The Tribeca Diary
I’m sitting on a leather couch in an upscale bar on Fulton Street and New York Giant cornerback Prince Amukamura is a few feet to my right. My colleague/friend/socializer Kris Venezia is next to me and we engage in conversation to avoid any awkward stares in our direction, which we knowingly received from many people, including Hannah Storm’s younger daughters to our left. You see we inadvertently had situated ourselves in the VIP section of the bar, an open room with neon lighting that offered us a chance to breathe. There were no signs delineating this space from the rest of the log-jammed upper-class attendees in the dimly lit gathering hole, but no one told us to leave. When you act like you’re supposed to be somewhere, no one really questions you.
That understanding didn’t directly enter my conscience as I naively stepped into sacred space, but it could have been in my subconscious. I had just seen the film Big Shot about corporate scammer and improbable New York Islanders’ owner John Spano, one of several ESPN documentaries making its premiere the past week. I was granted access to the film’s aforementioned after-party thanks to an admit one green ticket you might find at a county fair auction, a rather small token for a luxurious event like this.
Somehow I’ve managed two after-parties the last two years I’ve covered the Tribeca Film Festival-- the other was for the band Journey’s doc “Don’t Stop Believin’-- and I’m not sure why. You migrate from theater to bar amidst the lower east-side neighborhood’s jumbled collision of streets that have ceased being numbers and you eventually follow the herds of suits to the right location. It’s mysterious, and then you enter, rub shoulders, and try not to be awkward until you leave shortly after.
Of course, the Tribeca Film Festival is an event that can highlight some young filmmakers, give subpar films a chance, and occasionally lay claim to showcasing a bigger budget feature. For anyone attending it however, it can be as big a maze as roaming around Tribeca itself. There are several types of publicists, some for screenings, some designated just for the red carpet; for some it’s impossible to tell which is which. I write my name down on a list when I arrive at the carpet and as soon as I do a handful of photographers begin second guessing the validity of the list I just signed. “What about the other list that guy’s holding?” Oh, the humanity. That will all quickly become white noise but red carpet experiences are mostly thankless ones. Unless you have an ESPN or E! logo around your microphone, questioning time will be limited and sparse, answers will be worn down and regurgitated mechanically, and there may sometimes be a small verbal altercation with a reporter next to you who claims they were supposed to have the last question, and not you! (Luckily this was not my experience this year, but one in the past).
The movie in question for this red carpet, screening, and gala is as I mentioned Big Shot, directed by Kevin Connolly, the famed “Entourage” actor who has started his slow trajectory into directing. The documentary is an imperfect but fascinating, outrageous story about John Spano, the owner of the New York Islanders for four long months in the mid 1990s who lied his way into the front office. Yes, this guy from Texas owned a small company, maybe not even worth six figures, and with a little paperwork trickery and socializing with the right people passed as a guy worth billions. The Dallas Stars actually rejected his phoniness when he applied to become their owner. The Islanders however were content to let their dwindling franchise be revitalized by an ostensibly no-named wealthy mogul in an attempt to save the team. He couldn’t front the down payment because his money was “tied up” overseas. “Get it to us later” the organization said.
The film explores the history of the once great Islanders during their four year Stanley Cup championship run in the late seventies. Connolly, a life-long Islanders fan, is up front from the beginning that he’s been a die-hard since he was a kid, and narrates (he probably shouldn’t have) the franchise’s slow decline until the Spano hoopla began. Spano was supposedly making millions and yet asked questions about how the lotto paid out. There was reason for speculation, but the Islanders assumed that Gary Bettman and the NHL would do the vetting, and they thought the Islanders would. Connolly sits down with Spano for a one on one during the film and the scammer explains how everyday he’d have to think about what story to make up.
Spano seems completely uncomfortable when discussing his exploits with Connolly, but not necessarily ashamed. Which is the odd part about this man. For all of his trouble, he doesn’t think twice about saying he’d do it all again. Part of the documentary’s success is simply due to the fact that its subject matter has got to be partially insane, and also that he actually pulled it off. “Last night I was throwing up,” Spano tells us on the Red Carpet when asked if he was nervous before watching his deviancy on screen with a New York crowd for the first time. “We never talked about [the film, referring to his friends], the first time was on film of all places. In some ways it was cathartic and got me over some things I had been carrying around.”
Making things more awkward in the theater are watching the film’s colorful talking heads rip this guy, like former Islanders’ coach Mike Millbury. We interview Connolly in a rare opportunity to speak with a celebrity at my eye level. “This is pre-Mark Cuban, before the super owner, so here was this guy that was going to come in, build a new building, was going to sign Messier, was going to buy the Stanley Cup, pull a Steinbrenner, a Jerry Jones,” says Connolly. Well, he didn’t. But he did switch the team’s uniforms, the insult to the fraudulent injury.
