Nav Bhatia: This Raptors “Superfan” is a Superman

Superfan Nav Bhatia’s passion for basketball has led him to pursue his lifelong goal of improving the lives of children all over the world. City Life had the pleasure of speaking to Bhatia about his life, journey and quest to change the world.

interview files from brandon harripersaud

In their 23-year history, there have been three constants to watching a Toronto Raptors home game: a frenzied, sellout crowd chanting “We the North”; a Raptor driving the lane toward a monster jam or arching an elegant “all-net” three-pointer; and one notable man jumping up from his baseline seat at the Air Canada Centre every time the Raptors make a basket.

That’s every Raptors basket made at home. Ever.

Since they started playing in 1995, this same fan has been at every home game to cheer them on, wearing his Raptors jersey and distinctive colour-coordinated turban. His name is Nav Bhatia, and he is universally recognized as the Raptors’ designated “Superfan.” Just how many times has he jumped out of his seat over the years?

Let’s have some fun with math to work this out. The Raptors have played approximately 925 home games in their existence. Bhatia has a perfect attendance record, having never missed a home game in those 23-plus years. (Nor has he ever been late or left a game early, win or lose; his self-imposed rule is to stay in the arena until the refs have headed back in the tunnel.) Bhatia estimates he’s attended over a hundred road games; therefore, he guesses, he has probably seen them live 1,000 times.

If we assume the Raptors have averaged about 85 points per game over that span, then they’ve scored approximately 85,000 points in all the games Bhatia has attended. That means Bhatia has jumped up out of his seat to cheer them on more than 40,000 times (allowing for three-pointers). That’s a lot of jumping … and that’s not counting the number of times he stands to heckle the refs, taunt opponents or cheer during time outs. To say Bhatia is energetic during games is one of the greatest understatements of all time.

Bhatia’s rise to his current status in the world of Raptors fandom was not intentional. After immigrating to Canada from his native India in 1984, he was looking for ways to assimilate into the culture of his newly adopted country.

“It means a whole lot to me now and what I’m doing with my life, but it didn’t start that way,” says Bhatia. “It was simply entertainment for me, as I didn’t have any hobbies. But once I went to that first game, I was completely hooked. You felt entertained the entire 48 minutes.”

Those early days for Bhatia were not without their difficulties, unfortunately. In the beginning he endured a lot of racial slurs like “Paki” and “Towel Head,” and one incident in particular stays with him.

“I went to a phone repair store, and a white man was there talking on the courtesy phone to his wife,” recalls Bhatia. “When he saw me, he said into the phone, ‘OK honey, I’ve got to go, my cabbie is here.’ I was wearing one of my finest suits. I was looking good. I wasn’t his cabbie. I was there to get my phone fixed, just like him.” It was a hard lesson about his new country, but Bhatia took it as a personal challenge. He continues to work hard in all facets of his life to change misguided perceptions in a positive way, and he remains a deeply passionate Canadian.

“I tell people all the time: if there is a heaven on earth, Canada is the heaven,” he says proudly. “I travel a lot in my business, and I tell you, Canada is the best country in the world. It has given me everything.”

Upon his arrival in Canada at age 33, Bhatia was eager to find work as a mechanical engineer. However, unable to do so, he sought work as a car salesman instead. Luckily, Rexdale Hyundai took a chance on him, and Bhatia did not let them down. Over a three-month period, he sold 127 cars, about 11 for every six-day week, a record which still stands today.

He was promoted to manager of the once-struggling dealership, and just two years later, he bought the dealership outright. Today, he owns two high-performing Hyundai dealerships, among the most profitable in the country, which he runs with the same passion that he brings to every aspect of his life. While proud of the performance of his dealerships, he is probably prouder of the fact those dealerships top the list in terms of charitable donations.

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Helping others is a passion and belief that runs deep within Bhatia. There is no better evidence of this than the story behind his and his wife’s adoption of their daughter Tia 25 years ago.

“I was abandoned as a child in India and sent to an orphanage in Delhi,” says Tia. “My parents always wanted to go the route of adoption to give a child a life they couldn’t have, but it’s a very lengthy process. Finally, after all the paperwork, they got the call that there were 19 baby girls available at this particular orphanage, and my mom prepared to fly from Toronto. My aunts in India came to the orphanage first, and I was the first baby brought out. They said something in my eyes told them to take me. My mother agreed, and my Dad came to India, and we’ve been inseparable from the moment I saw him. Many of us believe in that upper being, and for me, my god is my Dad.”

“I selected the route of adoption because I wanted to give a life and a loving home to a child,” says Bhatia. “It has given me the most beautiful child in the world, with an abundance of love and affection. She is my everything in life.”

The life lessons Bhatia and his wife have passed down to Tia are numerous, but most special is that of equality and opportunity. “Some people asked my Dad, wouldn’t a girl be a burden because she can’t be the ‘man of the house’?” says Tia. “But my Dad said, ‘No, she is not a burden, she is my daughter.’ That’s been such a lesson for me: that every child deserves to be loved, no matter what condition they’re in or what age they are, and adoption is such a beautiful thing. I will do it in my future because I want to give a child a life.”

“My purpose with basketball is not my own fame as Superfan, but what I can do with the fame and celebrity status that I have”

Bhatia’s status as Raptors superfan has afforded him some meaningful opportunities to give back. For example, in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, with the Raptors trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers 3–0 and perhaps only one more chance at a home game, he received a text just hours before game time.

The text was from someone he didn’t know asking a favour: could he help grant the wish of a sick child who wanted to see a Raptors game? For most people, granting this request during the NBA Conference Finals would be next to impossible. But not for Bhatia. He quickly arranged tickets for the boy and his family, and as icing on the cake, arranged for the family to meet with players from both teams.

