What does it take to be an NBA superfan? Read on to find out.
When the NBA decided to expand with two more teams in 1995, nobody expected much from them. After all, expansion teams basically start as a refugee camp of NBA casualties; a jigsaw puzzle made up mostly of unwanted pieces from the other NBA teams. However, as bad as the two franchises from Canada were at the beginning, something (or someone) was making the Toronto Raptors utterly different.
How Superfan Nav Bhatia Became the First Fan Inducted into Basketball HOF
There, at the very first home game for the Raptors on November 3, 1995, at the SkyDome, was a man cheering his lungs out. It was not just his roaring voice that caught everybody’s attention; he stood out because of the thick beard and the white turban required by his religion. That man was Navdeep “Nav” Bhatia, a devout Sikh from India.
Fast forward 26 years later, and Bhatia was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the same evening as the greats Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan. (This year’s HOF class was actually made up of both the 2020 and 2021 batches.) And no, not as a coach, a player, a broadcaster, or anything like that. He got in as a fan! A season ticket holder for more than two decades, but still a fan.
Here is his inspiring story.
From India to Toronto
Bhatia got his degree in mechanical engineering at California State University in 1982. He went back to his hometown of New Delhi after that, looking to set up a business. However, to escape the anti-Sikh riots in India at the time, Bhatia left his home country for Canada.
It was rough, to say the least, and describing the situation at the time as “challenging” may be an understatement.
“Like most Indians, the first thing was to work towards having a roof on my head. I was a workaholic. I was really stingy, and there was no room for luxuries,” he said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “(And) I experienced a lot of speed bumps along the way, what one would call discrimination. That was a very challenging time.”
Sold 127 Cars in 90 Days
What he called “discrimination” has afforded him few job opportunities. Despite his engineering degree, he was relegated to doing odd jobs before eventually becoming a car salesman. He was overqualified for the gig, but he was out there to prove that ‘hard work trumps hate.’ With the right combination of personality, hard work, and clever radio marketing, he became, quite literally, the best car salesman in the history of Canada. He was so good at his job that he sold 127 cars in 90 days– a Canadian record that still stands up to this day.
Not long after that, Bhatia was recruited to become a general manager of a car dealership company on the brink of bankruptcy. The owner trusted him to turn the company around, but again, discrimination reared its ugly head. All but one of the dealership’s employees wanted to work for him. As Bhatia puts it, ‘nobody wants to work for a guy with a turban on his head.’
Still, that did not faze Bhatia. He rolled up his sleeves, hired new staff, and completely turned the business around. It was literally in the jaws of doom before Bhatia entered the picture, and now it has become one of the largest car dealership companies in Canada.
The story does not end there. Bhatia, now 69 years old, eventually bought the company and the other one who gave him his first car-selling gig. Right now, he has an estimated net worth of $50 million, allowing him to chase his other passion: HOOPS!
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A Superfan is Born
Even with the hardships and adversities, Bhatia always made a connection with basketball. It’s a sport he called “the best on the planet.” That’s quite a surprise since India is famous for cricket, football, badminton, and any other sport besides basketball.
Bhatia admitted that he never played basketball back in his home country. Though, he was always enamored with the legends Larry Bird, Julius Erving, and Michael Jordan. He took that passionate fandom with him to Toronto, and it is in full display since the first Raptors home game in 1995. Bhatia said he was addicted to the atmosphere. He claims to never have missed a single home game in 25 years!
It surely wasn’t easy cheering for an expansion team. For a couple of years, the Raptors were the laughingstock of the league. It’s not surprising since they have to build from scratch as an expansion team, but it was rough. The team only won 27% of its games in three seasons. Then, Vince Carter came and gave them a semblance of hope in the future while playing an exciting brand of basketball.
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The energy on the Sidelines
Nevertheless, during those early years, only two things were constant for the Raptors: losing games and Bhatia’s electrifying energy on the sidelines. Then-Raptors general manager Isiah Thomas took notice and bestowed him the title of ‘Superfan’ through a special ceremony in 1998. He was also given the number 95 jersey, representing the Raptors’ maiden year in the NBA.
What made him hang in there for the Toronto Raptors, even during the turbulent years? Without batting an eyelash, Bhatia credited his upbringing: “We have had low moments through most of the first 20 years, at times winning just 16 of the 82 games all season. People would make fun of me at coffee shops. They would say: ‘why are you wasting money on losers?’” he laughs.
Consistent Presence at Raptors Games Video
Loyalty to the Cause
“But Sikhs are loyal people, and once you take someone’s hand, you hold it forever.”
More than just saying those words, he exemplified them. He loved the Raptors so much that he once put off kidney surgery in the middle of basketball season so he could continue his attendance streak at home games. That loyalty earned him a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame and also made Bhatia the only fan to ever be given a championship ring when the Raptors won the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2019.
Even in the way he does business, Bhatia has always been loyal.
“I’ve been with Hyundai all my life. I only go with one thing,” he said via Autonews Canada. “If it’s a sport, I’m with basketball. I’m with one bank for the last 25-30 years. And if it’s a car product, it’s Hyundai. Not that I didn’t have the opportunity to buy some other dealerships, but I don’t dilute myself. I stay with only one product.”
