Bombay, India – When the Toronto Raptors played their first game in the National Basketball Association (NBA) league in 1995, one fan on the court stood out from the rest. But it wasn’t just his booming voice that made other people in the arena sit back and stare at him.
As a practicing Sikh, he also drew attention with his white turban and thick beard, as required by his religion.
Since then, the Raptors have changed a lot. But they have always found Navdeep “Nav” Bhatia in their corner, rooting their team through all its ups and downs.
The 69-year-old claims he has never missed a Raptors game since its inception. And his joy has only increased over time.
All this was reason enough for the franchise to name him “Superfan” in 1998 and give him the number 95 shirt, after the year of its creation.
Bhatia is now a recognized face throughout the NBA, running out with some of the most important names in the sport.
Last week, Bhatia became the first fan to be inducted into the prestigious Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
And it wasn’t just for being a loyal follower of the Raptors. Over the years, he has used his fame and game to break stereotypes, while bringing about change, one basketball fan at a time, through philanthropy and activism.
Basketball a “perfect way out”
In 1982, Bhatia returned home to the Indian capital, New Delhi, with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from California State University in Los Angeles.
He was trying to start a business when two anti-Sikh riots broke out two years later, in which 3,000 Sikhs died.
Traumatized by the murders, Bhatia left for Canada, a new land where he decided to rebuild a new life.
“Like most Indians, the first thing was to work to have a roof over your head. I was an ingenious worker … I was very stingy and there was no room for luxuries, ”he told Al Jazeera during an online call from Toronto.
“I experienced many speed bumps along the way, what would be called discrimination. It was a very difficult time. “
For the first few days, it was hard to find a job that he said had a lot to do with his “way of seeing.” He finally got a job as a car salesman.
In a new environment, Bhatia says he established an instant connection with basketball.
“I watched guys like Larry Bird, Dr. J (Julius Erving) and Michael Jordan, really entertaining. Of course, coming from Cricket Crazy India, he had never played this game. But it was the perfect way out after exhausting hours of work, ”he says.
“Even today, I forget family and business during those three hours of play.”
“Sikhs are loyal people”
When the Raptors existed, 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 his first game and hasn’t looked back since.
“We have had low moments for most of the first 20 years, sometimes winning only 16 of the 82 games all season. People were making fun of me in cafes. They would say, ‘why are you wasting money on losers?’ “, River.
“But Sikhs are loyal people and once you take someone’s hand, you have it forever.”
Even after establishing two of Canada’s largest car dealerships, Bhatia’s life revolved around basketball and the Raptors.
He would look at the players and the management on the court and watch the replays of the match when his team lost, much to the displeasure of his wife, Arvinder.
Soon, the Raptors were celebrating Indian festivals like Diwali and Baisakhi as they began to find a growing community of Sikh Canadian fans by their side.
“Most annoying fan”
The opposition team also struggled to lose Bhatia in the games, where he hampered his life with his joys and spite.
Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, for example, called Bhatia the most annoying fan to play after his “traps” in the Eastern Conference finals in 2019.
“We had lost the first two games and during the third I was very emotional and energetic. I made sure Giannis missed six free throws. In fact, Raptors coach Nick Nurse even told me that the victory belonged to me, as I had worked hard for it, ”says Bhatia laughing.
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 underwear on his head” on social media, provoking outrage and the NBA fraternity punishing him, demanding action against him.
But Bhatia decided to approach it in his own way. She met the man in Milwaukee, accepted his apologies, and took him to dinner.
“After the game, I took my ten-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 boy who had never seen a Sikh with a turban and a beard. It was a fantastic moment for me, ”Bhatia recalls.
Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation
In 2019, Raptors were crowned champions. Bhatia celebrated alongside 3,000 fans in Oakland, where they defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the series.
For the support he had shown over the years, even the Raptors handed him an NBA championship ring, usually reserved only for team members.
Back in Toronto, he was asked to lead the parade, celebrating it alongside thousands of others on the street.
“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 make its great effort for the Canadian community, Bhatia launched the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation in 2018. The idea was to make basketball accessible to as many children as it could by building courts and distributing material.
Around the Baisakhi festival, Bhatia brings around 5,000 children of all ages, races and backgrounds to the Raptors game. He says he makes children mingle with each other to address the issue of discrimination he initially faced as an immigrant.
“I want them to interact from a very young age, so that none of them go through what I did decades ago. Every year I go to schools all over the country and talk to the students. This next generation is really important to me, ”he says.
In India, her foundation teamed up with World Vision in 2016 to launch the Daughters of India campaign. One of the main issues they addressed was the lack of sanitation for girls, which forced some of them to drop out of school after reaching puberty.
In 2017, his campaign raised $ 300,000 and built 135 toilets in 35 schools in Faridkot in the western Indian state of Punjab.
Bhatia says his next project is the neighboring district of Rajasthan’s Alwar district, where he plans to build 200 baths and basketball courts for girls.
“I often find it hard to believe all the things that have happened to me. So I just use it to do good, ”he says.