Meltdown man

John Spano was just a dull, two-bit Dallas businessman before he tried to buy a professional hockey team. Now he's been charged with bank fraud, and his claims of wealth and business prowess are dissolving in the glare of scorching publicity.

Those whom Spano has dealt with, from Dallas to New York, are scratching their heads, wondering how it all happened. How, for at least the last three years, has Spano passed himself off as independently wealthy, a trust fund baby, a skillful entrepreneur with worldwide connections? How, when the average working stiff struggles to pin down a mortgage or even a simple car loan, did Spano allegedly con a vice president of Comerica Bank into believing he was worth $100 million? In truth, prosecutors contend, Spano's holdings at the Dallas bank amounted to somewhere between $25,000 and $100,000.

Pudgy, unassuming, even described as "dour" by one former associate, Spano quietly muscled his way into the showy world of sports business. It all began here in Dallas, where Spano started a small leasing business, quickly moved into the right neighborhood, bought a $66,000 BMW, and set out to be someone. Ironically, Spano may yet achieve that goal--as pro hockey's greatest hustler.

Spano did not respond to several requests for interviews from the Dallas Observer. His New York City lawyer, Nicholas Gravante Jr., has advised him not to talk to the press, and has maintained Spano's innocence since his arrest.

Watching the events of the last several days, all Lites can do is shake his head, take a deep breath, and think back to the night he walked into Spano's cavernous, empty home. Considering how it might have turned out if the Stars had struck a deal with Spano, Lites says, "I feel privileged to be in the situation we are. Believe me, after the revelations of the last two weeks, I feel nothing but good."

When John Spano stepped up to buy the New York Islanders last winter, he was hailed as nothing short of a savior. The team is the only professional sports franchise on Long Island, which sits in the shadow of New York City's huge sports empire. In the early '80s, the Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups. Attendance was at an all-time high, and everyone was a fan. But the team has failed to make the NHL playoffs for the last three years.

As the team slid, so did ticket sales. The aging Nassau Coliseum, where the Islanders play, needed major renovation. The Islanders' front office reported losses of $5 million to $8 million annually for the last five years.

Islanders owner John Pickett and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman turned to Spano, saying he offered the beleaguered team youth, money, and a love for the game. Spano agreed to pay $165 million in all--$80 million for the team, and an additional $85 million for the lucrative cable television rights, which generate about $13 million a year for the franchise.

Spano, according to court documents, paid the first $80million with a loan from Fleet Bank of Boston, secured by the team, its assets, and the cable rights. The second half of the deal was to be paid off in annual installments. The first payment--$16.8 million--was due at the April 7 closing. That day, Spano's lawyers told Pickett the money was on its way, showing Pickett a letter from a London bank that pledged to wire the money before the day was out.

Apparently comfortable with that assurance, Pickett closed the deal with Spano. But three months later, the check still had not arrived. By early July, based on tips from the Islanders' front office that Spano was far less than he appeared to be, a team of reporters for Newsday, the daily newspaper on Long Island, fanned out across the country, digging all the way back into Spano's childhood on the upper East Side of Manhattan. The paper checked birth and death records and probate documents, and interviewed neighbors, high school pals, and former employers, determined to learn if Spano was the high roller he claimed to be.

There was nothing about Spano's life that shouted "rich" or "privileged," and no trace can be found of the vast wealth Spano has repeatedly claimed to have inherited.

John A. Spano Jr. was born to John A. and Anne Spano on May 31, 1964. In the mid-'70s, according to Newsday, the Spano family moved to Madison, Ohio, a small rural community about 40 miles east of Cleveland on Lake Erie. John Sr. worked as a manager for a Rock Creek, Ohio, company and bought a house in 1977 for $94,000. Spano has one sister, 30-year-old Lisa Spano Harting, who also lives in Ohio. Neither Harting nor Spano's mother returned calls from the Observer.

In a resume he provided to the Islanders, Spano said he was a graduate of "St. John's Academy," an exclusive prep school in Ohio. In truth, he attended St. John's High School in Ashtabula--a parochial school in a neighboring suburb. Like the associates Spano would meet in Dallas years later, high school friends Newsday interviewed recalled nothing showy or outstanding about Spano. He played basketball and golf, but did not make the varsity teams. They remembered him as a decent student.

In 1986, Spano graduated with a bachelor's degree in finance from Duquesne University, a private Catholic school in Pittsburgh. It was in college that he made the acquaintance of Mario Lemieux, who would later lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to two straight Stanley Cup titles and be lauded as one of hockey's greatest players.

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