When you think about the championship-winning 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors, there are a few key personnel off the court that you can’t help but picture. Drake, of course, hyping up the team on the sidelines and performing at Jurassic Park. Nick Nurse, coaching his heart out and cutting an iconic figure in his thick-rimmed specs. And maybe more than anyone else, Nav Bhatia, the long-time basketball lover who has been a season-ticket holder and Raptors obsessive since the team made its debut in 1995.
Nav, known to the world simply as the Superfan, has never missed a home game in the 20 years he’s been following this team—that is, until the second half of this past season, when the Raptors fled the Scotiabank Arena and played out the year in the confines of the NBA Bubble. Nav couldn’t be there at Disney World to cheer his team on, and as the Raptors gear up for another season in their new temporary home in Tampa Bay, he’s going to be rooting for them from afar. So we caught up with Nav to find out how the world’s biggest Raptors fan plans to follow the Raptors now that he has to do so stuck at home.
How have you been feeling about the pre-season games?
Well, I’m loving it. I think we have a lot of potential—I see some of these young new guys bringing it to the table. They really want to show all they can do. I feel that we are going to do well, even though the North American media never gives us a chance. Even during the championship season, they never thought we were going to be winning the championship. We’re the underdogs. Which is good for me, because I’ve been an underdog myself all my life, since I landed in Canada in 1984. So it’s good we are under the radar. But I tell you, they were interesting games. There was a lot of teamwork, and I think early in the season they’re trying to trust each other, which is a good sign. I think we’re going to have a good season.
Were you disappointed about losing Ibaka and Gasol? Do you think it will make a difference to our chances?
I’m never sour at anything, you know? It’s OK. This is the NBA. I always say, Masai and Bobby are big time on these kinds of things. That’s why they get the big money. Let them do what they think is the best, and I will support whatever team they give me in the pre-season and when the season starts. I’m OK with it. They have all this knowledge of trades and things, and they’ve done a great job in the past. Yes, I would have loved to see Ibaka stay here, just like I would have loved to see Gasol stay here also. The team already knows each other. But I think we’re going to be OK.
"I guarantee with my blood that we would never have lost Game 7 if we were at the Scotiabank Arena. Our fans are so good, and I would have been so vocal with that Boston team, that we would not have lost."
We’ve got some interesting new additions, too. Who do you like so far?
I’m very happy with this guy [Aron] Baynes who has come. I always picked on him, I always called him names when he was on the other side. But I love him now. I tell you, he’s going to surprise everybody. Now he’s going to be a starter, and he’s a tough player. He plays with intensity. I picked on him in an ugly way when he was on the Celtics and other teams—he will remember that. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to connect with him, but I send him the message that I love him now and I’m not going to call him any names.
He’s also absolutely massive.
The way he hustles underneath the basket! I’ve seen him with the Celtics. He is big. He is huge. I don’t think fans are understanding this. That was a great pick for us.
Until COVID you never missed a home game. What’s your setup like at home for watching now that you can’t watch in person?
I have a good size TV and a home theatre. I just put a 20-foot TV in my showroom in Mississauga Hyundai. It’s not quite Jurassic Park—more of a Superfan Nest. This is where I’ll watch the game with my friends and other people. The showroom is able to carry about 70 people, and with COVID I might not be able to do that right now, but I have a huge, huge video wall. I spent a lot of money on the digital showroom. This is the biggest video wall in any enclosed showroom. So I’ll use that for games.
Do you think playing in Tampa will affect the team?
You know, I don’t think so. They understand. They have good leadership in Kyle Lowry. We’re a good team, we talk to each other. All these guys are good people, and coach Nurse is a great leader. It’s not going to be like playing in Scotiabank Arena, no. Last year, when we were playing against Boston—I guarantee with my blood that we would never have lost Game 7 if we were at the Scotiabank Arena. Our fans are so good, and I would have been so vocal with that Boston team, that we would not have lost. But it is what it is. For safety, we have to cheer our team from right here in Toronto. Our team knows that we’re cheering from wherever we are sitting right now.
"Some people think we’re not going to make the top eight in the East. But you know what? Don’t write us off."
And how do you think Tampa is taking it?
I was talking to some media in Tampa, and I told them, "Make sure you have my team’s back down there. This is a great opportunity for you to watch the best basketball. I tell you, you’re going to fall in love with the game of basketball." They are big football fans. But we play great basketball, entertaining basketball. This is a good thing for Tampa Bay. We’re sad, but next season, we’re going to come back strong. My seats A11 and A12 are being kept there very nicely.
You mentioned the Celtics. If we’d won game seven, could have we have taken Miami and the Lakers?
If we could have got through Boston, we could have taken care of Miami. It would have been an interesting game with the Lakers. The Lakers are a good team, you know that. But you never know in basketball. Golden State was a reigning champ by the time that we beat them up. I’m definitely sure that we would have at least gotten to the Finals last year, if it was playing in arenas and all that.
Who do you think is the greatest Raptor of all time?
For me, all-time greatest Raptor is Vince Carter. And there is more than one reason. What Vince Carter did, not just for the Raptors, but for Toronto and Canada, was off the charts. I know Vince. Vince is my family; I still chat with the family. But he wasn’t just the best Raptor of all time. Look at where he played: every arena was all sold out. He brought excitement, and he really defined basketball in Toronto. That said, we have some other great players who have been here. DeRozan. Lowry. They have been amazing players also. But Vince brought basketball to Canada, and he made us popular. Twenty-five years ago, I tried to buy basketball stuff, and there was nothing there! It was all Vince! He’s the greatest of all time.
What do you think Drake has done for the Raptors?
Once again, Drake did so much with his fame and all that. The way he embraced the Toronto Raptors, we have to salute him also. He has also brought the Raptors all around the world. So thank you to people like VC, and Drake. These people deserve kudos for what they did for the Raptors.
I think you deserve some kudos too—you’ve been a big part of this team’s story and journey.
Yes, well, thank you. I love basketball. I love the Raptors. But for me, I’m using the game of basketball to bring the world together. You saw what happened in Milwaukee during the championship run. We turned that around. We became the best of friends. This is what basketball does—it gives us the opportunity to bring the world together. That’s what I’m trying to do with my foundation, the Nav Bhatia Superfan Foundation.
What’s your biggest hope for the season ahead?
I’m hoping that they all stay safe and stay healthy. They are young players and have young, cute babies. I want them to stay healthy. At the end of the day, the main thing is their health. They stay well, play together, play as a team. And I believe if we do that we’re going to have good results. We’re going to be good. We’re going to have an interesting year. Some people think we’re not going to make the top eight in the East. But you know what? Don’t write us off. We’re going to surprise you.