Nav Bhatia is a member of Canada’s wealthy elite. He’s a millionaire with two businesses in his name. He’s also the Toronto Raptors’ most visible fan — its Superfan — and you can find him courtside at every home game the team plays. But, to hear him tell it, in many ways he is still in the midst of his personal process of assimilation.
When Bhatia immigrated to Canada from India in 1984 he couldn’t find work in his trade as a mechanical engineer, which was common for Indo-Canadians at the time. Unwilling to wait for government assistance until something came up, he sought work as a car salesman and remembers becoming the target of racist slurs in the process.
Luckily, a Chinese dealership owner took a chance on him and he repaid that trust, selling 127 cars in three months, which remains a record today. He was promptly promoted to manager of the once-struggling location and two years later he bought the dealership outright.
Even with his success, the element of race remained a factor in his life.
“I went to a phone-repair store and a white man was there talking on the courtesy phone to his wife. When he saw me he said into the phone, ‘OK, honey, I’ve got to go — my cabbie is here.’ I was wearing one of my finest suits, I was looking good. I wasn’t his cab, I was there to get my phone fixed just like him,” Bhatia remembers. “I learned then my people have to do more to assimilate and become one with the culture in Canada.”
The most visible avenue Bhatia chose was basketball. And he’s far from alone among Canadian immigrants in making that choice. According to the results of our recent survey of over 1,500 Canadians, watching basketball is a bigger part of the Canadian immigrant’s life than the national average: While three per cent of the total number of people surveyed said basketball is the sport they watch most often with their friends and kids, 10 per cent of immigrants said the same thing. In fact, basketball was the third-most popular answer among immigrants, after hockey and soccer.
Bhatia’s connection to the Raptors started simply by attending the first game in franchise history, and he was hooked.
“You feel so close to the players and the energy throughout the game,” he says. “There was always something happening on the court so you felt entertained the entire 48 minutes.”
Now he watches every night from courtside, a consistent and energetic presence under the basket.
Over the last two years he’s also travelled to cheer on the Raptors in the playoffs in Milwaukee, Indiana and twice in Cleveland. At times, he says, he’s dealt with nasty remarks hurled at him by opposing fans, but by the end of each series he’s taking pictures with opposing supporters.
Next summer Bhatia is planning a charity game to be held at the Air Canada Centre during Caribana weekend that would rival the summer basketball soirees put on by Vince Carter in his heyday with the team. His tentative guest list is riddled with Hall of Famers, both present and future.
He’s clearly connected. He knows Mark Tatum, NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Office, well enough to call him up and invite him to lunch. He was one of just 100 attendees at Jonas Valanciunas’s wedding, which he describes as “off the charts.” This summer he’ll head to the NBA awards in New York to show support for a friend of his. You may have heard of him. His name is Drake.
Bhatia didn’t plan on becoming friends with celebrities — it just happened. Once during a game in Orlando, he was sitting beside a “charming young lady” and was surprised by the amount of attention photographers and fans were paying the two of them, or so he thought.
After a brief text exchange, his daughter confirmed that the young woman was Rihanna.
When he’s not cheering on his team, Bhatia still finds time to oversee his two Hyundai dealerships. He’s proud not just of the fact that they’re among the country’s most profitable, but also top the list in terms of funds given to charity.
At times, Bhatia has even used his connections to become a one-man Make-a-Wish Foundation.
Hours before the Raptors got ousted from the 2017 playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers last month, Bhatia got a text from someone he didn’t know. The person asked him if he could help grant the wish of a sick child who wanted to see a Raptors game. With the Raptors down 3–0, there was no guarantee of another home game this season, but for most people tickets would be hard to come by. Not Bhatia. He got tickets for the boy and his family, and orchestrated a meeting with players from both teams.
Requests like this are coming more and more frequently these days, but the Raptors Superfan doesn’t mind.
“It’s not a burden at all,” he says. “I want to spread love through the game of basketball. It allowed me to feel comfortable in Canada and to meet so many people. I want to do that for others as well.”
Bhatia has also been involved in promoting South Asian and East Indian charities, building basketball courts in the Peel Region just west of Toronto, and has worked with the Raptors to organize multicultural nights at their games. During Vaisakhi and Diwali, he purchases 3,000 tickets to give to Sikh youth, costing him roughly $300,000.
“The goal is to integrate my Indian community with the mainstream,” he says.
In an era where there is legitimate debate as to how much public funding should be dedicated to sports franchises, Bhatia’s story reveals that sports don’t just bring in money for ownership — they create access points for integration and understanding.
Don’t believe me? Keep your eyes fixed on the baseline at the Air Canada Centre. The guy in the white Raptors jersey and colour-coordinated turban proudly belting “O Canada” is living proof.