That’s just one example of how Bhatia spreads the love from his baseline seats. He also works with the Raptors to organize multicultural nights at some of their games. During Vaisakhi and Diwali, he purchases about 2,000-4,000 tickets to give to Sikh and other youths, giving the kids memories to last a lifetime.

He is working on the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation. The goal is to build basketball courts across Canada with the help of the MLSE Foundation and NBA Canada so that kids can play basketball rather than be exposed to negative influences.

“Sports have such a positive influence on kids,” says Bhatia. “You don’t have to become a professional athlete — you can become a doctor or a banker — but sports teach you discipline in life, which is so very important.”

Bhatia is also working with World Vision on their Daughters of India initiative to build girls’ washrooms in 20 schools across rural areas in Punjab, making it safer for more than 30,000 girls to attend.

Recently he became an ambassador for the WE Movement and delivered an inspirational speech before 17,000 kids in Ottawa.

“It fits entirely with what I want to do — to inspire the kids,” he says about joining forces with the WE Movement. “Kids need to be diversified to understand how the world is going to be. Don’t look at the colour of the skin, don’t look at the gender or the faith they belong to. At the end of the day, 99.99 per cent of kids all have the same passion to be good, and by inspiring kids between 10 and 16 years of age, we can have a better society and a better world.”

Bhatia’s fortuitous relationship with basketball has given him a platform through which he can give back and effect change in the world — and for that, he is very grateful.

“My purpose with basketball is not my own fame as Superfan, but what I can do with the fame and celebrity status that I have,” he explains. “I want to reach out to the kids who need a chance. Every kid deserves a chance in life. I want to make the [people of the] world closer, to love each other through the game of basketball, and this so-called fame gives me the tools to achieve that.”

That fame is very real, and it extends beyond just the ACC. Bhatia is recognized throughout the NBA as much as a LeBron, Curry or DeRozan — and that in no way is overstating his league-wide notoriety.

“With every team, I know most of the people, the coaches and security,” says Bhatia. “I travel to many other cities, and I am so blessed to get so much love in the NBA from everyone, including the fans.”

His pregame time at the ACC is jam-packed with posing for selfies with fans from across the country who all want to meet the Superfan. He counts musician Drake and comedian Russell Peters as good friends.

Sometimes, though, that “celebrity thing” is lost on him — with amusing and endearing results. Take that road game in Orlando when Bhatia was courtside, “chatting with a charming young lady sitting beside me,” but puzzled by the number of photographers surrounding them and the attention many fans were giving them. Following a text exchange with daughter Tia, however, Bhatia learned that the young woman beside him was the musician Rihanna.

He now owns 13 individual season tickets. His two coveted baseline seats were originally purchased from friend and former CEO of Research In Motion, Jim Balsillie.

His courtside seats are next to the family of DeMar DeRozan, and the two families have become very close, besides Bhatia’s ritual of hugging DeRozan every halftime. He has become friendly with many Raptors over these last two decades. Witness the fact that he was at Vince Carter’s wedding and that he recently travelled to Lithuania for the wedding of Jonas Valanciunas, which was, he reports, “off the charts.”

What it takes to be a “Superfan”

  1. Not missing a Raptors home game in 23 years, and never being late or leaving early
  2. Attending approximately 925 home games and over a 1,000 games overall
  3. Standing at the baseline cheering, shouting and yelling support for the Raptors at every home game and some away ones
  4. Forming close personal relationships with players, coaches and management throughout the league
  5. Spending approximately $300,000 yearly on the Raptors organization
  6. Having an empty glass case in your home for the Larry O’ Brien championship trophy

Bhatia’s life is a Raptorspalooza. His vanity license plate has a Raptors logo and his “Superfan” nickname on it, and his expansive home, while not heavy on Raptors memorabilia, does contain an empty glass case. That, Bhatia explains, is reserved for the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, awarded to the winner of the NBA Finals.

His passion for the Raptors is a huge annual investment of both time and money, and it’s not one necessarily shared by members of his immediate family. That said, even though some of his off-the-court, personal Raptors obligations have taken him away from family events and celebrations, his family remain understanding and supportive.

“I am so blessed to have the support of my family to allow me to do what I do,” says Bhatia. “And my family at work as well. We have an incredible team of 160 people and take the team approach to support each other in everything we do. It’s very much like sports in that the team approach is the most successful approach.”

There’s an expression about those who have long been engaged in the world of sports: “He’s seen them all.” Well, in the case of Nav Bhatia, he has indeed seen them all. Though in basketball only five players take the court at once, Bhatia has watched every single Raptor who has ever donned the dino logo — literally hundreds of players. And he is not hesitant to name his all-time favourite.

“All the Raptors are my favourites, but my most favourite is Vince Carter, not only because he’s a great player and dunker, but for what he has done for Canada,” says Bhatia. “He made the future for Canadian basketball. He’s the one who gets that credit. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there were not many Canadians in the NBA. Right now, Canada has 15 players in the NBA, and Vince Carter is the one who inspired them — and we have many more coming up in the next few years. It would be my desire and wish he return to the Raptors to end his career,” he says, expressing a wish shared by many Raptors fans.

Nav Bhatia attended a Toronto Raptors game on November 3, 1995, and found something there which helped shape his life going forward. Yes, it was just a game, but within it and himself, he found the inspiration not only to assimilate in his new country, but also to truly help others. And if his character and his impressive track record are anything to go by, this Superfan is never going away. For that, we should all be grateful.

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