Nav Bhatia, the turbaned guy who became the face of NBA's Toronto Raptors, and a Hall of Famer

Amit Kamath

"As I stand before you today, what do you see?" asks Nav Bhatia as he begins his TEDx Talk in Toronto six years ago.

"Someone who would make you uncomfortable on your flight?" he pauses for effect and then adds: "Your convenience store worker? Your gas station attendant?"

Bhatia shrugs and continues even as an uncomfortable and uncertain laughter rings out in the arena: "You see my turban and my beard."

Nav Bhatia poses at the NBA India Office in Mumbai during the NBA India Games in 2019 between Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers. Image courtesy: NBA

Nav Bhatia poses at the NBA India Office in Mumbai during the NBA India Games in 2019 between Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers. Image courtesy: NBA

Watch any Toronto Raptors match at their home venue, and it is unlikely you will not see Bhatia in a Raptors jersey, seated courtside, his beard and turban distinctly standing out. For a team which also counts superstar rapper Drake as a superfan, Bhatia has become the face of the franchise across the world.

Bhatia will become one of the first superfans to be included in a special gallery at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame at Springfield, Massachusetts. When the gallery is set up, it will be the first time fans find a place in the Hall of Fame.

"Have you heard of Jack Nicholson?" Bhatia, who's currently in Chicago for the 2020 All-Star weekend asks over the phone. "(Hollywood actor) Nicholson is the biggest Lakers fan. Spike Lee is a big New York Knicks fan. But over them, I've been given this honour!"

Bhatia says the past 24 hours have passed in a blur of sheer disbelief.

"Has the NBA really decided to put me in the Hall of Fame? Only the top one percent of NBA players get inducted in the Hall of Fame. And now I will be there as part of the gallery!"

One of Bhatia's most vivid memories of his early life in Canada (after he moved there in 1984 due to the anti-Sikh riots) is when he had gone to repair his phone and a Canadian local mistook him for a cab driver, despite Bhatia wearing a suit.

Throughout the 16-minute TEDx Talk video from 2014, Bhatia refers to himself as a turbaned guy. Because that's exactly what he was perceived as for many years in Canada.

Bhatia talks of how difficult he found to get a job when he first emigrated to Canada. Even when he finally found a job at a car dealership in Rexdale, his co-workers would call him things like Paki, turban-head, and towelhead.

"I wouldn't call it discrimination. But there were a lot of speedbumps," he says.

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25 years ago, when the Raptors first came into being, the sport was not the most popular in Toronto. Ice hockey was the religion of choice for the locals.

"You could hardly find any basketballs in sports stores back then!" says Bhatia. "But now the game is big, not just in the city, but also among the South Asian community."

He estimates that at least 3,500 South Asians regularly attend NBA games now, whereas you would be hardpressed to find even 50 people from the community for games when the Raptors' journey started in 1995.

"I believe in most games I was the only one with a turban. People would ask me things like, 'Who gave you the tickets today?' They would assume I got a free handout from someone! They would think "Desi aadmi hai, woh itne paise kyun kharchega game pe? (Why would an Indian immigrant spend so much money to watch a game?)

"They don't know main Punjabi aadmi hoon, kharachta pehle hoon, sochta baadmain (I'm a Punjabi man, I spend first and think later)."

"I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't womanise. The only thing I did was work from morning to evening. Then I discovered the Raptors."

It was love at first sight. Bhatia went for the Raptors' first home game, and has gone to every one of their games ever since. "I have not missed a game, I have not been late to a game, and I have never left a game early even if we're losing terribly," he says.

Recognition of his unwavering support came soon enough. The then Raptors GM Isiah Thomas honoured Bhatia with the 'Superfan' title. Last season after the Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors to clinch the NBA title, Bhatia was also given a special championship ring that is usually given to players and team owners. And he was also Grand Marshal of the Raptors' Championship Parade.

"No fan thinks of being given a Championship ring. I've never played the sport. Main tehra Sardar aadmi! (After all I'm a Sikh man and not a player)," he says. "But the team said, players come and go, Nav Bhatia has always stuck with us."

Recognition for his contribution to basketball has not just been limited to the superfan moniker and the championship ring.

On Diwali and Baisakhi gamedays, the Raptors celebrate the occasion. There have also been Bhangra performances at half-time.

The turbaned man has been the ambassador for the Canadian national team for some time, and will be rooting for them when they try to seal a quota spot for Tokyo Olympics 2020. Even more fittingly, the NBA Hall of Fame has asked him to send the turban he wore during the Raptors' Championships parade.

After all of this, when Nav Bhatia stands before you, there's only one thing you can see: a turbaned and bearded Canadian who changed the perspective of a country.

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