In 1984, Nav Bhatia left India and emigrated to Canada with his family, following the Anti-Sikh riots. As his community was being massacred at the time, nothing mattered more to him than preserving his family’s life. Today, the ‘Superfan’ of the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise is the latest inductee in the NBA Hall of Fame.
According to ESPN, he’s the first fan to be inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. But before he came to know several NBA stalwarts on a first-name basis, he saw many struggles as a young Indian immigrant in a foreign land.
(Above image courtesy Twitter/Nav Bhatia Superfan)
Along with his wife, Arvinder, Nav was the first among his family to arrive in Canada. Like many among the Sikh community at the time, he ended up in Malton. This was a neighbourhood in the northeastern part of Mississauga, Ontario, around 22 km from Toronto. The two moved into a basement apartment, and Nav finally found some semblance of safety.
Finding a job, though, was a different story. A mechanical engineer by trade, he couldn’t find work because of his turban and beard. His initial years were a struggle and he worked odd jobs like mopping floors or anything that would pay.
‘I was the butt of jokes for everybody’
After struggling for months, he finally got a job as a salesman in a Hyundai dealership in Rexdale, a tough neighbourhood in Toronto. He was overqualified for the job but determined to prove that sheer hard work would one day trump prejudice.
“On my very first day there, I was the butt of jokes for everybody else. All the people on the sales floor [were] making fun [of me], calling me ‘Paki’, ‘Turban Head’, ‘Towel Head’ and many more [such names]. I didn’t understand why they were calling me ‘Paki’ because I was from India…Anyway, on that day, I realised one thing. I have to be better than good if I want to survive in that environment,” he said in this 2014 Ted Talk.
By sheer hard work, he ended up selling 127 cars in 3 months. It was a sales record, which stands till this day. Soon, he was promoted to management and considered one of the top sales managers in Canada. Impressed by his performance, the Hyundai head office in 1987 asked him to take charge of another dealership as a general manager.
But this dealership was struggling. Despite Nav’s determination and confidence to turn things around, he was once again confronted with prejudice On his first day, eight of the ten salespeople resigned.
“They didn’t want to work for a guy in a turban. Today, however, I own two of the largest dealerships in Canada — Rexdale Hyundai and Mississauga Hyundai,” he said. Nav started by hiring new staff and began the process of transforming the business. Once near bankruptcy, the dealership is today one of the largest in Canada. He would go on to buy the dealership, along with the original one that hired him in 1984.
Communities bond for their love of the game
Nav had finally made it, a decade after he got his first sales job. In 1995, when the Toronto Raptors became the NBA’s 28th franchise, he decided to buy two tickets for the first game. With most of his time going into his work, he didn’t have too many hobbies and wanted to see whether the basketball game would help.
This would end up being a life-changing moment. The team was terrible, but he didn’t care at all, he says.
He fell in love with basketball and admits that he got “addicted” to the game on that day, cheering the team on from his courtside seat. He was the loudest guy in the arena and attended every game without fail.
In the first four years of the new NBA franchise’s existence, he would create a strong reputation for himself. Soon, then team vice-president Isiah Thomas presented Nav with the now famous purple and white ‘Superfan’ jersey with the iconic dinosaur logo.
Such was his love for the Raptors that he reportedly once postponed a kidney surgery till after the season finished so that he wasn’t forced to miss a game. In interviews, he has often said, “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t womanize, but I Raptorize… I only Raptorize.”
Another life-changing moment arrived in 1999 at a repair shop in the city. As he entered the store in his best attire to fix his cellphone, a Caucasian customer assumed that he was his cab driver. Although he wasn’t angry at the man, he was hurt by the common perception of Sikhs in the city, even though he believed in the dignity of labour.
After all, he remembered how he had struggled his way to the top. So, he began his journey of changing the mainstream perception of Sikhs. He called up the Raptors and sought 3,000 tickets “to celebrate Sikh’s new year right on the courtside”, reports CTV News.
These tickets were gifted to many children, not just from the Sikh community, but a myriad of other neighbourhoods located in the city. He wanted these kids to watch the game together and integrate. It’s a tradition he continues to this day.
“Nav Bhatia spends $300k annually to send thousands of kids to Raptors games. He intentionally makes people from different backgrounds — black, white, brown, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim — sit next to each other. Why? To bring communities closer together,” tweeted Joe Pompliano, the founder of Huddle Up, a daily sports newsletter.
In the plus 25 years he has been a fan, he has seen the Raptors go through their highs, like the NBA Championship in 2019 and lows, but he hasn’t missed a single game, except for during the pandemic. Today, he’s friends with another Raptors superfan — pop star and Toronto-native, Drake.
Following his NBA Hall of Fame induction, the self-made millionaire tweeted, “I made a promise as a kid to my mom 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. Thank you, mom.”
(Edited by Divya Sethu)