I walk out of the after-party and down to the subway. So rapid is the environment change from upper-class nightlife to the underground grime. It’s kind of similar to Spano’s million-dollar life at the top and subsequent fall into the prison cell. Before I leave I ask Amukamura (I still don’t know why he was there) if he is nervous about the NFL Draft. “As long as they don’t draft a corner.” They didn’t.
Speaking of meteoric rises and falls, there’s Lenny Cooke, the eponymous documentary by brother filmmakers Ben and Joshua Safdie about the could-have-been megastar now cautionary tale touring the country. He was the best high school basketball player in the country; better then Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Better than LeBron James. He didn’t start playing until he was sixteen, which is insane but also a testament to his natural 6’8” power slamming, crisscrossing ability. The year was 2001 and the three of the first four NBA draft picks were high schoolers, like the historical first overall selection Kwame Brown. The film’s producer knew that draft would change everything for basketball, so he rounded up the Safdie’s, only 15 and 17 at the time, to document Cooke and his inevitable jump from high school to the pros the next year.
It was probably going to be a one to two year process. Capture his life before, during and a little after David Stern called his name from the podium. It ended up taking twelve years and the only footage of Cooke and organized basketball is his time at prospect tournaments and then years later watching his former competition on TV. When did things go wrong? These are answers somewhat unexplainable but paradoxically understandable. It’s a contradiction the film attempts to display but also consciously shies away from as we jump from the grainy home video quality of the early 2000’s to the HD era of Cooke’s present reality, now a shadow of his former physically dominating presence, still struggling with the same broken, repeated lexicon of “Naw mean?” that ends his sentences. The video quality change is cruel metaphor and one I’m sure Cooke would’ve had the other way. His basketball career is figuratively and quite literally a blur. Years after, his regret and misfortune are crystal clear.
Of course that’s also just the reality of the extended process that this film took to make. Cooke became the poster child of a naïve kid with no work ethic and all the talent in the world. A Brooklyn native, his later years in high school were spent in suburban New Jersey with his guardian Debby- who necessarily spoiled him but gave him a chance to escape his posse’s urban culture and focus just on basketball. He shows up late to 5 Star Basketball camps, fakes pushups, and then turns heads on the court. It’s later inferred his demise was his decision to leave Debby for a no name agency he happily signed to receive a lump sum of money. He says after the screening in the theater that he never knew how the agent even found him.
That decision sent him to Flint, Michigan and he didn’t play organized ball after that for over a year but would still make his press conference at Junior’s Cheesecake in Brooklyn to announce his entrance into the 2002 NBA Draft. Commissioner Stern never called his name that night. Cooke had no college back-up and little to no future. He would go on to play sparingly in minor leagues like the CBA, USBL, and in leagues overseas, but his performance never reached the right eyes, was never given a chance. It’s a doc similar to Billy Corben’s “Broke” that premiered last year at Tribeca. There’s no narration or much omniscience. We just witness the two alternate universes of a man with everything ahead of him and one quickly with it all behind.
As Lenny Cooke cuts towards the present, we see Lenny watching LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony play against each other during a Heat and Knicks game, guys he rubbed shoulders with during his All-American tourneys. It stings to watch his overweight self watch in his less than sanitary Virginia home, just as it stings to see his broken relationships with members of his old entourage. Cooke was so far ahead of the curve at 17 that he hit the club instead of the books. There is a strange tone at the ending Q and A of the film; a thunderous applause arises for Lenny as he walks down the aisle to join the directors. It’s clear the brothers have grown close to him when one of them starts talking about how the NBA doesn’t respect individuals. “LeBron’s a machine,” he says, and then alludes to a previously troubled J.R. Smith as being a “real” person that has finally molded into NBA form. The real answer to Cooke’s downfall, which these two filmmakers maybe refuse to accept, is that Lenny just didn’t want to be a machine.
Back in the beginning of the film, a sixteen-year-old Cooke is eating McDonald’s with his friends while watching the NBA Draft. Cut to the present, and his fiancée wipes away tears from her eyes as she questions her and Cooke’s present reality. “How do you go from the NBA Draft to working at McDonald’s?”
Later in the film, a New York Times reporter comes to spend the day with Cooke in Virginia to write a feature about him. In the background of an interview he conducts, Joe Buck is announcing a Redskins-Giants football game and I can faintly hear him mention the name “Prince Amukamura.” Like I said, Tribeca is hard to navigate. Luckily for me, things came full circle.
Follow Jake on Twitter @jakeks19 and on his blog peanutsandpopcorn.wordpress.com