Raptors superfan brings story of success and diversity to St. John's

Anyone who has ever watched a Toronto Raptors basketball game knows Nav Bhatia's face, but now he is travelling the country to help people learn about his life beyond his superfandom.

Bhatia spoke to the St. John's Board of Trade on Tuesday during a luncheon, sharing the story of his migration to Canada and how he rose to be a successful businessman and Raptors icon.

Since the team's humble beginnings in 1995 — a dismal 21 wins in its first season — Bhatia hasn't missed a single home game. He's never been late, he's never left early. He was with the team when the franchise captured its first National Basketball Association championship last spring and has been touring the world ever since.

But Bhatia also comes from humble beginnings.

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

He came to Canada in 1984 to flee the persecution of Sikhs in India, at a time when thousands of his fellow people were being killed in the streets.

"At that time we were not safe in our homes or in our temples," he told The St. John's Morning Show. "That was the time we decided as a family to move out of India."

Faced racism and stereotypes

His beginnings in Toronto were not easy. Despite having an engineering degree in India, Bhatia worked odd jobs and rented a cramped basement apartment until he landed a job as a car salesman.

He was thrilled to have a good job, but his excitement was dashed on his first day.

"I usually don't use the word discrimination, but I was called different kinds of names," he said. "People called me towelhead, diaperhead.… That day I decided if I wanted to survive in this country, in this environment, I have to be better than good."

Bhatia said he sold 120 cars in his first three months and started his upward trajectory. He became a manager, general manager and then dealer principal. He now has three dealerships and 200 employees.

Albert Leung/CBC
Albert Leung/CBC

But he's best known as the Raptors superfan, a title bestowed upon him by former team executive Isaiah Thomas in 1998.

During those early days, Bhatia went to a Bell store to get his phone repaired. When he entered the shop, the man behind the counter was speaking with his wife on the phone.

"As I entered, he said, 'Honey I've got to go, my cab is here.'"

Bhatia said he didn't blame the man for his assumption. Instead, he thought of how the Sikh community could do more to integrate into the community with everybody involved.

His solution — buying 3,000 tickets to Raptors games and giving them away.

"I brought people of different faith, colour, gender together so the kids can be all together in order to integrate and watch the game together, irrespective of their colour or agenda and that. And that's how I started."

Bhatia said his message is that diversity is a form of strength for Canada.

"We are growing and progressing every year," he said.

Bhatia has been in St. John's since the weekend, and has been enjoying the scenery and people.

"It's a beautiful place and the people are so beautiful. I'm in love already and I'm already planning to come back next summer with my family."

For now, he's got a busy basketball season ahead of him. The Raptors begin their championship defence with its season opener next Tuesday against the New Orleans Pelicans.

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