For 23 years and more than 900 games, Nav Bhatia has dutifully travelled to downtown Toronto to watch his beloved Raptors.
Come rain or shine, through wins and losses, Mr. Bhatia has never missed a home game since the basketball team first started to play at what was then the SkyDome on Nov. 3, 1995.
Now, for the first time in franchise history, the team is up 2-0 in a playoff series, having wrapped up the franchise’s first regular-season conference title on the strength of a record 59-win season.
When the best-of-seven series resumes this evening in Washington against the Wizards, the Raptors’s superfan Mr. Bhatia will be there doing his best to cheer his team on to another victory. With an empty trophy case at his home in Mississauga awaiting a replica of the Larry O’Brien Trophy that is awarded to each year’s National Basketball Association champion, Toronto is 14 wins shy of that goal.
“For a guy like me who has been there for 23 years, never missing a game, never being late, and never leaving a game early, if and when that result comes out, that is the fulfillment of my dream,” says Mr. Bhatia.
Having embraced basketball since arriving from his native India in 1984, Mr. Bhatia is a self-made success story. Unable to find work as a mechanical engineer, he started working as a car salesman. After selling 127 over a three-month period, he was promoted to manager at Rexdale Hyundai. Two years later, he bought the dealership, and now also owns Mississauga Hyundai.
But it is beside the Raptors basketball court at the Air Canada Centre where Mr. Bhatia is hoping to find even more success. As the owner of 13 season tickets – he spends more than $300,000 a year on the Raptors – he is every bit as visible on game days as Toronto star players DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Sitting in his familiar seats next to the opposing team’s bench, Mr. Bhatia has seen many changes in the makeup of Toronto’s basketball fan base over the past 23 years. He says there were maybe 30 to 40 South Asian fans when he started attending, but that started to change when the team began instituting multicultural nights during games to celebrate Vaisakhi and Diwali in the late 1990s.
Now, Mr. Bhatia buys roughly 3,000 tickets to give to Sikh youth during those games.
“We started bringing a busload of kids from all over, from our temples, from the mosques, from the churches, we brought all that in order to do the integration of the fans with each other,” he says. “Not just enjoying the basketball, but helping to make a better community.”
That idea of using basketball as a force for good is a constant source of motivation for Mr. Bhatia now. He recently started the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation, which is working with the ownership group behind the Raptors, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., as well as NBA Canada to build basketball courts.
Four courts are being built in Malton, Ont., which should be operational by the end of the year, and Mr. Bhatia is also thinking about building others in the economically challenged Jane and Finch area of Toronto, where young people can spend their energy in a positive way.
“I enjoy the basketball game but after 23 years, it’s only entertainment for my eyes,” he says. “Now I’m reaching far deeper into my soul to know what I want to do and it’s things like building basketball right here.”
He is also looking to his native India. Mr. Bhatia says he is working with World Vision Canada to build 60 washrooms at 20 schools in northern India. He adds that, once completed, the washrooms will allow 30,000 girls to continue their education because at present, 47 per cent of schools in India have no toilets for girls. As a result, many have stopped going to school rather than risk their safety, health and dignity by going “behind the bushes” which has led to incidents of rape in the past.
Mr. Bhatia, a World Vision ambassador, says he recently visited the Rise Up! Daughters of India project in India, where 20 washrooms have already been built.
He has also talked to Mark Tatum, the NBA deputy commissioner, about getting basketball courts built at those schools.
“At the end of the day, we want more basketball because basketball is one exciting game, if not the most exciting game on this Earth,” he says.
That excitement will be on full display once again tonight as the Raptors attempt to take a stranglehold on the first-round series with Washington. Mr. Bhatia says that while many in the media, particularly south of the border, are playing down the Raptors’s chances for a championship, Canada’s lone NBA franchise is the No. 1 seed for a reason.
“We don’t fear anybody,” he says. “… Bring anybody on, we’re ready for anybody right now.”
His passion also aims higher: “If there is a little bit of celebrity I have, I’m trying to use it in order to reach out to the underprivileged and to bring the world together through the game of basketball,” he says.