On Breaking Stereotypes
Back in 1995, as Bhatia recalled, basketball fans weren’t used to seeing ‘brown guys like him.’ To change the stereotypes, Bhatia took matters into his own hands. He began to buy tickets by the thousands, gifting them mostly to Sikh children in celebration of Vaisakhi, the Sikh new year.
Bhatia launched a foundation in 2018 to give continuity to this program. He has since given thousands of tickets to kids of all backgrounds– Muslim, Black, rich, poor, Sikh, or Christian– for one sole purpose: to bring the community together.
Bhatia has become a famous courtside figure in the NBA and constantly rubs shoulders with the who’s who of the sport. When he met then-President Barack Obama, who is also a basketball fan, he immediately recognized Nav from the televised Raptors games.
“I told President Obama that I sort of bring the world together through the game of basketball,” Bhatia said in an interview back in 2014. “He was very happy about that, of course. I’m not a player. I’m just a common guy, and here I am with the 44th President of America, and I’m a big fan of him. I am so blessed. When I went into my car, I sat for a few minutes and had to take that all in.”
Battling Insensitiveness with Kindness
When you’re a die-hard fan of a sports team, you will inevitably rub people the wrong way. Unfortunately, that’s the case even for the nicest basketball fan on the planet.
The incident happened on Twitter in 2019, the year when the Raptors had an extended playoff run on their way to a championship. Toronto and Milwaukee dueled in the Eastern Conference Finals, where the Raptors eliminated the Bucks four games to two. The tweeter, who is a Bucks fan, called Drake and Bhatia “annoying” but referred to the ‘Superfan’ as the “fat Indian guy with the underwear on his head.”
The ignorant tweet was met with backlash and outrage even in the Milwaukee community. Many were clamoring for the tweeter’s head, calling for the social media company to ban him for life. But, as he always had, he took the high road and turned a negative into something wonderfully positive.
“Thank you to all the @Bucks fans who came up to me and apologized for words someone tweeted even though you didn’t have to,” Nav tweeted. “I know we are in a heated series, but i want everyone to know, regardless of what one person has said. Milwaukee and its fans are incredible!”
Again, in typical Superfan fashion, the story doesn’t end there. Bhatia revealed that the person responsible for the mean tweet reached out and apologized to him, to which he heartily accepted.
“I felt really sorry, and I felt like he hadn’t seen the world at all,” Bhatia said. “He was a very simple guy who had never been out of Milwaukee.”
A Teachable Moment with the Superfan – YouTube Video
Bhatia added that he was impressed by the guts of the man to reach out, and the two patched things up through a phone conversation.
“Credit to him, kudos to him… That’s big of him,” Bhatia said. “We had a discussion for 14-15 minutes, and he apologized and cursed himself. I said, ‘don’t curse yourself; everybody makes mistakes. This is forgiven and forgotten. And let’s be friends.’
“I told him the next time I come to Milwaukee; I want to take him and his son for a dinner.”
True enough, Bhatia did just as he said he would do. Around the time of the NBA’s opening week of the 2019-20 season, he flew to Milwaukee, meet up with the man, bought tickets for his family, and went to dinner.
After the game, Bhatia brought the man’s son to the locker room and meet the players up close and personal. “I changed the perception of a guy who had never seen a Sikh with a turban and a beard. It was a great moment for me,” Bhatia gleefully recalls.
Bhatia does not forget how he dealt with similar racism incidents he encountered earlier when he migrated to Canada. He was called names, but he always tried to find a “solution” through conversation. I guess it’s safe to say that it worked!
Hall of Fame Experience
On May 17, 2021, Bhatia, along with the biggest names of basketball through the years, was immortalized in a ceremony at Mohegan Resort and Casino, Connecticut. His stuff was the first in the James Goldstein Superfan Gallery, featuring his turban and the ‘Superfan’ jersey. Also, there is a replica of the Raptors’ 2019 championship ring, custom-made Superfan shoes, and a bobblehead.
Bhatia was presented with a Hall of Fame ring, which he says balances out the 2019 championship ring given to him by the Raptors organization.
“Today was a dream,” Bhatia said of the experience. “In the greatest building basketball has, the name Superfan Nav Bhatia will be immortalized. There is now a turban and the first fan honored within [the] Naismith Basketball Hall Of Fame. I am overcome with emotions today.”
Bhatia calls everything he has accomplished a pure blessing. He says it will take time before everything will sink in and that he is still pinching himself from seeing Michael Jordan in the flesh.
Aside from being emotionally moved by seeing his turban in the gallery, Bhatia also recalled a short but touching conversation he had with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Deputy Mark Tatum. Silver and Tatum thanked Bhatia for his passionate representation of basketball and the NBA and called him a world ‘Superfan.’
The Toronto Raptors had a terrible performance this season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. What’s more, because of Covid-19 and the city’s safety measures, the Raptors were forced to play home games out of Tampa, Florida. That means we won’t be seeing much of ‘Superfan’ until the next season opens. Nevertheless, the man has done enough for Toronto, and basketball in general, to last us 20 lifetimes.
By Jan Rey with Mike O’Halloran
Jan is a sucker for all things basketball and still yells, “Kobe!” every time he throws crumpled paper in the trash bin. He loves Thai massages, Japanese whiskey, and American burgers and cooks his favorite Filipino meat dishes all by himself.
Mike is the editor of Sports Feel Good Stories and is the all-time leading scorer on his Nerf basketball court.
You are on our The Making of an NBA Superfan page.
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