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Loyal Raptors Fan First To Be Inducted In Basketball Hall Of Fame

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Alongside Kobe Bryant, a former car salesman has been inducted into the prestigious Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Nav Bhatia hasn't missed a Toronto Raptors game since the basketball team was founded in 1995. He is the first superfan to be allowed into the prestigious group. And his story, we must say, is an extraordinary one. And he joins us now from Toronto. Welcome to the program.

NAV BHATIA: Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Congratulations. Your story has gone viral. Everyone wants to talk to you. But first, I want to ask you, how did you celebrate this momentous recognition?

BHATIA: Well, I have no time for celebration right now. First of all, it has to sink in me that this is really happening to me because I don't think any fan can dream this thing. In the last couple of years, what I've gone through as a fan - I was given the chance to be the grand marshal of the biggest parade in the history of sports that wrapped a celebration. Nine million people watched that - 2 1/2 million people on the street. And then on October 22, 2019, I was given the players' ring, the same ring which every player - Kawhi got, which Lowry got, Ibaka got. I got that. And now getting honored in the Hall of Fame - this is the shocker of all time. It's the mother of all shockers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, we must say - people won't be able to see you - but you are fully dressed up in your Raptors regalia with pictures behind you of various important moments in games that the Raptors have played in. You know, you are a real fan. I'd like to talk to you about your story because it is so fascinating. You graduated with a degree from - in mechanical engineering from Cal State University in Los Angeles. And you returned to India. But then the anti-Sikh riots broke out, right? And so you left to Canada. And you could only find a job as a car salesman. Take me back to that time.

BHATIA: You know, 1984 was a darkest period for Sikhs. We were getting massacred. If you were wearing a turban and beard in New Delhi, they were just putting burning tires on your head and killing you. So that's the time when we decided as a family that we are going to get out of India. I was the first one with my wife to arrive in Toronto. And that's where my journey started. I rented a basement for $340. But I was the happiest guy because we were in the safest country in the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you tried to find all these jobs. You eventually get given a chance. And you sold 127 cars in your first 90 days on the job. I mean, that's extraordinary. You sort of found your niche.

BHATIA: Well, you know what? It was not easy because I went so many interviews. I didn't have a car at the time. So I used to leave in the morning and come back in the late evening. Nobody wanted to hire a guy with a turban and beard with brown color. But you know what? I didn't give up. I used to do hard jobs like a janitor and landscaping and painting during that time to support myself. And, you know, then, finally, I got an interview as a car salesman. And again, I had a speed bump there, also. I had nine or 10 white salespeople standing there and making fun of me as I entered the building on my very first day. And they were calling me all kinds of names like towel head, diaper head. But on that day, I got motivated, actually. I didn't complain to anybody. I just said it's a speed bump. And God helped me out to close the deals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you became incredibly successful. And I want to now bring it back to basketball because, in 1995, the Toronto Raptors were created. And you bought season tickets. What was it that compelled you to love the team so much?

BHATIA: I just worked and worked and worked a hundred hours a week and more at times. By '95, I had a nice home - 3,000 square feet, double car garage. I had a couple of cars. I was comfortable. But I didn't have any hobby. I was boring. So I decided when the Raptors came - I said, I'm going to try out the sports I used to watch on the television. So I bought two tickets at the time. I went there with a very open mind. November 3, 1995, you know, I fell in love with this game. This is the fastest game on the planet. It's the most entertaining game on the planet. For 2 1/2 hours, you just forget about everything. You are in a different zone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You made a promise to your mother that you would never remove your turban. And today, it's in the Hall of Fame.

BHATIA: Yes. Yes. She was a very strict mom. She had four sons to deal with. But one day at 16, she called me and said, now I want three promises from you. She says, no smoking, no drinking and no cutting of hair and taking off the turban. And I said yes to her. Fifty-three years later - bless my mom in heaven - I'm still not broke a single of my promise. And when I was standing in the superfan gallery with my turban there, I just teared up. And here now turban is going to be in the superfan gallery forever. And thanks to Basketball Hall of Fame, thanks to NBA for being the most inclusive league in the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Toronto Raptors superfan and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Nav Bhatia. Thank you very much.

BHATIA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.