The world is falling in love with Raptors 'Superfan' Nav Bhatia, here’s why
Nav Bhatia sits at his desk inside a home office in Toronto, surrounded by Raptors gear.
“It was amazing. I was in awe,” he said, still glowing from the team’s win in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals.
“I’m pinching myself. Is it real or am I just dreaming about that we are in the NBA finals?”
The 68-year-old's eyes light up as he emphasizes those last two words.
Over 24 years, the Toronto Raptors have seen a lot of change. A new arena, new ownership, new coaches, players, and uniforms. The one constant has been Nav Bhatia. The Raptors 'Superfan' hasn’t missed a single home game in the team’s history.
“People have come and gone, but I’m there," he said.
Bhatia is now part of team history. He has been running all over town speaking with media since the Raptors took home the conference trophy. A Twitter thread about his life story made the rounds. It even generated praise from Golden State coach Steve Kerr.
As he sits in his office, his media representative is booking a flight to New York where Bhatia will appear on 'Good Morning America' to talk all things Raptors. It seems that the world wants to hear his story, and with good reason.
Bhatia came to Toronto from New Dheli, India in 1984. As a Sikh, he had been fearful for his family's safety.
"The Sikhs were being massacred at that time," he said. “When you are not safe, there is nothing that matters to you. Nothing more valuable than your life.”
Once he arrived in Canada, he headed to Toronto where he found a basement apartment in Rexdale, but his welcome wasn't exactly warm.
Despite being a mechanical engineer by trade, he said, “I couldn’t get a job because of the turban and beard.”
Bhatia found work as a car salesman at Rexdale Hyundai and discrimination followed.
“People called me Paki, people called me, you know, towel head, diaper head… a lot of names. That motivated me.”
Bhatia eventually set a record by selling 127 cars in 90 days. It’s a record that still stands. He was promoted to manager, then general manager, then partner. Now he owns Rexdale Hyundai along with two others dealerships and employs 190 people.
Becoming a superfan:
When the Raptors joined the NBA in 1995, Bhatia decided to buy two tickets to the first game.
“I said, 'let me try,' because I didn’t have any hobbies,” he said. “I didn’t know that it would be that life changing at that time.”
He loved the never-ending entertainment.
“I think I got addicted the very first day,” he said. “I started cheering as loud as I could, I was one of the loudest in the arena.”
In those first four years, he created a reputation for himself. It was then-team vice president Isiah Thomas who presented Bhatia with the now famous ‘Superfan’ jersey.
“I was in awe, that all of the sudden I became the face of the Toronto Raptors.”
His obsession has led him to postpone a kidney surgery until after the season, so he wasn’t forced to miss a game.
He pulls out the 'Superfan' jersey and holds it with a grin. It's the original purple and white version with the dinosaur logo.
“I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t womanize, but I Raptorize… I only Raptorize.”
From superfan to philanthropist:
Bhatia's collection of Raptors artifacts is better than most, but a little underwhelming for someone who is friends with Vince Carter.
"Most of my stuff I give it to the kids now, I don't keep it,” he said.
The giving side of this superfan grew from a moment in 1999 when he walked into a repair shop looking to have his cellphone fixed. A customer there assumed Bhatia was a cab driver.
“I’m wearing fine clothes, I am well-groomed and he assumed (that I was) a cabby because a lot of my Sikh brothers are cab drivers in Toronto,” he said. “That day, I decided that I have to change the perception in the mainstream about Sikhs.”
To do that, Bhatia called the Raptors and asked for 3,000 tickets “to celebrate Sikh’s new year right on the courtside.”
He gifted the tickets to many kids, not only from the Sikh community but from several other neighbourhoods located across the city.
“The reason, I wanted to have these kids watch the game together, and get integrated,” he said.
His act of generosity and kindness turned into a tradition. Every year for the last 20 years, Bhatia gives 3,000 tickets away for a single game. He believes the annual event has helped grow the fan base into one of the more diverse in the NBA.
“Here we are today. Basically the area is the best looking arena in the whole league.”
The NBA finals:
As he runs from interview to interview, Bhatia never loses his enthusiasm.
He’s even devised a plan for Raptors fans.
“Make sure that the noise is so great that Golden State cannot communicate with each other. Usually they are good communicators, but make sure they are not able to communicate,” he said.
When asked how he thinks this series will go, his tone becomes warm, like a parent talking about their child.
"I think the basketball Gods are smiling on us, and even they are assisting us, and they are going to continue to win this series.”