Meltdown man

Jim Lites was startled when he walked into the handsome University Park home of a new business associate two years ago. Lites, president of the Dallas Stars hockey team, was among a handful of sports and business executives invited to a small cocktail party at the $2.5 million home. He expected to find the typical Park Cities amenities inside--fine furnishings, expensive artwork, hired help.

But instead of French antiques and tapestries, Lites remembers seeing only a few sticks of furniture.

"It was a nice house, one of the nicest in the neighborhood," he says. "But there was no furniture. I mean, it was sparse."

It struck Lites as a bit odd that his host--a man who claimed to be worth $100 million and was then offering $42 million to buy half of the Stars--would be rattling around in an unfurnished mansion.

Such was Lites' first introduction to the illusory world of John A. Spano Jr.

Spano's bid to buy the Stars ultimately fell through. Now, the 33-year-old University Park man faces federal charges of bank and wire fraud in New York, where federal investigators contend that Spano lied about his personal worth, bounced millions of dollars in checks, and forged documents in an attempt to buy the New York Islanders hockey team. Authorities are still trying to piece together how Spano--whose financial foundation began showing fissures at least one year earlier--was able to secure an $80 million loan this spring to buy the troubled team. The case prosecutors are building against Spano alleges a trail of lies and deceit stretching all the way back to his 15 minutes of fame in Dallas when he was attempting to buy the Stars.

The mysterious businessman--who has long avoided the Dallas press and spoken only vaguely about the origins of his supposed wealth--is now at the epicenter of a financial scandal that is rocking the professional hockey world. And Dallas businessmen like Lites, who watched Spano's aborted effort to buy part of the Stars, are just glad it didn't happen here.

Last February, Spano received the National Hockey League's approval to buy the Islanders from owner John O. Pickett for $165 million. But when a $16.8 million payment to close the sale came due on April 7, the check never arrived. More than three months later, after Spano offered myriad excuses for bouncing checks to Pickett, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stepped in to mediate. On July 11, Spano signed an agreement to drop out of the sale.

Instead of jetting about as the owner of a hockey franchise, Spano spent last week trying to stay out of jail, struggling to scrape together $1.5 million in cash toward his $3 million bail. He made bail on July 28 by putting up the equity in his home and those of his mother and sister

As Spano's supposed fortunes began dissolving under scrutiny, Jim Lites couldn't help but think back to that unsettling cocktail party at Spano's house.

The quiet transplant from New York had appeared almost out of nowhere in 1995 with his offer to buy half of the Stars.

On September 15, 1995, Stars owner Norman Green announced Spano's offer to a befuddled press. No one had heard of the man. He was a Stars season ticket holder, described as passionate for the game. But Spano was a complete stranger to even the most seasoned sports and business writers.

The initial plan was for Spano to buy 50 percent of the Stars for $42 million. The deal was supposed to close within a week of the announcement. One week slipped by, Lites recalls. Then another. And another.

Suddenly, Lites says, Spano began nitpicking minor budget items, questioning team structure, and challenging even the smallest executive decisions. "Our negotiations amounted to seven months of silliness," Lites says. "John Spano jacked us around like you wouldn't believe. Up until September, everything he had done was strictly according to Hoyle. And then, suddenly, he couldn't--or wouldn't--close the deal."

Finally, by November, Green had had enough. He halted negotiations, saying publicly that Spano seemed too concerned with "details" to finish the deal. The rest is history. Dallas financier Tom Hicks renewed an earlier bid for the Stars, and the owners accepted. Within 30 days, Hicks closed on the $84 million deal and was the new owner of the team.

But Spano's burning desire to own an NHL team was apparently not extinguished. He began talks the following April with H. Wayne Huizenga about purchasing the Florida Panthers hockey team. The deal was quickly aborted.

Still undeterred, Spano shifted his efforts to Long Island, where NHL Commissioner Bettman introduced Spano to team owner Pickett, and their negotiations for the Islanders took off.

Since the Islanders sale imploded, the hazy picture of John Spano is coming into better focus. Federal prosecutors and a voracious New York press are hot on the trail of the man who once called hockey his "greatest love."

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Holly Mullen