A Journey from Fandom to Stardom
In 1984, amidst the anti-Sikh riots in India, a mechanical engineer moved to Canada in search for a better life. Unable to land a job in his field, he began working as a car salesman, breaking many sales records. Two years later, the salesman turned businessman and bought out the car dealership. Fast forward to date, the world knows him as the Raptors Superfan, Nav Bhatia – the first ever fan and turban-wearer inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
When Bhatia touched down in Canada, he initially went through hundreds of job interviews. “Nobody wanted to hire a person with a turban and beard at that time in the early 80s. I finally ended up with a job as a car salesman. I remember my first days. I was picked on quite a bit and called many names, but I never claimed discrimination. I realized then that I had to work harder than the rest to survive,” recalls Bhatia. The resilient salesman went on to sell 127 cars in three months, a record still standing strong. Not too long thereafter, he was promoted to become a manager and eventually landed the opportunity to become a partner.
For Bhatia, his appearance made his situation tougher. His understanding is that most people are simply afraid of what they do not understand. As a visible Sikh, he was heavily discriminated. However, like most immigrants, he hoped for that one opportunity to work hard and honestly and build a life. For the new immigrant, Hyundai gave that opportunity; Bhatia now owns multiple top-selling Hyundai dealerships in Canada.
Undoubtedly, climbing to the top was no small feat. Sheer dedication and commitment translate to long working hours and little leisure. Hardworking Bhatia remembers having no hobbies as he tirelessly worked morning to night. When he got home from work, he would watch basketball. That is when he fell in love with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. The then-budding basketball fan describes, “It was a beautiful game. Before I arrived in Canada, like any Indian, I grew up on cricket, but basketball became my favorite.”
WATCH: Mr. Nav Bhatia Toronto Raptors Superfan has been inducted into the Naismith Memorial BasketBall Hall of Fame, A first for a fan to get this honor
As time went on, Bhatia began attending basketball games in person – and just never stopped. In fact, as of the team’s inception in 1995, the Superfan has never missed a single Raptors home game. For him, it was never a thought-out decision that he made. The Raptors games were an escape from the craziness of business and car dealerships. Game day was always carved out into his schedule. Next thing he knew, 25 years later, he had not missed a single home game, never been late, and never left early. Bhatia accounts, “I was close to missing a game one time due to traffic and I drove on the shoulder. A police officer pulled me over, recognized me, and escorted me to the game so that I wouldn’t be late.” Bhatia has gone to the extent of postponing a kidney surgery so that he would not have to miss a game.
In 2019, like many Canadians, Bhatia was overjoyed when the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors to win the National Basketball Association (NBA) Championship – the Raptors’ first NBA championship ever. In the NBA, the winning team’s members, coaches, and executive office are awarded the NBA championship ring. The Raptors Superfan, in 2019, made history by becoming the first-ever fan to receive an official NBA championship ring. As a fan, Bhatia had always dreamed of his team winning the championship, but never did he ever expect to receive the ring, adorned with 640 diamonds. It is an unforgettable moment that he cherishes as the highlight of his involvement with the Raptors.
The sporty businessman’s relationship with basketball is not limited to just fandom. As he usually puts it, basketball is more than just a game for him, and he wants to pass on the feeling. Over the years, Bhatia has purchased thousands of tickets for children to attend the games. In 2018, Bhatia founded the Superfan Foundation, which brings together diverse groups of people together, in Canada and around the world, through sport. The Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation is committed to building and resurfacing basketball courts across Canada. These courts are planned to be available free of charge and open to all kids across all neighborhoods, alongside various camps, and programming. The intention is to encourage children to partake in sports activities, rather than treading down the path of gang violence and other negative forces.
The Foundation also works towards building girls’ washrooms in Northern India’s schools, having already made their mark at over 20 schools. “My goal in life now is to help as many people as I can and especially reach out to our youth. The Foundation has one mandate and that is to unite people through the game of basketball,”shares the man behind it all.
Aside from his community work in India, Bhatia is also the face of the NBA in India and shares that the response so far has been very good. Ultimately, there is a long way to go still, and much work has to be put in as basketball grows in the country. That said, there are a lot of fans across India and there are now more kids playing basketball than ever before. Bhatia believes, without a doubt, that someone from India will someday be drafted into the NBA and that is when the country will really stand up and take notice.
For Bhatia’s promotion of game and global philanthropic efforts, this year, he was forever memorialized through his induction into the Hall of Fame. He was the first fan to ever be given the honor and his turban, displayed in his gallery, is the first turban in the Hall of Fame. During the unveiling, the moment his eyes fell upon his display for the first time in the newly built James Goldstein Superfan Gallery, the inductee teared up. Bhatia expressed to his social media followers, “I made a promise, as a kid, to my mom that I would never remove my turban. Today, it is in the Hall of Fame. Embrace what makes you different. It is your superpower. This is the crown I wear each day.”
Bhatia had never imagined that there was even a chance to be in the Hall of Fame and considers the accomplishment a blessing. When he was informed of this achievement by his manager, Bhatia thought it was a joke. Overwhelmed by the response from all over the world, the Raptors Superfan says that this is a moment of pride for every fan of any league and especially South Asians.
Bhatia has even received a congratulatory phone call from Bollywood superstar, Salman Khan. In his acceptance speech upon being inducted, he emphasized that basketball changed his life and gave an immigrant like him the chance to belong.
Evidently, being a Raptors fan has had a lasting impact on Bhatia. It has given him the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and has helped change the perception of Sikhs and South Asians. Bhatia contrasts his life now to his earlier days, “There was a time when everyone picked on me and called me names. Now, because of the work I do with the Raptors, people understand what a Sikh is and they line up for pictures. It has been an incredible journey.”
Unsurprisingly, wearing so many hats at the same time, life can get hectic for Bhatia. Drowned in his crazy schedule, he credits his family for their undying support and understanding, “My wife, Arvinder Bhatia, and my daughter, Tia Bhatia, are very supportive of all my time away with the Raptors and as the Superfan, because they see the good that it is doing. They see the impact it is having on girls in India and on bringing people together through this beautiful game.”
Even during the pandemic, Bhatia was a busy bee. He saw a great need in the community with frontline workers working tirelessly. He realized that they must be supported in any possible way, so he began delivering meals to hospitals, shelters, food banks, and long-term homes for the elderly. Within the first six months, Bhatia was able to donate approximately 25,000 meals.
Til date, no matter what he does – business, philanthropy, or community work – he still maintains that his only stress buster is his Raptors games. His passion shines through in both work and play. Surely, the man is a role-model to the larger community, and, in particular, to the many immigrants trying to make it big in a new country. To those that look up to him, Bhatia’s advice is quite effortless, “If I look back on my path, I realize there were three philosophies that helped me grow and become successful: Work hard, work honestly, and treat everyone how you want to be treated yourself.” Having followed this mantra, the inspiring businessman reveals that he holds no regrets in his life.
A living testament to the power of Canada’s multicultural fabric, the Raptors Superfan now has a fan base of his own and continues to win the hearts of many. In his various media appearances, he passionately tells others that what one wears on the outside does not matter; all that counts is what is on the inside. With the motivation to inspire people to go out of their comfort zone and reach out to their neighbors, Bhatia has just one message for all, “ Embracing diversity and each other will make a beautiful society.”