Nav Bhatia: From car salesman to superfan

“I am still pinching myself,” says Navdeep Bhatia, the first NBA fan to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Nav Bhatia speaks at his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.   -  Special Arrangement / Push Marketing Group

Navdeep Bhatia, a car salesman, was probably the most wanted Canadian for a couple of weeks.

“Very busy... This is my 72nd interview in the last few days,” Bhatia tells this reporter, as he sits for his third interaction of the day. He has six more lined up.

On May 15, the Toronto Raptors Superfan officially became the first US National Basketball Association (NBA) fan to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “I am being installed in the biggest building of basketball. It is illegal to dream such a scenario,” Bhatia says of his induction.

Born in Delhi’s Mehrauli neighbourhood, Bhatia is one of the most recognisable fans of the NBA. The 69-year-old has been a loyal supporter of the Raptors since the team was formed in 1995 and he has successfully managed to unsettle plenty of superstars of the game with his support. The Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo thinks Bhatia and not Drake, the Canadian rapper, is the most annoying fan to play in front of after he missed six free throws in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019. “He [Bhatia] talks a lot of trash. Definitely not you, Drake,” said Antetokounmpo.

Former Boston Celtics centre Kevin Garnett even wanted Bhatia ejected from the stadium for his court-side antics. “Kevin Garnett goes and tells the referee, ‘He is drunk, throw this fan out.’ But the referee says ‘No, he doesn’t drink. Go do your free throws’,” Bhatia, who has never touched liquor in his life, says. He describes his verbal volleys a part of his work as a fan and says he does a good job at it. Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber, too, have their own stories about the Raptors Superfan.

READ | Nav Bhatia becomes first fan to enter NBA Hall of Fame

“I am still pinching myself,” says Bhatia, who left Delhi for Canada in 1984 due to the anti-Sikh riots. “When you are a fan, all you dream about is to be part of a championship. For a non-player, it has been an amazing journey.”

As a fan, Bhatia was able to live the NBA Championship-winning moment with his beloved Raptors. He was gifted a Championship ring, which was for the first time awarded to a non-player. “And on top of all that...” he pauses and lifts his left hand to show his “the Hall of Fame ring.”

The Superfan gallery at the Hall of Fame Memorial in Massachusetts has his jersey, a basketball, his court-side seat ‘A12’, his replica ring, a bobblehead of Bhatia and finally his turban.

“You tear up,” says Bhatia. “My turban is right there in is right there in the biggest building of basketball and it will be there not for one day or one month or a year, it will be there forever. And anybody who goes through the Hall of Fame gallery is going to see this. That way we get to promote our culture.”

“You tear up,” says Bhatia. “My turban is right there in the biggest building of basketball and it will be there not for one day or one month or a year, it will be there forever. And anybody who goes through the Hall of Fame gallery is going to see this.”   -  Special Arrangement / Push Marketing Group

 

This means a lot for Bhatia after his early struggles in the country due to his ethnicity. Despite holding a degree in mechanical engineering, he couldn’t land a job as an engineer.

“Nobody wanted to give me a job then,” he explains, pointing to his turban and his beard. “I was working as a janitor to make ends meet before getting a job as a car salesman.” But his colleagues there made fun of his appearance. “But I never fought with them. I decided that I have to be better than good if I have to survive that environment. I sold 127 cars in three months, which was a record then. And when I sold those cars, I gained the respect of everybody.”

Today, Bhatia owns five car dealerships, including the one where he was ridiculed, and claims to be one of the top car dealers in the country.

Before the Raptors, Bhatia wasn’t much inclined towards sports. But the fast-paced nature of basketball drew him to it. “I used to watch little basketball in ’93. I loved watching [Michael] Jordan, [Larry] Bird and Dr J [Julius Erving]. In ’95, I was a general manager and I was comfortable. I put a roof over my head and my family’s. When the Raptors came here in ’95, I could afford to buy two tickets. In ’95, there were 25 people in the arena, and people used to look at me because of my eccentric cheering. I had a lot of strength in my voice and gestures.”

In 1999, Bhatia caught the attention of Raptors general manager Isiah Thomas, who unofficially anointed him as the “Superfan and the face of the Raptors.”

Even when the team was at the bottom of the barrel and with only a few thousands filling up the arena, Bhatia stuck by. Every home game for the last 25 years — a run of 1,100 games that was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

Despite his popularity, Bhatia has had to deal with repeated incidents of racist behaviour. In 2019, a Bucks fan tweeted a racial comment about his turban. But he dealt with it in the same way he has done since he first arrived in Toronto. “We didn’t kill him in the media. He finally met and asked for forgiveness and I took him to dinner and his family for a game. Now we are friends. That was the first time he saw a turban. We change perceptions and I believe that. When people go low, we go high,” said Bhatia.

Bhatia’s mission now is to bring the world together through the game of basketball. “Basketball was an entertainment, but in the last four-five years, I am using it for more than that.”

As a global ambassador for World Vision, a relief, development and advocacy organisation, he has helped fund the project of setting up 135 washrooms across 35 schools in Faridkot, Punjab. “It was to ensure the girl children do not drop out of schools after they reach puberty. They are then made to get married and have children at 14, which is a crime and a sin. By building them washrooms, we hope it can give them a chance to continue their education,” says Bhatia.

As a fan, Bhatia was able to live the NBA Championship- winning moment with his beloved Raptors. He was gifted a Championship ring, which was for the first time awarded to a non-player.   -  Special Arrangement / Push Marketing Group

 

Plans are underway in Alwar, Rajasthan, to build 200 washrooms and also basketball courts so girls can play the game.

While his life around basketball made him an unpopular figure at home at times, his family has gotten behind the idea of making a difference, which is a byproduct of his fandom, in the larger community.

“I have missed my wife’s birthdays and anniversaries since my schedule is always around the Raptors. My marriage is hanging by a thread,” he laughs. “I am not popular at home as much as I am outside. But my family now sees that god has a plan and that is to help the girls go to school. So we are together and have a shared vision.”

The fan in him can’t wait to get back to watching his beloved Raptors and continue to — what he calls his addiction to the franchise — “raptorize.”

“Last year, they were in a bubble at Tampa Bay and because the fans were not there, we couldn’t make the playoffs. Hopefully next season they will allow the fans back to the arena,” he says. And when the fans are let back in at the Scotiabank Arena, Superfan Bhatia will be there at the front with his Raptors ensemble, cheering them on.

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