NBA: How Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia's passion for basketball is integrating Indian communities with Toronto's mainstream

Shivam Damohe

It is matchday and Nav Bhatia is praying diligently. Soon after, he greets his family members and savours some good coffee with an Indian breakfast before heading out to work. As soon as the clock strikes 5.00 pm, Bhatia wraps up and leaves for the arena a few kilometers away to watch his favourite team Toronto Raptors play a game of basketball.

The game is still an hour away though. In the meantime, he greets the Raptors' multicultural fanbase and keenly watches the warm-up drills from the stands. Win or lose, he heads out of the stadium after the match, interacts with fans about the result and drives back home.

This has been 67-year-old Bhatia's matchday routine for the last 24 years, during which he has attended more than 1100 games. Every single matchday. Moreover, he hasn't missed a single minute of action, let alone a full 48-minute match.

After all, it was love at first sight.

"I fell in love with basketball. Jaise ladki ko pehli baar dekh ke pyar ho gaya (Like how a boy falls in love with a girl). It was love at first sight because it was so entertaining. I couldn't get my eyes off the court," says Bhatia, Raptors Ambassador for South Asians, who was in Mumbai to promote the NBA India Games.

Nav Bhatia sits in the stands watching the game against the New York Knicks January 17, 1998. Reuters

Nav Bhatia sits in the stands watching the game against the New York Knicks January 17, 1998. Reuters

And even after attending every single Raptors game for 24 years, he returns home and tunes in to the highlights of the matches. "I am an NBA addict. I have taken several loans to support my addiction!" exclaims the Delhi-born Bhatia.

Such is his indomitable passion for basketball that his wife, Arvinder, once genuinely asked Bhatia whether his mental condition was stable.

"I am on the verge of divorce. My wife is going to end our 36-year-old marriage because of my love for basketball," Bhatia gets jovial before adding that he would get depressed if Raptors lost matches on a trot. "When we'd lose, I would get depressed. My wife came to once and asked why am I so invested in watching and overthinking about the game. It had become mental. I don't drink, I don't womanise, I Raptorise."

Of course, Indian cricket superfan Sudhir Gautam and die-hard Pakistan cricket fan Mohammad Bashir have set an example in this current niche of sports with their passionate appearances. But Bhatia isn't just another sports fanatic from Toronto. Over the years, he has become the face of Toronto -- a place, he says, where citizens build bridges instead of walls; a place where people work day and night to survive and acknowledge the hustle.

In 1995, when basketball created a massive hype in North America with the birth of Toronto Raptors, a flustered yet intrigued Bhatia decided to buy two tickets on a wham. Indiscriminately, just as he puts it, he simply wanted to get a taste of the hype. And he was hooked. "It was a huge thing in North America with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird playing. I was left in awe of the sport and I'm a loyalist, so after that match, I knew I would never miss a game," says Bhatia.

But he admitted that he couldn't have afforded a pair of tickets to the SkyDome arena for Raptors' inaugural match.

After moving to Toronto from with his wife in 1984 amid anti-Sikh riots in India, Bhatia €" with a degree in mechanical engineering from California -- was dependent on odd jobs for a living. From mopping floors to selling various products, he would agree to whatever he could find.

Unfortunately, just because of his turban and beard, he found employment scarce in his adopted city. However, after struggling for years, he finally found his big break as a car salesman at a Hyundai dealership. He made an instant impact, just like like Kawhi Leonard, by selling 127 cars in just 90 days.

It was, to his knowledge, a record. "We had riots here in India, so I moved. When I finally found a job as a car salesman, I had to give my best shot. With that record, I believe I was the best salesman in the country," says the New Delhi-born businessman.

He went on to become the general manager of the small Mississauga store and had enough dollars to buy a pair of tickets that would change his life. "I worked all day long for 90 to 100 hours (a week), so you get stressed out. For me, those two-and-a-half hours (basketball) were medicine, which I looked forward to. At times, I would get completely drained out. So, when I saw this opportunity, I just decided to try those two tickets. I'm grateful for how it has turned out."

Over the years, Bhatia has been a witness to Tracy McGrady leaving in free agency for Orlando, Vince Carter demanding a trade to New Jersey, Kobe Bryant scoring career-high 81 points against Toronto; a witness to the countless rebuilds, the repeated failures of the Dwane Casey-Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan Raptors in the playoffs and now finally, a witness to a championship glory.

Toronto Raptors fan Nav Bhatia celebrates with fans during the Toronto Raptors Championship Parade on Lakeshore Boulevard. Reuters

Toronto Raptors fan Nav Bhatia celebrates with fans during the Toronto Raptors Championship Parade on Lakeshore Boulevard. Reuters

In fact, Raptors' victory over the back-to-back championship-winning, three-peat chasing Golden State Warriors could not have been more symbolic. Basketball has played a massive role in the integration of immigrants to Canada like him.

