Muhammad Lila is a journalist from Toronto. He hopes the Raps will win in 6.
As millions of fans tune in this week from around the world, watching Kawhi, Kyle and the gang battle it out, they’re going to see a face that’s so synonymous with the Raptors that you can’t even imagine a game without him.
I know, this is about Drake right? Nope. Toronto loves it some Champagne Papi, and he loves us right back – doing more for the 6ix than any other artist since, well, probably ever.
But this is about someone else. Someone whose story who personifies the city so much – where we’ve come, and what we aspire to be – that the world should know his name.
If you’ve seen a Raptors game, you’ve seen Nav Bhatia. In the timeouts, the loose balls, even the pregame, waving his towel from the baseline. The man’s old enough to be your grandpa, but works the sideline like he’s a teenager.
Remember Giannis Antetokounmpo bricking free throws? Raise your hand if, secretly, you thought it was because of that towel-throwing thing Nav was doing to distract him.
Here’s what’s crazy: Nav’s been to every single Raptors home game since 1995. Every single one. He was there through the SkyDome years, the Barney jerseys, the trade demands, blizzards, a zillion coaches and more.
Big deal, right?
There’s more. Nav came to Canada as an immigrant from India in the 1980s with almost nothing. He didn’t have a job or money, and he struggled to rent a tiny basement apartment for $300 a month. His early co-workers weren’t exactly friendly.
“They used to call me towelhead, Paki, sheet head, you name it,” Nav told me, his voice still hoarse from celebrating the team’s series clincher.
“I realized I had to be better than they were in order to survive.”
As a brown-skinned guy with an accent, he couldn’t get a job as an engineer, so he wound up working as a car salesman at a dealership in Rexdale, which back then wasn’t the nicest part of town.
It should have been devastating, but not for Nav.
He sold 127 cars within 90 days. Nobody had ever sold more. He did it the old-fashioned way, by being honest and making others feel like they were the most important person in the room. Eventually, he sold so many cars that he bought the dealership. Then he bought another. Today, they’re among the highest-selling dealerships by volume in the country.
In 1995, on a whim, he shelled out for a pair of Raptors tickets.
“I didn’t have any hobbies," he told me. "I don’t drink, don’t smoke, I don’t go to beaches, I don’t go [to] discos, so I thought ,‘Let me go to the game, and I’ll try how I like it.’”
It was love at first sight.
Since then, he’s been the only constant – through multiple owners, superstars, even arenas. Nav’s always there, always cheering, his big grin treating every possession like it’s a game-winning shot.
Sports can be a great equalizer. When you’re an immigrant, nothing feels more validating than waving a flag while cheering on your team. Nav could’ve just showed up and called it a day. Instead, he now spends $300,000 on tickets for kids – mostly from brown, immigrant families – to come to Raptors games. He does it to show them they belong.
In other cities, it might be rare to see a brown-skinned Sikh, with a beard, in a turban, on national television yelling at multimillionaire athletes who just clanked their shot. Hell, it’s rare to see a Sikh in a turban on TV anywhere.
Nav changed that, for all of us.
Toronto isn’t perfect. There’s more to be done. But it’s still a place where immigration works. Multiculturalism works. Go to a Raptors game and you’ll hear a dozen languages, see women in hijabs with matching Kawhi jerseys, and Korean and Indian immigrants talking about the best place to get shawarma poutine. (Shawarma poutine is a thing here. That’s how Toronto rolls.)
They say you can’t celebrate where you’re going until you can celebrate where you’ve been. Nav is a symbol of that. He isn’t just a guy from Toronto. He is Toronto: A place where instead of locking people out, we find ways to help them in. Where we build bridges instead of walls. Where people work hard, make it, and care enough to give back.
When the finals tip off, the world’s going to see that spirit on display: diverse, strong and caring.
If the basketball gods (or even better, those at MLSE) smile down on me, maybe one game I’ll get to sit next to him, watching Kawhi Leonard hit a game-winning dagger over Draymond Green. And if the Raptors do win, I hope they break with tradition and give him a ring. They can’t give one to every fan – but may as well give one to a superfan.