Nav Bhatia has watched a lot of bad basketball, the inevitable result of being a Toronto Raptors season-ticket holder since the franchise’s inception in 1995.
Bhatia, 62, has never missed a regular-season home game, he said. He watched Kobe Bryant score 81 points against Toronto in 2006. He endured a 66-loss season in 1997-98. He rooted for the Raptors when Morris Peterson was among their leading scorers.
His enthusiasm never waned. Bhatia, the owner of two Toronto-area Hyundai dealerships, remained courtside, chiding far superior opponents for being too old, too slow, sometimes both.
“It’s funny,” the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan said, “because I watch old games from the late 1990s and you see Nav sitting in the exact same seat, doing the exact same things.”
Given the team’s up-and-down history — mostly down — Bhatia is relishing this post-season. The Raptors, the third seed in the Eastern Conference, trail the Nets by 1-0 in their best-of-seven first-round series. Game 2 is on Tuesday at Air Canada Centre.
“This season has been very special because nobody expected this,” said Bhatia, whose sizable commitment to the Raptors, includes roughly $300,000 a year on game tickets, many of them for fellow Torontonians with South Asian roots.
“Basketball has given us a way to connect to the mainstream. We might look different, but we have the same passion for the game.”
Feeling the love
Bhatia refers to almost everyone he knows as either “my good buddy” (Vince Carter, Dwight Howard) or “my dear friend” (Mark Cuban, the rapper Drake). Over the course of a recent 30-minute conversation at Madison Square Garden, he used the word “love” 15 times. He loves basketball. He loves the Raptors. He loves his employees. He loves his wife. Did he mention that he loves basketball?
“I work very hard,” Bhatia said. “I work from 8 in the morning until 11 at night. But for the two and a half hours when I’m here, I’m in a different zone.”
On Wednesday, about an hour before the Raptors faced the Knicks in their regular-season finale, Bhatia planted himself in a courtside folding chair next to Allan Houston, the Knicks’ assistant general manager. Bhatia used to heckle him during Houston’s playing days, although “heckle” may be too strong a word. Bhatia neither swears nor scolds. Instead, he mocks and admonishes, a one-man version of Statler and Waldorf from “The Muppet Show.” He tells players that they are washed up, that their legs have “no juice.” Bhatia has a habit of repeating himself until players acknowledge him.
His persistence was on display before the tip Wednesday. He spotted Darrell Walker, a Knicks assistant whom Bhatia has known since Walker’s brief tenure as the Raptors’ coach, from 1996 to 1998.
“Darrell!” Bhatia yelped. “Darrell! Coach! Darrell! Darrell!”
Walker turned around — what choice did he have? — and grabbed a seat. “What’s up, Nav?” he said. “Look at you with the bling!”
Bhatia was wearing several sparkly pieces of jewelry. His watch was practically the size of a chandelier.
“I have to be in touch with these young people!” Bhatia said. “I have to look good! I have to have my bling on!”
Other dignitaries stopped to pay their respects, including Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ starting point guard. Bhatia recalled being worried that Lowry would be traded midseason. “I told them not to break up the family,” he said. Next came two fans from New York who recognised Bhatia from television and wanted a photograph with him. Then there was Jonas Valanciunas, the team’s young center from Lithuania. Bhatia has helped him with his English.
“He’s like my dad,” Valanciunas said.
John Altilia, who manages security for the Raptors, said: “Nav is such a fixture that opposing players will ask where he is if they don’t see him. He’s been nothing but an ambassador.”
Finding his callings
Bhatia and his wife, Arvinder, moved to Toronto in 1984 amid anti-Sikh riots in India. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Bhatia had trouble finding work. People, he said, were unaccustomed to his turban. He looked different, sounded different. He did odd jobs, mopping floors, whatever he could find. He eventually landed an audition as a car salesman at a Hyundai dealership.
Bhatia likes to exercise his vocal cords, and he used them to great effect, selling 127 cars in three months, he said. It was, to his knowledge, a record. He had found his calling, or at least one of them.
Enter the Raptors, who arrived a decade later as an expansion franchise. Bhatia invested in a pair of season tickets at SkyDome, where the team was playing its home games. The seats were not particularly good. He might as well have been in Quebec. But at least he was in the building. And he was hooked.
At the same time, he was becoming more successful in his professional life. At the car dealership, he went from salesman to manager to general manager to owner, with 145 employees in his organisation. All that hard work manifested itself in one vital way: pockets deep enough to afford courtside seats to Raptors games. It was, he said, a life-changing experience.
“I’m an addict of basketball,” said Bhatia, who now has 10 season tickets and likes to share them. “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t womanise. But I Raptorise. That’s it.”
Raptorising takes many forms. DeRozan was a rookie with the Raptors in 2009 when he met Bhatia. DeRozan was new to the city, so Bhatia offered DeRozan some insight: the neighborhoods, the restaurants, the history of the team. At some point during their conversation, DeRozan casually mentioned that he was looking for a car. The next morning, he awoke to discover a Range Rover parked outside his home. Bhatia wanted DeRozan to borrow the vehicle until he found one of his own.
“Everybody loves Nav,” DeRozan said.