If you think it’s been tough to be a fan of the Toronto Raptors this season, try being a superfan. Nav Bhatia is famous around the world for his Raptors fandom, and over the course of the last 25 years, the diehard enthusiast had never missed a single home game—until COVID arrived and made attending home games impossible. As if that weren’t enough, the Raptors themselves have been struggling like they haven’t in years, dropping from the second-best record in the Eastern conference in 2020 to barely in playoff contention in 2021.
But if you think Nav’s spirits are flagging, you don’t know the superfan. Throughout the struggles, Bhatia has never given up hope, and as we head into the final stretch of this unprecedented season, the superfan is still feeling confident that his beloved Raptors will pull through. To help bridge the distance between fans here in Toronto and the Raptors over in Florida, Nav has partnered with Destination Canada and the Canadian tourism board to put together a special care package of quintessentially Canadian items to send to the Raptors abroad. Nav hopes it’ll brighten the team’s spirits and let them know fans are still rooting for them back home.
We caught up with Nav at home to talk about the season’s struggles, the care package contents, and why Gary Trent Jr is a star in the making.
There have been some ups and downs this season, and it’s been a bit of a struggle for Raptors fans. How are you feeling about things?
Well, it’s as you say, there have been some ups and downs—more downs than ups right now. But they’re playing away from Canada, away from Toronto, and there are a lot of things happening. There was the COVID thing happening with a lot of players, and then, in between, there was the stuff about Kyle being traded away. The biggest thing is, what is their biggest strength? The fans. We have the best fans in the league. We love playing in front of the fans. They’re missing that energy to draw from the fans. I can assure you, eight or nine games, if we’d played in Toronto, we won have won. They are far away from here, but they’re still in our hearts. All the players know that we love them and cheer for them even from thousands of miles away.
Recently there were rumours that Kyle Lowry might be traded away, which of course didn’t happen. Were you relieved?
I’m glad he stayed. We have a young team, and we need a leader like him. We need a coach in the locker room. He’s been hurt a few games, and he still coaches them from the sidelines. I’m glad he stayed because you cannot put money on the value he brings being the leader he is. He’s the general of the team. That’s what he is. He’s going to help all these young players—even VanVleet who’s been around him. I think new players like Gary Trent Jr. are going to learn a lot from him and we’re going to see the benefit for years to come.
You’ve known Kyle for years, so when there was talk of him wanting to leave, did you believe it? Do you think, knowing Kyle, that he would want to stay in Toronto?
I tell you one thing. He really loves Toronto. He’s taken Toronto as his city and Canada as his country. Like no other player before, he really loves Canada and Toronto. It’s natural. He knows the love he gets from the people. He gets a lot of love from the people. He knows it. His wife knows it. Even his kids know it. I always say, once a Raptor, always a Raptor, but I think with Kyle Lowry, he’s going to be always a Raptor. I think the team wanted to show him respect. If he wanted to go to Philadelphia, that’s where he grew up, he played in college around there, we cannot fault him for wanting to be traded. They must have tried it and didn’t happen. And I’m glad it didn’t happen.
“We’re going to make the 7-10 slot and we’re going to make the playoffs. It’s a different game in the playoffs, so you never know. By that time we may be gelling so good with VanVleet and Lowry back and healthy and rested, we might surprise the world.”
Of course, we did end up losing one key Raptor, Norman Powell.
Yeah, and he was a great Raptor, lot of energy. But I tell you one thing, the management did a really good job getting Gary Trent Jr. Look at that! I remember when his dad played. I like to see him. He’s going to surprise people. I will not say people will forget about Norm Powell, but he’s going to be right up there where Norm was, if not more.
He’s been outstanding already!
Absolutely. He’s a good defensive player, a good offensive player. And how old is he? 22 years old! The next few years, man, he’s going to really make us proud. He’s a fan favorite already and he’s not even in Toronto, he’s in Tampa Bay.
He’s been so good that it seems possible he’ll help us make the playoffs. But a lot fans don’t want that—they’d rather see us tank to get a better draft pick. Do you want to see them win or tank?
My feeling is always play your best and do what you can do to win. Don’t lose just to get a pick and all that. Don’t let that happen. I don’t believe in that, and I don’t think Masai believes in that, and I don’t think Canadians believe in that. We’re going to make the 7-10 slot and we’re going to make the playoffs. It’s a different game in the playoffs, so you never know. By that time we may be gelling so good with VanVleet and Lowry back and healthy and rested, we might surprise the world. We did in the past. No one gave us a chance to be champions. So we’re the underdog—and I’ve never had a problem being the underdog.
When the Raptors were winning, everyone in Toronto was going crazy for the team. Lately, it’s been quieter. Have you noticed a decline in excitement?
It’s not been quiet in my household. It’s not been quiet in my dealership. They’re all excited about the Raptors. Yes, they’re struggling a little bit. But when your son or daughter struggles, they need more help, they need cheering. So I’m going to ask everyone, you know, keep cheering! They have a lot of strikes against them right now. But I tell you one thing. Keep cheering, and they will surprise us again.
Tell us about the care package you’ve come up with.
I’m teamed up with Destination Canada and Canada’s tourism board, so we are rallying the fans. We’re sending a care package to Kyle Lowry that includes all the Canadian goodies. Ketchup chips, which they don’t have in America. Sriracha sauce. OVO swag, so he can harness the energy of my friend Drake. And also a Jurassic Park T-shirt. It automatically gives you energy. Everyone in the world knows what Jurassic Park is. It was the first time in the world you had 20,000 fans outside cheering. And of course I’m sending him my bobblehead. I want them to put it next to the visitor’s basket so the other teams, who know me very well, to know that I’m there and cheering on the Raptors.
What was the inspiration for the package?
The inspiration was that we’re missing our team, and our team is missing us. We want to let Kyle know that we are rallying the fans around him even though he is thousands of miles away. He is still in our heart. We wanted to send him some true Canadian comforts, and I’m sure he will appreciate that.
For fans who are missing the live experience, what advice would you give to make the most of the games at home?
First of all, get yourself a jersey of a player you love. Turn the television loud. Watch it with your pets and your loved ones around you. And make sure you get excited. Look what I’m going through! I’ve never missed a home game in 25 years. I’m trying to make the best of it and I want my team to know that we are physically far away from you, but in our hearts, we are right there with you always.