Mumbai, India – When the Toronto Raptors played their first game in the National Basketball Association (NBA) league in 1995, a courtside fan stood out from the rest. But it was not just his booming voice that had others in the arena sit up and take notice.
As a practising Sikh, he also drew attention with his white turban and thick beard as required by his religion.
A lot has changed for the Raptors since. But they have always found Navdeep “Nav” Bhatia in their corner, rooting for his team through all its ups and downs.
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The 69-year-old claims he has never missed a Raptors game since their inception. And his cheer has only grown louder with time.
All this was enough reason for the franchise to christen him a “Superfan” in 1998 and hand him the Number 95 jersey, after the year of their inception.
Bhatia is now a recognised face across NBA, rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in the sport.
Last week, Bhatia became the first-ever fan to be inducted into the prestigious Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
And it was not for just being a loyal Raptors follower. Over the years, he has used his fame and the game to smash stereotypes, while bringing about change, one basketball fan at a time, through philanthropy and activism.
Basketball a ‘perfect vent’
In 1982, Bhatia returned to his home in the Indian capital, New Delhi, with a degree in mechanical engineering from California State University in Los Angeles.
He was looking to set up a business when anti-Sikh riots broke out two years later, in which 3,000 Sikhs were killed.
Traumatised by the killings, Bhatia left for Canada, a new land where he decided to rebuild a new life.
“Like most Indians, the first thing was to work towards having a roof on my head. I was a workaholic … I was really stingy and there was no room for luxuries,” he told Al Jazeera over an online call from Toronto.
“I experienced a lot of speed bumps along the way, what one would call discrimination. That was a very challenging time.”
During the early days, a job was hard to come by, which he says had a lot to do with the “way he looked”. He finally landed a job as a car salesman.
In a new environment, Bhatia says he made an instant connection with basketball.
“I would watch guys like Larry Bird, Dr J (Julius Erving) and Michael Jordan – really entertaining. Of course, coming from cricket-crazy India, I had never played this game. But it was the perfect vent after the gruelling hours at work,” he says.
“Even today, I forget about family and business during those three hours at a game.”
‘Sikhs are loyal people’
When the Raptors came into existence, Bhatia found a team he could call his own. By this time, he had spent a decade in Canada and established himself professionally.
He bought two tickets for their first game and has not looked back since.
“We have had low moments through most of the first 20 years, at times winning just 16 of the 82 games all season. People would make fun of me at coffee shops. They would say: ‘why are you wasting money on losers?'” he laughs.
“But Sikhs are loyal people and once you take someone’s hand, you hold it forever.”
Even after he established two of the biggest car dealerships in Canada, Bhatia’s life revolved around basketball and the Raptors.
He would be seen with the players and management at the court and watch reruns of the game when his team lost, much to the chagrin of his wife, Arvinder.
Soon, the Raptors were celebrating Indian festivals such as Diwali and Baisakhi as they began to find a growing community of Canadian Sikh fans by their side.
‘Most annoying fan’
The opposition team too found Bhatia hard to miss at the games, where he made their lives difficult with his cheers and rants.
Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, for instance, called Bhatia the most annoying fan to play in front of after his “antics” at the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019.
“We had lost the first two games and I was very emotional and energetic during the third. I ensured Giannis missed six free throws. In fact, Raptors coach Nick Nurse even told me that the win belonged to me since I had worked so hard for it,” Bhatia says, chuckling.
Everywhere he went in Toronto, he was offered free coffee and hugs. But not all incidents were pleasant.
Once a Bucks fan called him “that fat guy with an underwear on his head” on social media, causing outrage and the NBA fraternity castigating him, demanding action against him.
But Bhatia decided to tackle it his own way. He met the man in Milwaukee, accepted his apology and took him out for dinner.
“After the game, I took his 10-year-old son to the locker room where he met all the players. Today his father and I are good friends. So I changed the perception of a guy who had never seen a Sikh with a turban and a beard. It was a great moment for me,” Bhatia recalls.
Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation
In 2019, Raptors were crowned the champions. Bhatia celebrated alongside 3,000 fans in Oakland, where they beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the series.
For the support he had shown over the years, he was even handed an NBA Championship ring by the Raptors, usually reserved for only the team members.
Back in Toronto, he was asked to lead the parade, celebrating alongside thousands of others in the streets.
“Whites, Blacks, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims – all kinds of people, standing there, expressing their love for the team. That’s what basketball is all about,” he says.
To do his bit for the community in Canada, Bhatia launched the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation in 2018. The idea was to make basketball accessible to as many children as he could by building courts and distributing gear.
Around the Baisakhi festival, Bhatia takes around 5,000 children of all ages, races and backgrounds to the Raptors’ game. He says he makes the children mingle among themselves to address the issue of discrimination he initially faced as an immigrant.
“I want them to interact at a young age, so that none of them go through what I did decades ago. Every year, I go to schools across the country and talk to the students. This next generation is really important to me,” he says.
In India, his foundation tied up with World Vision in 2016 to launch the Daughters of India campaign. One of the main issues they took up was the lack of sanitation for girls, which forced some of them to quit school after hitting puberty.
In 2017, their campaign raised $300,000 and constructed 135 washrooms across 35 schools in Faridkot in the western Indian state of Punjab.
Bhatia says his next project is neighbouring Rajasthan state’s Alwar district, where he plans to build 200 washrooms and basketball courts for the girls.
“I often find it hard to believe all the things that have happened to me. So I am simply using it to do good,” he says.