NAV Bhatia is best known as the Toronto Raptors’ ‘Superfan’ which recognition he has spent 20 years building up in order to achieve one goal: to promote South Asians and in particular Sikhs to a mainstream audience.
It has been a whirlwind of activity over last few months for the Superfan. In August, the United Sikhs Organizations presented Nav with an award for Contribution to the Community. In September, Hyundai flew Nav into Korea to speak to 300 new dealers at their annual New Dealers conference. Soon after, Nav was invited to speak at New York Advertising week about the role of the Superfan. And now, Nav has been nominated for a Sikh Award in London, England, within the category of Sikhs in Seva.
The stage was set for one of the biggest mainstream platforms to convey Nav’s message on October 2 at TEDx Toronto in front of a packed Koerner Hall.
Nav Bhatia’s story has been told a number of times. However this day, it was told like never before. Nav confidently walked to center stage in pin-drop silence as those in attendance waited anxiously for his first words: “As I stand here before you, what do you see? Someone who would make you uncomfortable during your flight? Your gas station attendant? Your convenience store worker?” And with that Nav began the transformation: from Sikh to Superfan.
Nav’s story is one of an immigrant fleeing the Sikh riots in India during 1984 to Canada and the start of a new life. This new beginning did have its challenges. Nav describes in detail the difficulty he had finding his first job to his rise up the Hyundai ladder only to have most of his staff resign as they did not want to work for a man with a beard and turban. He persevered and stood proudly on stage to announce to the crowd his dealership was now the number one volume dealer for Hyundai in Canada.
Nav then transitioned to his love for basketball and his enthusiasm for the Toronto Raptors. Sitting courtside, Nav has not missed a game or has been late to a game for 20 years. In 1998 General Manager Isiah Thomas presented Nav with a jersey at center court inscribed with SUPERFAN on the back. The once ostracized Sikh was now being honoured by the mainstream community.
Days later Nav walked into a room to have a gentleman on the phone announce: “My cab is here”. This was the moment Nav Bhatia realized he needed to do something to change the perception of Sikhs in the mainstream. Nav explained: “I was not angry. A lot of my Sikh brothers drive cabs and I am proud of them. I believe in the dignity of labour. I just want mainstream society to know just like any other race, we drive cabs, we own restaurants and we are CEOs of major companies.”
He discussed a plan with the Toronto Raptors to improve the perception of Sikhs in the mainstream and as a result increase South Asian attendance to the games. The organization welcomed Nav’s initiative and has been awarded most diverse fan base five years in a row by the NBA. The partnership has proven beneficial for the Raptors and Nav as thousands of South Asians are present amongst the crowd integrating into the mainstream, standing side by side with people of all colours.
“Give me 48 minutes and I guarantee you will never see Sikhs or South Asians the same way again. We may look different but our passions are the same!” said Nav.
Nav became the first Sikh to address the TEDx crowd. His message resonated and was very clear “Step out of your comfort zone and put yourself in places you are not comfortable, integrate with those of every colour don’t just stay within your tribes,” he said.
At the end of his address, there was wild cheering and a standing ovation.
For Nav’s speech: