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!” continued…