TORONTO -- Nav Bhatia isn’t sure if he’s the most famous car dealer in Canada, but his status as the Toronto Raptors’ superfan has grown exponentially because of the team’s 2019 NBA Championship.
Bhatia, who owns two Hyundai dealerships and one Genesis store in the west end of Toronto, was given the honour of grand parade marshal in the Raptors’ championship parade through the streets of downtown Toronto on Monday. He has been a loyal supporter of the Raptors as a season ticket-holder since the Raptors first tipped off in the NBA in 1995. He was later named the team’s community ambassador in recognition of his efforts to promote the sport and the team.
“There were people in the parade telling me their next car was going to be a Hyundai from Superfan Nav Bhatia,” he said. “It’s good, but I never hand out my business card.”
He said he felt humbled and blessed to be the marshal of the parade, which drew an estimated crowd of two million.
“What an honour,” he said. “I never dreamt in my dreams that I’m going to be a grand marshal of a two-million-plus people parade. I’ve been told that never before has a fan been made a grand marshal of a championship parade like this.”
Bhatia said he hasn’t slept much since the Raptors clinched the series against the Golden State Warriors on June 13 in Oakland, Calif.
His celebrity status has grown along with the team’s.
Bhatia arrives before the game starts and has never left before it ends, often sticking around to sign autographs and pose for photos.
“We are all brothers and I respect players, coaches, everybody from the other teams, and everyone in the National Basketball Association knows that,” he said.
“The first guy who came to congratulate me after the [championship] game was Golden State head coach Steve Kerr. He said, ‘Nav, we lost, it hurts, but I’m so happy for you because you deserve this championship and I’m happy to see you as a champion because I’ve been seeing you over the last two decades supporting the game of basketball.’
'BRING THE WORLD TOGETHER'
“When I was in Oakland, I got a lot of love. I got to take maybe 3,000-4,000 pictures with the Oakland fans. I was offered free coffee, free lunches, free dinners and also to stay with them, so it was an amazing experience and that’s what I’ve been doing the last three to four years. I’m trying to use the game of basketball to bring the world together through my foundation, Nav Bhatia Superfan. I’m trying to build basketball courts. I’m trying to inspire underprivileged kids and give them hope.”
Because of his religion, he couldn’t wear a Raptors’ championship hat, so he wore a turban bearing the Raptors’ logo and the words, NBA Champions 2019.
He was once asked by a New York Times reporter about his obsession with the Raptors as well as buying tickets for youths who couldn’t afford them. His response: “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t womanize, I just Raptorize.”
The 67-year-old Bhatia, who was born in New Delhi, India, came to Canada from his native country in his early 20s to escape the political climate. Though he had a degree in mechanical engineering from a university in California, where he also worked at a car dealership as a salesman before being promoted to finance manager, he found employment scarce in Canada because he wore a turban, he said. He eventually found work selling cars at a Hyundai dealership in Rexdale, Ont., a suburb in the west end of Toronto.
Through sheer determination, he became a successful salesman and then the general manager. He was asked to manage a struggling Hyundai dealership in Mississauga, and eventually became the store’s owner, turning it into one of the brand’s top-selling dealerships in Canada. Bhatia later accomplished the same success with the Rexdale dealership. A few years ago, he bought the first Genesis store in Canada.
“I was the No. 1 Genesis dealer last year and we are still leading this year,” he said.
The CBC caught up with Bhatia not long after Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Here's what he had to say: