“I’ve been at every home game since 1995”: Raptors Superfan Nav Bhatia on his new memoir

“I’ve been at every home game since 1995”: Raptors Superfan Nav Bhatia on his new memoir

Toronto’s number one basketball fan talks receiving an NBA championship ring, the upcoming movie about his life and befriending A-listers like Vince Carter and Drake

Nav Bhatia holding the NBA championship trophy
Photo courtesy of Push Marketing Group

Nav Bhatia, a.k.a. the Raptors Superfan, started his ascent to fame in the late ’90s, when the team officially recognized him as its most enthusiastic fan. His profile continued to rise as he attended every single home game from 1995 to 2021. Mostly, Torontonians steal glimpses of him in the short viral clips of his courtside cheering at Scotiabank Arena—but now he’s going long-form. Bhatia, the 72-year-old owner of five GTA car dealerships by day, has co-authored a memoir titled The Heart of a Superfan. Written alongside journalist Tamara Baluja, the book, which comes out on February 27, is the tell-all story of Bhatia’s immigration from India in the 1980s and his celebrated 30-year love affair with the Raptors. Here, he shares how he became the team’s designated superfan and whether he thinks he’s a bigger Raps supporter than Drake.

Tell me, how does a person get anointed the Raptors’ number one fan?
Even before the team existed, I loved watching basketball. I used to catch games with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Dr. J on TV. So, when the Raptors were founded in 1995, I wanted to support the new home team. I started buying tickets to all their home games and cheered hard, just like I would for cricket matches back in India. At the end of their first year, they finished last in their division, but I was already hooked. There is so much hype when you watch the games in person.

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You’ve become famous for your courtside enthusiasm. When did the team take notice?
In 1998, Isiah Thomas, the executive vice-president of the Raptors at the time, called me to centre court during a game. I was shocked. As it turned out, he’d noticed my antics in the stands. So he presented me with a custom jersey that had “Superfan” written on the back, and he told me that, from now on, I would represent the Raptors as their number one Superfan. Thirty years later, the only home game I ever missed was when I had Covid in 2021 and needed to isolate.

So is it fair to say you’re the biggest Raptors fan in the world?
I’ll let other people make that call, but I was the first NBA fan to be recognized with a championship ring. The team gifted one to me in 2019, when they won the title. I felt like a part of the team—it’s one of my favourite possessions. I wear it often, especially to games and any other places where I expect to encounter Raptors fans.

Aside from the bling, are there perks to being a celebrity fan?
Well, security always walks with me through Pearson airport—once, my manager and I were mobbed by fans in the security line, and it caused a lot of chaos, so now they escort me straight though. Sometimes restaurant owners will recognize me and cover my bill. I also get a lot of brands sending me free clothing. Then there are a lot of people who ask to take photos with me—I was even recognized in the Philippines while on vacation, and people offered me free food and coffee. It’s fun to get to know other fans. I met Drake for the first time at a Raptors game, when he was in his early 20s. I don’t remember what year it was, but he recognized me and came to introduce himself. That’s before he was really Drake. He’s a great guy—he put Toronto on the world’s radar.

But is he as big of a Raptors fan as you?
That’s a tough one. I’ll leave it for others to decide.

What motivated you to write your forthcoming book?
I never thought I’d do something like this, but I wanted to use my story to inspire people. If an old man with a turban can come to a new country and succeed, anyone can.

What was the writing process like?
Because I’d never written a book, I wanted to work with an author. I knew that Tamara Baluja, who works at the CBC, was talented, but we wanted to make sure it was a good match. So I took her with me to a few Raptors games. I wanted her to understand the superfan part of it—what it looks like to cheer for your favourite team and how much time it takes out of my week. After a bunch of meetings, I could tell that she was interested in my story. She asked a lot of questions, and I felt like I could be myself around her.

We’re all going to learn a lot more about you. Does that make you nervous?
Absolutely, but ultimately I want people to read it. I’m especially excited for my fellow fans to get to know me better.

The book’s foreword was written by Raptors legend Vince Carter—are you two tight?
More than tight. When Vince was first drafted, the Raptors’ general manager at the time, Glen Grunwald, called and asked if I could help Vince find a new car. He came to meet me at the dealership and brought his mom along. Our friendship took off from there, and now I’m his daughter’s godfather. He’s a huge part of why I fell in love with basketball. I used to stay up analyzing his plays, sometimes until two in the morning. He’s on the same level as LeBron.

Will the book help inform Superfan, the movie being made about your life, starring Kal Penn?
I assume so, since they’ll have all that information at their disposal. I’m so excited for the film. I love Kal Penn. When I first met him, I told him, “You’re a great actor, but you’re not doing justice to my looks.” He said, “You’re right. But, with a bit of makeup, I’ll come close.”

Before all this, you moved to Canada from India during anti-Sikh riots in 1984. What was that like?
During that time, thousands of people of my faith were dying. Once I made it to Canada, I thought, At least now I can live safely. But then I couldn’t find a job. I was trained as a mechanical engineer, but no one wanted to hire a guy with a turban. So I did odd jobs like grass-cutting, janitorial gigs and landscaping just to pay rent on a basement apartment in Milton. Then, when I became a car salesman in the early ’90s, I was the only Sikh in the showroom. I knew that, if I wanted to survive in that environment, I had to be the best. So I sold 147 cars in three months. Eventually, I became a general manager. I’m still in that business today—I own five dealerships.

In your book, you talk in-depth about balancing fandom and family. What do your wife and daughter think about your high-profile hobby?
My daughter loves it, but my wife thinks I’m an addict. She’s probably right, but there are certain aspects of it that are easier for her to get behind. For example, being the Raptors Superfan has allowed me to open the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation. We raise money and run basketball camps for roughly 930 kids in Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria.

What’s your take on today’s Raptors?
They’re in rebuilding mode. It’s easy for fans to expect a win every year, but that’s not how it happens. They have a brand new coach, and they’ve traded a lot of their assets. In a few years, though, they’ll be back in shape.

Who’s your favourite player on the current squad?
All of them are like my sons, but I have a special bond with Kelly Olynyk.

And what do you think of the rumours that they’re planning to rebuild the team around Scottie Barnes?
Scottie is a great player and in time could be a real force in the league. I think it’s the right thing to do. We need to give these guys three years to develop, but I’m excited about where they’re going.

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Certainly they are far from their worst days. They had to grind through tough years before nabbing that championship. Do you see parallels between their story and your own?
Very much so. Like me, they’ve experienced more lows than highs. When they were a young team, I watched them lose by 30 points in front of just 5,000 people in the stands. But I’ve always been positive about their future, which has paid off. 

What is the biggest difference between your life now and 40 years ago, when you first came to Canada?
I went from being shunned for wearing a turban to walking into Tim Hortons and having people ask for photos with me and my championship ring. That’s why I like sports. It brings people together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.