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Raptors Superfan Nav Bhatia Spreads the Love in a New Memoir

In 'The Heart of a Superfan,' the immigrant engineer-turned-philanthropist talks about enduring racist slurs, spreading joy and meeting the world with compassion / BY Tom Hawthorn / February 22nd, 2024


Even if you don’t follow basketball, you might know Superfan.

Superfan, a.k.a. Nav Bhatia, can be found at Toronto Raptors home games in seat A12 at Scotiabank Arena. He is court side, near the visiting team’s bench, a spot chosen so the tall targets of his heckling cannot escape his barbs. 

The man The New York Times called “a one-man version of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show” turns 72 in July, a 5-foot-7 basketball fanatic with a cool nickname, a self-made family fortune and a busy foundation. A one-man brand, he is using his unexpected fame to do good works, including raising funds to build toilets in rural India, promoting integration here and building basketball courts with money donated by his foundation. 

Now he’s telling his story in an as-told-to autobiography, The Heart of a Superfan: A Memoir of Grit, Love, Family and Basketball, co-written with Vancouver CBC News producer Tamara Baluja.

Basketball is clearly his passion. Bhatia leaps into the air with every Raptors basket, which means even in a rebuilding season like this one, he’s jumping to his feet 50 times in a 48-minute game. Superfan’s exuberance is hard to miss either in person or on telecasts. He has worn his nickname with pride and without apology since a 1999 game, when then-Raptors general manager Isiah Thomas surprised him at halftime with a Raptors jersey with No. 1 and the name Superfan on the back. In 2021, actor Kal Penn announced he would help produce and star in a biopic called Superfan, which is still in development.

 

Nav Bhatia

 

The Raptors joined the National Basketball Association during the league expansion in 1995. In the 30 seasons since, Superfan has only ever missed one home game, and that’s because he followed COVID-19 protocols. (He watched the game on television. Even after seeing a match live, he watches a replay at home.) When the Raptors won their first ever NBA title in 2019 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., Superfan celebrated with the players he regards as his sons.

The team asked him to be the grand marshal of a remarkable victory parade through the streets of Toronto and even presented Superfan with a championship ring, a gaudy, golden prize holding 645 diamonds and 24 rubies, which he happily invites others to slip onto their finger, sharing in the glory. Quite an accomplishment for someone who is the team’s second best-known cheerleader after his younger friend, Drake, the Raptors’ global ambassador. 

“God has blessed me with those things,” says Superfan, speaking on the telephone from the Mississauga, Ont., office of his non-profit Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation. He is in good spirits despite an ugly road loss the previous night. “After 29 years, I have seen so many ups and downs. You don’t expect to win every year. It’s a very tough league.”

While I am keen to hear more about Superfan, he wants to know what I, as a writer, thought about The Heart of a Superfan. The book is a brisk, concise account of Bhatia’s immigrant journey from India to Canada, from trained mechanical engineer to car salesman, from full-time hustling businessman to part-time basketball maniac. With chapters alternating between fandom and an intriguing personal story, it sates the basketball fan while holding the interest of the non-fan.

As a youth, he promised his mother to never drink, smoke, or cut his hair, symbols of a devout Sikh. Bhatia left his native India in the wake of sectarian violence to start over in Canada in 1984. In his new chosen land, he found wearing a turban a barrier to being hired. He and wife Arvinder lived in a $350-a-month basement apartment equipped with a hot plate instead of a stove. They shopped at Honest Ed’s. Every day, he left home in the Mississauga neighbourhood of Malton, to travel by public transit to drop off resumés in an unsuccessful search for employment. He worked odd jobs as a janitor and landscaper until, one day, one of those applications got noticed. The manager of a car dealership told him he had a job if he reported for work within 30 minutes. He made it in time, only to spend the rest of the day hearing such crude insults as “towelhead,” “diaperhead” and “Paki” from customers and his fellow salesmen. “It was a painful day,” he told me. “That was my lowest day in my life in Canada.”

He took the barbs as motivation, selling 127 cars in three months. In time, he was promoted to manager of a Hyundai dealership in Mississauga. In his first week, eight of nine salesmen quit. Bhatia proved so good at selling cars he wound up owning that dealership and a few others, earning a fortune selling South Korean-manufactured cars to budget-minded Canadian motorists.

The arrival of the Raptors as an NBA expansion franchise gave the workaholic a hobby. He became obsessed, telling his wife, half-jokingly, “Please don’t die on a game day because I won’t be able to make it to your funeral!” She no longer attends games with him, though he is often accompanied by their adopted daughter, Kudrat, an actor who goes by the name Tia Bhatia.

According to the book, one day, Bhatia walked into a cellular telephone shop. At the sight of his turban, another customer on a courtesy phone said, “Honey, I’ve got to go. My cab is here.” Being stereotyped convinced him it was time to share the full story of his co-religionists with the wider community. He organized the first celebration to be held at a Raptors game, purchasing 3,000 tickets and ensuring children of various ethnic groups could share in the fun.

A story that captures Bhatia’s generous spirit occurred during the championship run five years ago. A man in Wisconsin went on Twitter to complain: “Who’s the more annoying #Raptors fan? Drake, or the fat Indian guy with underwear on his head?” The outrageous post led to a reverse online assault on the ignorant writer. Instead of being angry, Bhatia had his agent reach out to the man, offering to meet with him on the team’s next visit to Milwaukee. Bhatia bought the man and his son tickets to a game – their first – and treated them to a meal, explaining the tenets of his religion, including how a tidy turban is a sign of devotion. To respond to such ugly hatred with a gracious and open-hearted reply is Bhatia’s way.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing,” he said. “You’re wearing a turban, or you’re wearing a hijab. It’s what’s inside it [that matters]. Treat people like you want to be treated yourself. That’s the ticket.”

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