Upon seeing his basketball jersey, championship ring and turban on display in a glass case at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Nav Bhatia shed tears of happiness.
As a man of South Asian ethnicity and Sikh faith, who has faced discrimination and harassment over the years since he came from India to Canada in 1984, he was overwhelmed to see his memorabilia honoured.
It was Bhatia’s dedication to the Toronto Raptors — for which Tangerine Bank is an official sponsor —and energy courtside at Scotiabank Arena and nearly all the team's games for more than two decades that earned him the name Superfan, and a spot at the sport museum among the greats of the game.
Bhatia, who now owns two Hyundai car dealerships and started the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., earlier this month. Bhatia, pictured above right, spoke to Perspectives about his journey to Superfandom, the difficulties and opportunities along the way, and the impact he hopes to have on those who struggle to be accepted with their differences.
Q: What was it like when you first learned that you would be inducted into the Hall of Fame?
A: I was informed actually through my manager last year on Feb. 10, but I didn't believe it. I thought he was pulling a quick one on me. But no, it was true.
Q: What was it like being inducted?
A: I didn’t want to fly in a plane, so we drove. And as we arrived at the border, we were turned back by the American inspector. He said, no, that's not essential. The supervisor came with four other inspectors. They said, ‘Hey, are you the Superfan? Take your mask down.’ And I did. They came back 10 minutes later and said, ‘Look, we are not going to be the one to mess this thing up for you. So, we're going to make an exception and let you go.’ When we entered the Hall of Fame, they show me the gallery and they've done an amazing job. There was my shirt, my jersey, my original jersey —which was given to me by Isaiah Thomas with Superfan 1 there — my seat, my Raptor chair was there, my courtside seat and my replica of my championship ring and my bobblehead was there. And I see my championship turban from Golden State mounted there. I teared up. Because for a Sikh, that's our crown. I'm entering for every Sikh; I'm entering for every fan of the Raptors and I'm being honoured for every other basketball fan in the world. I started pinching myself. Is this really happening? The turban I wore in the championship run, it's right there with my red band underneath it. I was very emotional.
Q: How does it feel to see you, and your heritage, highlighted in this way?
A: Being a man of colour, being a visible minority, I have gone through a lot of speed bumps in my life since ‘84, when I came here. I'm a mechanical engineer. Nobody wanted to hire an engineer with a turban and beard. I did odd jobs — being a janitor, landscaping — to feed my family. And I'm proud of that because we Sikhs believe in the dignity of labour. The very first day when I started my job in Rexdale Hyundai in ‘84, there were nine, 10 white salespeople. And the guys start saying, ‘Oh here comes a diaper head.’ It gave me strength. I told myself, ‘Nav, if you're going to survive in this environment, you’ve got to be better than good.’ And that's what I did. That helped me to sell 127 cars in three months, which was a record then and the record today also. Twenty-five years later during the championship run, somebody in Milwaukee in a tweet said that that fan of the Raptors is fat and he's wearing underwear on his head. What did I do? When people go low, we go high. So, I left him alone. Then he called me and said, ‘I'm very sorry for what I've done.’ I told him I'll forgive him only after I get an opportunity to take him out for dinner and a game. I took him for a game with his son. After the game, I took him to the locker and had him meet all the players, the Milwaukee players and the Raptors players, and I just introduced them as my friends from Milwaukee. We were both tearing up. We became friends. So, this is what we do. This is how we change the perception. If they can learn to hate, then let’s teach them to love also. That's what I'm doing and I'm going to continue doing, bringing the people together through this beautiful game of basketball.
Q: How does it feel to be in the hall of fame among basketball’s greatest of all time?
A: It's giving me goosebumps, talking to you. I can’t believe it. It's going to take a while to sink in. As a fan, you cannot imagine this. You can’t imagine that your team will win the championship and you will be a part of the parade and all that. In the last 70 years, only 300 people, I believe, are honoured in the Hall of Fame.
Q: Were you always a huge fan of basketball? When did that love begin? What was it about the game or experience that kept you coming back?
