We all experience fear of the unknown, of the different, of the strange. To many people in Toronto, ON Nav Bhatia was just different when he arrived in Canada in 1984, fleeing religious persecution in his native India. Mr. Bhatia is Sikh, a religion with tens of millions of adherents, though few in North America are really familiar with what they are all about. A trained mechanical engineer, no one was willing to give him a chance to succeed. Most people will just see a man in a beard with a turban without looking beneath the surface. So, in desperation, he took a job selling cars.
And, boy, did he ever sell.
One hundred and twenty seven cars in his first 90 days. Think about that for just a moment. Every day, six days a week, Nav Bhatia sold a car. Some days two. But every single day, he sold at least one. That is a record that still stands to this day in the used car world. Think about the level of commitment that this man had to not only show up every day, but to sell something that anyone can get at a different dealership across town. Personality mattered, joy mattered to Mr. Bhatia in his work. And so, he became the best car salesmen Canada has ever known. Despite prejudice, despite being different, Nav was unapologetically himself – and he won.
As the years went by, further success came and when Toronto won an expansion franchise in 1995 Mr. Bhatia was one of the first to purchase season tickets. Every night, forty one nights a year, he would sit courtside and cheer on his beloved Raptors. Win or lose, and in those early years it was much more losing, he would be courtside living and dying with every missed shot, bad pass, and free throw.
“We have had low moments through most of the first 20 years, at times winning just 16 of the 82 games all season. People would make fun of me at coffee shops. They would say: ‘why are you wasting money on losers?’” he laughed as he spoke to Al-Jazeera. “But Sikhs are loyal people and once you take someone’s hand, you hold it forever.”
He could have spent the rest of his life simply going to games and enjoying the success he had built, but despite all of his wealth, he was still seen as different.
One evening in the late 1990s he stepped into a cell phone repair shop and the owner assumed he was a cab driver there to pick him up. In this moment, he decided to do something to change the perception of Sikhs in Toronto. For not only are Sikhs cab drivers, but they are doctors and lawyers and businessmen – in short they are just like every other Canadian (or American for that matter). In partnership with the Raptors, he spent his own money purchasing 5,000 tickets for kids of all backgrounds to go to a game. This has become an annual tradition, but it’s beyond just going to a basketball game. He makes sure to mix up the groups that go together to begin to address the issue of discrimination he initially faced as an immigrant.
“I want them to interact at a young age, so that none of them go through what I did decades ago. Every year, I go to schools across the country and talk to the students. This next generation is really important to me,” he said to Al-Jazeera.
When the Raptors won the NBA title in 2019, they presented Mr. Bhatia with a championship ring and last week he became the first fan to ever be inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. Nav Bhatia is a living example of what can happen when we overcome our fear of the different and unknown, when we choose joy and love over hatred and suspicion. Let us all try to be just a little bit more like Nav, today.