator of Spano’s trust fund. Strother told the feds he couldn’t verify the trust’s existence because Spano wouldn’t document the funds allegedly worth $107 million, yet he still signed an attestation the trust was real.
As far as Lloyd’s of London was concerned, they disavowed any knowledge of Spano’s activities and further stated Lloyd’s of London said they had no employees by the name of “Clive Jones.” The final nails in Spano’s coffin came when it was discovered many of the documents allegedly faxed from the various entities in this story were actually sent from the machine at Spano’s Bison
Group; as such they were damning evidence the of the crimes being committed.
After all that, the gold medal for “covering one’s own ass” in all of this goes the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Somehow, he managed to mediate a deal between Spano and Pickett in which Spano relinquished control of the Islanders to Pickett; in return Pickett agreed not to sue Spano for breach of contract. There’s a great reason why Bettman wanted to keep all of this out of court. The minute this would have become a matter of public record through court documents, the entire would would have seen how the NHL played a huge role in creating this mess.
First of all, there’s the fact the league paid a former FBI agent to run a background check on Spano, a check that supposedly didn’t turn up anything. The only way that happens is if the check was never done, because in the midst of all this, there’s a lawsuit which had been filed by a Dallas law firm claiming they were not paid over $1 million in fees for services rendered.
Here’s the kicker. Bettman and the NHL didn’t even need to run that background check; they should have already known what Spano was all about. That’s because the Dallas law firm was suing Spano for work they did during his abortive attempt to buy the NHL’s Dallas Stars; an attempt which was full of the same kind of shenanigans as was with that of the Islanders. If that weren’t enough, there was a similar situation in which Spano tried to buy the Colorado Avalanche.
Boil it all down and there’s just no way this story ever should have happened. But it did, because as the commissioner of the National Hockey League, Gary Bettman was the one person in this story tasked with ensuring shit like this doesn’t happen…well, he chose not to do that job on several occasions.
Too bad Robert Preston isn’t still alive…I would bet Professor Harold Hill would love to buy a hockey team.
The Moral of The Story:
People believe what they want to believe; but ignoring and/or denying reality to do so is the hallmark of stupidity…and it can land you on the wrong side of the law.
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