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Basketball ‘superfan’ brings people together

It’s fair to say that I’m a fan of a couple different things, ranging from different entertainment franchises to a variety of musicians. As a fan, I typically try to keep up-to-date on all the latest news about them, like if my favorite band releases a new song or a teaser trailer is released for an upcoming movie. It’s always exciting to see something new.

Other fans show their appreciation of something by buying merchandise or learning all sorts of interesting trivia about it or showing their support whenever possible. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most of us would probably just be considered casual fans of one thing or another that brings us joy.

But you have to be really, really dedicated to something to be considered a “superfan.”

Plenty of people might call themselves a “superfan” of something, but only one can say they got one of the first spots for fans in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The newly renovated museum now includes a “Superfan Gallery” and one of the first featured honorees includes Nav Bhatia, a Canadian businessman and one of the biggest fans of the Toronto Raptors NBA team.

He’s rarely missed a home game since the team started in 1995 and he’s never left a game early (no matter how badly the team might be losing). In 1998, Isaiah Thomas, who was the Raptors general manager at the time, took notice of his constant cheering presence in the stands and gave him his own “superfan” jersey. After the Raptors won the NBA title in 2019, the team even got him a championship ring too for his unwavering devotion after all these years.

Bhatia immigrated to Canada in 1984 from his home country of India. As an adherent to the Sikh religion, he always wears a turban. That wasn’t a very unusual sight in India, but in the early days after his move across the ocean, he said his turban and beard made it difficult to find a job, even with his degree in mechanical engineering. Eventually he took a job as a car salesman and became quite successful. So successful, in fact, that he later became the general manager of a nearby dealership and then the owner of several dealerships.

So when the NBA expanded to Toronto in 1995, he had plenty of money to buy season tickets and he’s been cheering them on ever since.

But he’s not just cheering alone anymore. He created the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation in order to help people of all ages and backgrounds—but mainly black and brown kids and immigrants like himself—be able to attend basketball games. The nonprofit also raises money to build basketball courts and fund basketball camps across Canada.

In a 2019 interview, he explained, “when I first started as a Raptors season ticket holder in ’95, there were only 40 to 50 brown people like me [in the crowd], and only one who was wearing a turban at the time.”

He recalled an incident back in the late ‘90s where a person saw his appearance and mistook him for a cab driver, and so after that he said he was going to change the mainstream perception of Sikhs and other South Asians.

“So what I did: I went to the Raptors and I bought 3,000 tickets to celebrate my New Year’s in the arena,” he explained in the same interview. “And they were surprised. But I brought people from all faiths, religions, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and we celebrated and watched the game together.”

“And the purpose was to tell them that we might look different, we are different, maybe, but deep inside, 99.99 percent, we have the same passion,” he continued. “We love basketball and we cheer for the same team, which is the Raptors.”

As a big basketball fan myself, I love Bhatia’s idea to share the game with as many people as possible, no matter their background. It doesn’t matter how different we are from one another because, like he said, we all share the same passion. We can always find some common ground, even if it’s just to boo the referees for a questionable call on the court.

Maybe if we all took that idea to heart, we’d be able to understand each other a bit better than before.

It’s cool that Bhatia is being recognized for what he’s done over the years as a “superfan.” And I hope he’s able to keep bringing people together for a long time to come.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.