What is more poetic than learning about a Canadian immigrant fan watching his adopted country's basketball team win its first-ever championship in a league dominated by American teams? It is a sight to behold, especially, if their players come from different backgrounds like Cameroon, Spain, the Republic of Congo, England and China. A match made in heaven, Bhatia believes that Raptors' title-winning run is incomplete without the support of the almighty.

"It was all god's decision. Didn't you watch the Philadelphia tie? Seventh game with 0.02 seconds left, the match would've gone to overtime. And remember, the momentum was in Philadelphia's favour. I was pinching myself. How did the ball go in? On that day I knew, God wants us to win. God made it happen. Four bounces and boom. He made it happen," reasons Bhatia.

But amidst the hustle and jubilation, NBA Finals MVP Leonard and shooter Danny Green departed Toronto for million-dollar deals to Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers respectively. Unfazed by their decisions, Bhatia thanked both players for their contributions. "We were not in good shape after Kawhi left. But we'll surprise the world again. We have the core guys. OG, Pascal Siakam, Stanley Johnson, Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka," argues Bhatia with courtside vigour.

"We're going to overcome, will take some time because we were expecting him to stay. We offered him free drinks, free this and that but he made a decision. We thank him instead. We respect his decision and contribution. Personally, it would have been a great move had he stayed in Canada because he was the king here. Now he wants to be a prince of a small town, so we wish him all the best," the 67-year-old comments cheekily.

However, he states that the feeling is quite different from when DeMar DeRozan was traded to the San Antonio Spurs.

"It's not the same," he laughs. "DeRozan, when he left, was still loyal. He was my neighbour too. If you have watched the games, his wife and kids always sat next to my courtside seat. But basketball is business. I hope we can find a way to bring him back," Bhatia recalls.

From car dealer to philanthropist to go-to person

You can't imagine a game without Bhatia in Toronto. He doesn't paint his face and hasn't decorated his wall with sporting paraphernalia, but instead, he wears his heart on his sleeves and the passion is contagious. While some big names wear designer suits; he sports his simple Raptors jersey, as a fanatic would. He doesn't have to do things out of the way like Drake would to get attention.

Raptors are no longer just about Drake, after all. "Drake is a good buddy. I knew Drake when he wasn't Drake. I know people are now throwing him under the bus for his sideline antics. I told him to continue to do what he loves doing for this team, he has my back."

The old gentleman in turban also gets into arguments with the referees and coaches. But in reality, he is friends with several players and coaches and often engages in serious banter with the opposition. "People often mistake me as the owner," he laughs.

The multimillionaire businessman, who now owns three big car dealers in Canada, has purchased 3,000 tickets as a gift every year to bring kids from different religions, cultures and ethnicities together under a common love for basketball. "I get tickets for underprivileged kids to enjoy the game and also let people know that the South Asian brown people €" whether it's Sikhs, Muslims or Hindus €" are all the same deep inside. Yes, we look different and speak differently, but the passion remains the same," he says.

With his superfan status, Bhatia also does some philanthropy. As an ambassador for the Daughters of India initiative through World Vision, he has pledged to raise $200,000 dollars to build 60 washrooms for girls in 20 different schools in the Faridkot district of Punjab.

It doesn't stop here. Only a few days ago, LA Clippers' Patrick Patterson, who is getting married in Toronto, approached Bhatia to rent vehicles, and instead, he fixed the NBA player with some Range Rovers for free.

Same was the case when he first met Raptors President Masai Ujiri. "I told him I can take care of anything he asks me to do, I'm there for that. For me, it's not a matter of money; it's a passion for basketball," he gestures.

Bhatia, after all these days, could've just called it a day. For sure, the whole complexion of the city of Toronto and its basketball has changed over the years. Right from the dull SkyDome era to the electric ScotiaBank atmosphere, Bhatia has been through thick and thin. "Previously I didn't have anybody coming, now I have 200 people in line waiting for clicking pictures with me. People are talking about basketball, the fanbase is huge," he recalls.

Meanwhile, all he cares about right now are the NBA games between Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings to be played in Mumbai on 4-5 October. "I'm going to enjoy the game in Mumbai. I'm surprised that a lot of fans know about me. They click pictures with me. I don't prepare notes. I speak with my heart. After the NBA Games, NBA India will have a problem because they'll want this again. This addiction will leave you stunned. The aim is to integrate my Indian community with the mainstream," he says.

It's refreshing to see Bhatia not being bogged down by competition by cricket, Indian Premier League or even badminton in India. "Basketball has grown. It's gonna be the same here. You'll see. If I can switch from cricket to basketball, anybody can. If cricket is 8 out of 10, basketball is 11 on 10 plus entertaining," argues Bhatia, who played as a batsman in his teens.

Bhatia encapsulates the Canadian dream. All of his sacrifices are benefitting other immigrant fans now. He has helped break down social stereotypes. Who knew that a simple hobby would help him assimilate into Canadian society? As for him and the Raptors, the hustle will never stop. You'll see him sitting in the exact same seat, doing the exact same thing, year after year.

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