CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There are few NBA team "superfans" more emotionally connected to his team than Indo-Canadian Nav Bhatia.
NBA Global caught up with the ultimate Toronto Raptors enthusiast during All-Star Weekend to get his thoughts on the state of the fan base going into a big final stretch of the season, tipping off with a favorite familiar former Raptor taking the Scotiabank Arena floor again in the team's next game:
NBA Global: What do you think the emotions for you and the rest of the Raptors fans will be when DeMar DeRozan returns to play in Toronto Friday as a member of the Spurs?
Bhatia: "DeMar was beloved by everybody. I remember the day he was traded that most fans were upset about it, including me. But it was a basketball business move and I think fans understood that later on, slowly.
Everyone then wished him well in San Antonio. Fans really love him and miss him. He's put a place in our hearts as Toronto fans that will be there forever. He will get the biggest ovation an ex-Raptor has gotten. I hope it lasts five, six, seven, eight minutes and he gets a lot of love."
NBA Global: You were very close with DeMar. What made his time with the Raptors so special?
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Bhatia: "To me, DeMar is just not an ex-player for the Raptors. He was first a player to me, but it quickly changed to becoming family when I was introduced to him by Bryan Colangelo in the first few days he came to the city.
Our family used to sit next me at the games. He's much greater human being than he is a player. He's so humble. Don't tell me how many dunks he can do, how many points he can score. Tell me what he can do to inspire the kids. And he does that."
NBA Global: At the same time on Friday, Kawhi Leonard will be going against his former Spurs teammates. What's it been like getting to see him up close playing for the Raptors this season?
Bhatia: "I don't think Kawhi is 100 percent right now. Just give him time, about a month or so and I think he's going to shine a little brighter. We know his DNA - he's a champion, he's an All-Star. He doesn't talk much, he just shows that with his play, all business on the court.
Fans like it how he focuses on the game. We are lucky and excited to have him now. I am not worried about whether he'll be here after this season. I believe if we get to the Finals, he will make the decision to stay in Toronto, because Toronto is one hell of a city."
NBA Global: What was your reaction to your team trading away Jonas Valanciunas for Marc Gasol and then also adding Jeremy Lin at the deadline?
Bhatia: "It was tough we gave up JV, another one of my extended family members. But to get better you have to sacrifice and that's what president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster did. They're trying to make our team better and win a championship for the city. Marc Gasol can help a lot and he's another great guy.
With Jeremy Lin, it does help with marketing because we have a big Chinese community in Toronto, but he's also going to do the right things on th court. When I met Jeremy first as a Raptor, I told him we both have something in common - we both want to get that ring right away. Emotions are high for all the games after the All-Star game, starting with the Spurs. It's such an important game in this journey to pursue a championship."
NBA Global: You're here in Charlotte, the home of the Hornets. What do you think about the seeds in the Eastern Conference holding up and facing that same team in the first round of the playoffs?
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Bhatia: "We always fare well with Charlotte. We will be OK with Charlotte. But the positions are going to change between now and April 12. Who knows? We might be No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. We'll be up there with the home-court advantage and whatever happens with the bottom three teams, it's going to be fun and I'm excited about it."
NBA Global: Do get you a special feeling about this Raptors team as the one that will finally break through to get to the NBA Finals?
Bhatia: "It looks like we have the right elements in the right places. I believe we are still a little bit weak on the 3-point shooting. It's become such an important thing in this day and age to win playoff games and championships, lo and behold if we get to play Golden State."
NBA Global: Can you even imagine what you will feel should your Raptors become NBA champions soon?
Bhatia: "I'll just thank the almighty for blessing us with that and giving us that. Twenty-four years after not missing a game, the goal hasn't been just to enjoy this team, it's also someday being part of a championship run in Toronto."