Although he’s become one of the most recognizable off-court figures to fans of Toronto Raptors basketball, Nav Bhatia would like everyone to know that he isn’t the one who came up with the nickname “Superfan”.
“I was given that title by Mr. Isiah Thomas, who was Raptors’ vice-president and general manager,” Bhatia told autoTRADER.ca from San Francisco, as he enjoyed a day off between Games 3 and 4 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Just across the bay is Oakland, California, the home city of the Raptors’ opponents, the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
“I don’t call myself the Superfan. I was given that designation.”
Regardless, it’s a name that could never fit anyone else better. Bhatia has been present at every single Raptors home game since the franchise hosted its first tip-off back in 1995. It has been a 24-year journey, and his loyalty is finally paying off as the Raptors continue to thrill fans with this year’s incredible playoff run to the NBA Finals.
For Bhatia, this all became possible because it turns out he’s pretty darned good at selling cars.
Bhatia immigrated to Canada in 1984 as a trained mechanical engineer, but he wasn’t able to use his international credentials to find work here in his field. So, he did what he could: he took a job at Rexdale Hyundai, located in what has long been one of Toronto’s more underprivileged neighbourhoods, as a car salesman.
“It was mainly a white staff, and they all called me names and all those kinds of things,” Bhatia said. “I decided I would have to do better than good if I wanted to survive.”
And that’s exactly what he did: he sold 127 cars in three months, a record that stands with the company to this day and turned him into the top Hyundai salesperson in the country. It wasn’t long before he was climbing the ranks, first as a sales manager and then general manager – before he received a call asking him to create another success story.
“I was sent to Mississauga (Hyundai) to turn that around,” Bhatia said of the dealership located at Glen Erin Dr. and Dundas St. West. “It was a dealership that was dying very quickly. They wanted me to turn it around, or the other option was to just shut it.”
Needless to say, Mississauga Hyundai was never shuttered. Today, Bhatia owns both Mississauga and Rexdale Hyundai, as well as Canada’s first brick-and-mortar location for the brand’s premium Genesis marque, located in Mississauga’s Square One shopping centre. In total, he now oversees 180 staff members across the three locations.
“They make me look better than I am,” he said.
The principle behind why he was so successful in his humble beginnings, Bhatia says, is the same as the culture he creates in his dealerships today.
“You just treat people like you want to be treated yourself,” he said. “This is very important.”
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Bhatia’s success in the car business has enabled him to pour copious amounts of support into his Raptors fandom. After all, 24 years of tickets haven’t come cheaply. But he’s also done a great deal more.
Through the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation, which aims to fight against discrimination so that today’s youth don’t need to face the attitudes he did all those years ago – and again recently, after his gracious response to racist remarks from a Milwaukee Bucks fan on Twitter went viral during the Eastern Conference Finals – Bhatia is active in multiple charitable causes that benefit children at home and around the world.
The Foundation is dedicating funds to resurfacing basketball courts across Canada, beginning in the Toronto suburb of Malton, where Bhatia settled when he first arrived here.
As a practising Sikh, he is also the only non-Christian global ambassador for World Vision and has helped raise funds to build washrooms for girls in 20 schools in northern India, “so that thousands and thousands of girls can go to school and proceed with making themselves into doctors or engineers or teachers,” he said.
And he spends hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to bring underprivileged children, many of them immigrants, to Raptors games as often as he can, to help open their eyes to their own potential.
“I tell them if I can do it, you guys can do it,” he said. “I want them to be inspired from that, that anybody can do it. Canada is full of opportunity. I came from nothing, I was given opportunity, and I utilized it. And I believe anybody can.”
But the biggest question on the minds of fans across the country is: Can the Raptors seize this opportunity to win the NBA championship?
“I believe Raptors in six,” Bhatia said. “But I wouldn’t mind Raptors in five. It would save me some money.”