We Get Up, Close and Emotional with Superfan Nav Bhatia in an Exclusive Interview
August 25, 2021
When the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Basketball Championship finals in June 2019, his infectious cries of jubilation and exuberance swept the country. A cry that not only taught a country about love and cultural diversity, but also elevated an ordinary man to the ranks of the game’s greatest, when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame alongside the late legendary Lakers player Kobe Bryant in May of this year, as the only non-professional basketball personality to receive such a high honour.
While Nav Bhatia, an Indian-born Canadian who was named Canada’s most prominent “Raptors superfan” in 1999 is internationally known for his spirited cheers – these tears were not always one of joy.
In an exclusive interview with Immigrants Life, the 69-year-old businessman and philanthropist recalls being forced to flee his birth country in 1983-85 due to fear for his and his family’s safety during India’s infamous Sikh genocide.
In one of the bloodiest battles in the Indian subcontinent’s history, approximately 3 000 Sikhs were killed, and women were raped in Delhi in response to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her two Sikh security guards on October 31, 1984.
Sikhs (loosely translated as “disciples”) are those who have been initiated into Sikhism, the world’s fifth most popular religion that originated in the 15th century in Punjab, India, and are well known for wearing the traditional turban.
“It was one of the most difficult times for everyone. Those two years were filled with upheaval and ugliness. The images of burnt cars, plumes of smoke engulfing the Delhi sky, and men throwing petrol bombs at holy shrines will live with me forever, but the worst part was nearly losing my father in the midst of the massacre. He was nearly dragged from his car, and a burning tyre was almost placed over his head (a tactic used during the genocide to “garland” Sikh men with tyres and set them on fire),” said an emotional Bhatia.
“THE WORTSE WAS WHEN I NEARLY LOST MY DAD AMID THE MASSACRE. HE WAS DRAGGED FROM HIS CAR, AND A BURNING TIRE WAS BEING PLACED OVER HIS HEAD.”
He added that although he left the country for Canada with his wife only mere months before the peak of the mass killings, on a permanent residency as a mechanical engineer (from the Cal State University in Los Angeles, where he studied before moving back to India), he was constantly afraid because his family was trapped among all the violence and brutality.
“These were trying times for me. To begin with, it took a lot of courage and strength to immigrate to a new country, having to integrate into a completely new culture while constantly fearing for the safety of my family back home. International communication was much different in the 1980s than it is now, so it was difficult to know the well-being of my family immediately.Today, 37 years after immigrating to Canada, the now-famous yet humble businessman is popularly known as the Toronto Raptors Number fan; owns two car dealerships; a 3000 square foot house in Mississauga; founded the Superfan Foundation; and was nominated as the most hype-worthy Canadian’ by E! Entertainment People’s Choice Awards 2019, alongside actors Keanu Reeves, Sandra Oh, Cobie Smulders, Celine Dion, Drake and others.
“I had humble beginnings here,” Bhatia said of his first experiences in Canada in the 1980s. I remember renting my first basement in Malton, Mississauga, for $340 per month, which seemed like a lot of money at the time.
“IF THERE IS HEAVEN ON EARTH, THEN IT’S RIGHT HERE IN CANADA”
“The world now sees the glitz and glamour- the cars, celebrity friends, and expensive watches – and my storey of when I first arrived in Canada is well documented – the discrimination I faced, including being called bigotry names like towel head, underwear head, diaper head, to cleaning restrooms to becoming the general manager and then purchasing the dealership, the Raptors, to adopting my beautiful little girl. However, a few people are aware of the obstacles I had to overcome to get here”, who added that, while his journey was tumultuous, the end result was the most fulfilling.
“Despite all of the ups and downs I experienced when I first arrived, I still felt like I was the luckiest guy on the planet because I knew my wife and I were safe in this beautiful country. If there is a heaven on earth, it is located right here in Canada. It has provided me with everything. I love this country as much as I did when I first came here, if not more,” said the die-hard basketball fan, whose net worth today is said tone approximately $50 million.
He added that he firmly believed that his experiences had shaped him into the man he is today, a strong, passionate Sikh whose mission is to “bring about a change in stereotype perceptions and prejudices, and to set an example for future generations.”
“The opportunities I was afforded here are unparalleled. I live in a country where I can be both a proud Sikh and a patriotic Canadian by wearing my turban with pride. The beauty of this country is in its diversity and inclusion,” said the father of one, who adopted his daughter, Tia, from an orphanage in India.
Bhatia claims to have attended every Raptors home game since 1995 and spends approximately $300,000 per year to send thousands of children to Raptors games as part of his initiative to bring people from all walks of life together through sports.
The famous championship turban he wore when the Raptors won the finals in 2019, as well as a replica of the championship ring he was awarded by the Raptors and a 10-minute slideshow of Bhatia’s patriotism to the game, are on display at the Springfield, Massachusetts, history museum.
“When I was a kid, I made a promise to my mother that I would never take off my turban.” It is now in the Hall of Fame. I believe one must accept what makes you unique. It’s a superpower! This is the crown I put on every day. It’s still feels surreal,” he said.
In 2008, he founded the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation, a non-profit charitable organisation dedicated to uniting diverse people across Canada through basketball. He has also collaborated with World Vision’s Rise Up! Daughters of India campaign, which aims to build washrooms for girls in schools and promote education.
“Every morning, I pray for the happiness and well-being of everyone, regardless of colour, gender, citizenship. Sikhs are well known for praying for the welfare of the world. I put my prayers into practice with the philanthropic activities.”
His advice to aspiring immigrants?
“There will be speed bumps along the way especially when you first settle here; nothing is perfect.” Even though I couldn’t find work as a mechanical engineer when I first arrived in this country, I had to make ends meet. So I started as a janitor, cleaning toilets and landscaping. But I worked hard and drew strength from the Almighty, and look where I am now.“Although Canada is the world’s number one country, this does not mean we should be complacent; we must continue to improve for future generations.
“Be strong and persevere!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Veruschka Mungroo is an international journalist with over 15 years experience in the media industry. She is no stranger to contentious issues having written on human right issues, entertainment, crime and politics.