Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia shares stories of racism and resilience

If you didn't know Nav Bhatia before the Toronto Raptors' NBA championship this year, you probably know him now. The Raptors superfan was in Ottawa last week for National Philanthropy Day, and CBC sat down to chat with him.

Bhatia was in Ottawa last week to mark National Philanthropy Day

Nav Bhatia, the face of Toronto Raptors fandom, spoke at Carleton University in Ottawa last week on National Philanthropy Day. (Mario Carlucci/CBC)

If you didn't know Nav Bhatia before the Toronto Raptors' NBA championship this year, you probably know him now.

Bhatia has attended every home game in the team's quarter-century in existence. And apart from his own season tickets, he purchases thousands of tickets for Sikhs and others, in his effort to spread his message of inclusivity and his love of basketball.

The entrepreneur and philanthropist spoke at Carleton University last week to mark National Philanthropy Day. 

Here's part of his conversation with CBC News, in which he discussed his life as an immigrant to Canada, his experiences with racism, and his recent comments in support of ousted Hockey Night in Canada host Don Cherry. Some remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

There's a touching story behind how you decided to become this larger-than-life persona for the Raptors. Can you share it?

I immigrated to this beautiful country in 1984, and just like any other immigrant, you know, it took me some time to acclimatize. I went through my struggles. And by 1995, I settled down. I had a home. I had a nice job. I was a general manager and partner in car dealerships — but I was a boring guy.

So when the Raptors came ... I bought two tickets and [went to the] first game in November 1995. And you know, I just fell in love with the game. It's the most diverse crowd in the NBA.

Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia, centre, cheers on Toronto amid a crowd of dismayed Golden State fans during Game 4 of the 2019 NBA finals. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

You fled violence in India with your family, came to Canada, endured racism and bigotry here. After you were made general manager, several of your employees quit, refusing to work for a Sikh. How do you look back on that? 

I'm a mechanical engineer by education, but nobody wanted to hire an engineer with a turban and a beard.

So I did odd jobs, you know, cleaning jobs, janitorial jobs, landscaping jobs. But finally I got a job as a car salesman. This is in '84. I came to the dealership to work. I got people calling me names: Paki, towelhead. They called me the names, [but] I didn't worry about it.

I just decided on that day, as a new immigrant, that I'm going to work. I have to be better than good if I want to survive in this country and thrive in this country. And I sold 127 cars in three months. It was a record then. And it is a record now. And here I am.

And that incident you are mentioning in 1987 or '88 ... there were 10 white people working [there], and as I was introduced as the general manager, nine of the 10 people quit on us. They said they don't want to work with a guy with a turban and beard, and only one guy decided to stay. He's still with me.

So, you know, I hit some speed bumps, I would say, in my life. But I've been able to cover those speed bumps and go pretty good. 

You own several car dealerships. You're the very picture of the Canadian immigrant experience. And 30 years later you're targeted with a racial insult on Twitter. How did you handle that situation?

Somebody had tweeted out from Milwaukee, "That's the guy who has underwear on his head."

You know, actually, everybody came to [my] support. Even coach [Steve] Kerr from Golden State, [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban and all the other players in the league really supported me. But then it went viral and they started killing that guy [online]. And I didn't like that. 

Milwaukee people are amazing people. I get a lot of love there. I get a lot of hugs there. And I love Milwaukee. So I said, "If you're going to kill him, what's the difference between him and us? There's no difference." And I left it at that. But to my surprise, and a pleasant surprise, the guy got in touch. He called me, he cried and he apologized and asked for forgiveness.

And I told him, I'm going to forgive you, on one condition: that when I come back to Milwaukee, your family and me, we go for a bite to eat before the game. And let me take you to the game. And that's what I did two weekends ago with our game in Milwaukee ... And, you know, while we were in the restaurant, 80 or 90 people hugged me, kissed me and took pictures with me. And he witnessed it, both son and the father. They witnessed it. 

It shouldn't surprise anybody who knows you that when Don Cherry made his "you people" comments that you came out and reacted the way you did. Can you explain that? 

That is another very sad situation. I refuse to believe that he's a racist.

First of all, he's a great Canadian. He's a legend. He has contributed so much to the sport of hockey. And he's a patriot guy. And what he said was the right thing. You know, including me, we all fail ourselves by not wearing the poppy. We are blessed to be in this, the best country in the world. And people have sacrificed their lives for us to enjoy the freedom we are enjoying.

So he's not wrong on that. Every Canadian should wear the poppy. But I think he messed up in his wording. I don't think it was racist. I think his words were wrong. I don't think he meant it. And I hope that, you know, once he apologizes  and everything, he will be forgiven. But even that negative situation, we should learn from that.

I'm going to make a positive out of this negative situation and next year I'm going to promote [that] everybody should wear the poppy.