It’s hard to imagine loving anything as much as Nav Bhatia loves the Toronto Raptors.
I recently spent a game day embedded with the Raptors “Super Fan,” and I realized there is much more to the man than the one we see waving a towel courtside and heckling opponents.
You can watch the full video feature here:
And here are some of the most interesting things I learned about Bhatia and his journey from Sikh immigrant to Toronto sports celebrity.
Vince Carter is family
As we got set for our interview on April 19, Bhatia scrolled through his phone to show me baby photos of Vincent Lamar Carter Junior. The future NBA Hall-of-Famer had recently texted Nav photos of his newborn son. Bhatia joked Carter’s son is going to be a baller because he’s got big hands, telling me he has already told Carter, “I’m going send him a contract to bring him to Toronto.”
He’s a regular at Raptor weddings
Bhatia was the only Raptors representative at Vince Carter’s wedding.
“It was the first superstar wedding that I’ve been to,” he said.
Bhatia travelled to Lithuania for the nuptials of Jonas Valanciunas which he claimed was “off the charts,” yet he has missed weddings of family members, including his nephew’s, because they conflicted with the Raptors schedule. Unapologetically he admits, “Everyone knows my schedule is built around basketball.”
He lives in a Raptors household
His household Wi-Fi username is “Raptors.” Literally everything in his life is somehow tied to Canada’s professional basketball franchise. His vanity license plate has a Raptors logo and his nickname on it. And while his home, which includes an indoor pool, theatre room and elevator, isn’t heavy on Raptors memorabilia, it does have an empty glass case. The empty case is being reserved for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
He has a ritual pre-game meal
His game-day begins with a morning Tim Hortons run. His ritual pre-game meal is Mexican food. He is recognized by other consumers at both stops.
“Next time give me only one pop,” he instructs the waitress at Playa Cabana Hacienda. “I don’t like to waste things. It is “morally wrong” he says about the second diet Coke he is unable to finish after eating his customary vegetarian enchilada.
This from someone who spends millions of dollars each year on his 13 individual season tickets.
“It is worth every penny” he says of his Raptors obsession.
As he was rooting on our camera operator, Maggie, as she finished her large plate of food with cheers of “You can do it Maggie, I’m proud of you,” you get the sense Bhatia simply gets excited about the simple things in life. His passion is for cheering as much as it is for professional basketball.
He has a perfect attendance record
Bhatia has never missed a game and has never been late for one. When his attendance streak was once threatened by bad traffic, he drove on the shoulder of the highway to make it to his seat before tipoff.
He was then called for a personal foul when police officer pulled him over.
“He looked in the car and said, ‘hey are you the Super Fan,” Bhatia recalled. The next thing he knew he was let off with a stern warning, plus a police escort all the way to his gate.
“I shouldn’t have done that. That was wrong,” he said. “But that was a close one.”
Now he gets to the game two-and-a-half hours early, not just to ensure he doesn’t miss tipoff, but to fulfill all the photo requests. Wherever he’s standing at the ACC becomes a makeshift selfie station. By the time he takes his seat, Bhatia has makeup all over his shirt and is almost in a sweat from all the hugs, high-fives and deep embraces he’s shared with fans and team personnel.
He’s got some famous friends
How did he get those four coveted seats on the baseline?
He bought some of the seats from his friend and former CEO of Research in Motion, Jim Balsille. Bhatia reluctantly traded in his BlackBerry for a Samsung, but his rolodex remains extensive and he’s always on the phone talking to someone notable. At one point during our day together, he received a call from Milwaukee Bucks General Manager John Hammond to ensure he was good for his tickets in Milwaukee.
When he later learned from the Raptors their “celebrity seats” are available for an upcoming game he gave comedian Russell Peters a call to see if he was interested in them.
DeMar DeRozan’s neighbour
Bhatia’s courtside seats are next to those of DeMar DeRozan’s family. On this night he helps DeMar’s mother to her seat and holds DeMar’s baby daughter pre-game, rocking her and adjusting her soother when it begins to slip out. During the game, he’s up on his feet screaming at the refs, shoulder-to-shoulder with DeMar’s wife Kiara Morrison.
The two families are close. His ritual is he hugs DeMar at halftime of every game. Nav got a pair of DeMar’s Nike Kobe Bryant player edition “Comp10” sneakers before they were released to the public. Nav helped DeMar move to Mississauga after he signed his new contract and boasts “I’m going to do the same when Kyle (Lowry) re-signs. Bhatia is clearly helping the property value in the West Toronto suburb.
Married to the game
Bhatia’s wife isn’t the biggest fan of the resources or time he dedicates to the team. When asked to put an annual dollar figure on his obsession he says, “There are some things in life you don’t do the spreadsheet for,” adding, “I won’t tell you because you’ll snitch to my wife and my family and then I’m in big trouble.”
Bhatia’s wife, who struggles with arthritis, stopped going to games with him after one winter contest in which she made her way to the car before the game ended, hoping to beat the large crowds. Unbeknownst to her, the game went into multiple overtimes and Bhatia stayed glued to his seat. According to Bhatia his wife asked, “Where were you? You know I was waiting here.”
Bhatia replied, “You know my rule. Win or lose, I don’t leave my seat until the referees go into the tunnel.”
He’s a rags-to-riches story
How many fans have their own Ted talk?
Bhatia’s story of overcoming racism to not only assimilate into Canada, but gain prominence through his love of basketball, is pretty unique. Unable to get a job as a mechanical engineer, he sold cars when he arrived in Canada.
“Towel head” and “Paki” were some of the names he was called during his early days on the job. As he says, he “let his number speak” and proceeded to sell a record number of cars in a three-month span, leading to his ownership of two Hyundai dealerships. Now he’s using his fame and sales skills as a pitchman and for philanthropic causes.
Bhatia is planning a charity basketball game with DeMar DeRozan and he is building three basketball courts in Malton. He’s also working with World Vision to raise money for girls in India who don’t attend school. His current project includes the construction of 60 washrooms in 20 schools.
Throughout our day together, Bhatia also took meetings with companies such as Biosteel and Tissot to discuss joint ventures. For some of these companies, he is their only non-athlete ambassador.
Bhatia presented the MVP trophy at the recent Biosteel all-Canadian futures game but honours like that and donations to his charity are as far as his relationships with sponsors extend. Asked why he doesn’t take money from companies that he works with to offset the rising cost of his tickets he explained “I don’t need it I just want them to help me give things to people who do.”