A: Like all Indians, cricket is our religion there. I came [to Canada] in ‘84 and for the first 10 years I was just trying to make my ends meet, to make sure I acclimatize and get my roof over the head. And you know by ‘95 I was in good shape. I was the general manager of a dealership. I had a couple of cars. I had a nice 3,000 square feet home in Mississauga. I said,’ I'm working all the time, 100 hours a week. I'm boring. Let me pick up a hobby.’ I'm going to buy two tickets. I could only afford two at the time. I'm going to try and experience this game in the arena and it was Skydome at the time. On my very first day, I fell in love. I mean, this is the fastest game on the planet. And the way NBA designs it, with the timeouts and entertainment, it's the most amazing game. For three hours, you are in a different zone. Fast forward, 25 years, I never missed a minute of the game. I love the game. But the last four, five years it's not just the entertainment, it's the love the fans have given me.
Photo: Superfan Nav Bhatia looks at his Raptors memorabilia on display at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month. Credit: Push Marketing Group.
Q: As a Superfan, you’re doing more than cheering – you’re now doing charity work. Why is that important to you?
A: I'm using this game for other things. I started charity work with the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation, trying to work with World Vision. I'm their global ambassador. I'm the only non-Christian Ambassador for a Christian organization. Through World Vision I've been able to do a lot of good work. Building washrooms for girls’ schools in India so that they can continue their education. From the entertainment I received from basketball, it has changed into something else. Doing good things for humankind gives me the most satisfaction. I have a mission and the mission is to bring the world together through the game of basketball.
Q: What's next for the Superfan foundation?
A: We are adopting another area in India with World Vision. We did 135 washrooms in 35 schools and now World Vision has designated another area which needs a lot of help. It's called Alwar in Rajasthan and we're going to help build a couple of hundred washrooms and this time, with the help of the NBA, we're also going to put in basketball courts so that the girls can play basketball.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who struggles with feeling outcasted for their differences on how they can stay true to themselves?
A: When I was 16 years old, which is 53 years ago, my mother pulled me to one side. and asked me to promise me three things. She said, you won't cut your hair, you will stay a Sikh, you won't drink, you won't smoke. As hard as it has been, I've kept all those promises to my mother. I worked over 100 hours a week for my first 20 years in this country and buy the tickets every year, season tickets. I have 13 now, but I don't drink. I don't smoke, I don't womanize. I only Raptorize. You should be proud if you are White, if you're Black, Asian. If you are a Christian, if you are a Sikh, if you are a Hindu, you're Muslim. Be proud of who you are because, you know what, deep inside, we are all the same. All religions teach the same good things in life. So, I tell them, stay proud and do you, what you want to do as a person. Be a team player. You know if somebody you see is down, pick them up, doesn't matter who they are, without any conditions and you will see your life changing. I am so proud to be a Canadian, to be a Sikh.
Q: What’s been your favorite memory over the years of attending the games?
A: It's a day when I was approached by a 12-year-old kid who was terminally ill with cancer and was going to pass away anytime. His last wish was to meet the superstar Vince Carter. I just said yes to the kid. I remember taking the kid to the game along with his nurse and his IV. I decided to move him five, 10 minutes before the game was over into the tunnel where the players come out of it. And I stopped Vince Carter at the end of the game and I just mentioned to him that I have a kid I need him to see and he has cancer. And Vince stopped, he kneeled down and start taking his jersey, start taking his bands, head band, elbow bands, hand band and start giving him his shoes and socks and everything. And then you know the kid started smiling. Vince started crying, I started crying, but the mission was completed. And since that day, I respect Vince so much. Because to me a player is not a great player if he can do 80 points and dunk. To me, it’s how he treats humanity, especially the kids. That is the most touching thing for me.
Q: How has it been being a virtual fan throughout the pandemic, not being able to sit courtside?
A: During the pandemic, they did offer me to come there in a restricted way, but I decided not to because it's not safe for the players and their family and myself. So, I decided to just watch the games, stuck at home with my wife. When I go to the arena that's my let out, that's my freedom to go off and be me. We didn't have a good season because of the pandemic, because our team feeds off the fans. We are the best fans in the NBA. Hopefully next season October ‘21 we will be in the arena and the fans will be there and we're going to roll back on the top of the Eastern Conference.
Q: Where do you go as a Superfan from here?
A: I'm going to do everything I can do to inspire the next generation, the future of Canada, I'm going to continue to do that. God has blessed me with a good situation and I'm thankful to the Almighty and I'm thankful to all the people. So, I'm just going to continue with my mission of bringing the world together through the game of basketball.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo: Superfan Nav Bhatia speaks during his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month. Credit: Andrew Bernstein