May 31 (SantaBanta) – The Naismith Basketball Memorial Hall of Fame announced its latest list of inductees last week as part of the class of 2020 and while the presence of names like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett didn’t really spark any real surprise given their contributions to the game, one name did stand out – Nav Bhatia, a 69-year old Canadian of Indian origin who hasn’t taken to the court in a single professional NBA game either as a player or a coach.
So what gives? How did a Sikh living in Toronto find his name etched forever into basketball history, you ask? Well, Nav Bhatia is no ordinary fan. In fact, he’s what you call a Superfan.
Bhatia, who grew up in India, left the country in the autumn of 1984 during the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi. A mechanical engineer by training, he had hopes of landing a job in his field of speciality but quickly came to find that forging a life in a new country was no easy feat. Bhatia’s status as a visible minority did him no favours as well. His travails in finding work as an engineer saw him take up a number of odd jobs to make ends meet before he finally landed what seemed like an ordinary salesman’s position at a Hyundai dealership.
But fuelled with a rare determination to transform the perception of minority communities in Toronto, Bhatia went to work, and within three months, managed to sell a staggering 127 vehicles, setting a record that remains unbroken. Eventually, he would go on to buy the entire dealership, and slowly inch his way to greater and greater success, swallowing up several more dealerships in time. A decade later, having amassed his financial fortune, Bhatia could finally turn his attention to his true passion – basketball.
Incidentally, this was also around the same time that the Toronto Raptors were inducted into the newly-expanded NBA. Bhatia bought himself a season ticket and the rest, as they say, is history.
The early days of the Raptors’ participation in the NBA were unforgiving as the team barely managed to scrape together between 15 and 20 wins every regular season. But Bhatia, an ever-present at each Raptors game, remained steadfast in his loyalty to the team. And this didn’t go unnoticed. In 1998, Isaiah Thomas, the then-general manager of the Raptors, invited Bhatia on to centre court and applied onto him the moniker, ‘The Superfan’ – a title that has stuck with the Canadian-Indian ever since.
The next few years would see Bhatia use his voice and presence to spread messages of diversity and inclusivity, even going so far as to buy thousands of tickets to NBA games for children from all kinds of backgrounds. And when the Raptors finally won the NBA Championship in 2019, Bhatia was the only fan to receive a coveted championship ring along with the team.
Having now won himself a place in the NBA’s Hall of Fame – a prize that doesn’t materialise for most professional basketball players, an emotional Bhatia, beaming with pride, says, “You know how crazy it could be, going in the same year and being honoured in the same year as Kobe Bryant, Time Duncan and Kevin Garnett. It’s just crazy. It’s unbelievable because fans don’t have the right to dream to be in the Hall of Fame.”
Nav Bhatia spends $300k annually to send thousands of kids to Raptors games. He intentionally makes people from different backgrounds — black, white, brown, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim — sit next to each other. Why? To bring communities closer together.
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.