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Calling a Foul on Cancer

January 26, 2024

Karn Dhillon (far left) leads a team of B.C. basketball officials approaching a milestone $250,000 raised to support BC Cancer.

“You just can’t boo these refs,” jokes Karn Dhillon of the 600-strong ‘Karnie’s Army’ of B.C. basketball referees who are looking to slam dunk the quarter-million-dollar fundraising mark in the 15th year of the Pink Whistle Campaign.

But Karn didn’t buy 100 pink whistles to sell to raise funds for the BC Cancer Foundation back in 2009 in order to win favour with the fans.

“I was wallowing, there’s no better way to describe it,” he says after learning his sister had brain cancer. That blow was quickly followed by the news that his 34-year-old nephew also had brain cancer. And then a fellow referee in Richmond was also diagnosed with the disease.

“Hit after hit after hit. You’ve got to try and do something, you can’t do nothing.” And so Karn decided to rally the basketball community to raise funds and awareness for cancer research and care in B.C.

“For forever we’d only worn black whistles so it was definitely a conversation starter.” Available by donation, the whistles are more than just a means to fundraise, he says. “We wear them to honour those who are fighting cancer, or those we have lost. And to raise money for research for those who will one day face the disease.”

Unfortunately, Karn lost all three of the people who were his catalysts for launching the campaign but his sister, Amanjit, got to see the incredible momentum of the movement before she passed away in 2013.

What began as a bag of pink whistles quickly evolved into an order of 200 more, and then 400, and then pink lanyards, and then donation buckets were being passed around before the game. After basketball was completely shut down in 2020, due to the pandemic, Karn (and the Pink Whistle Committee) decided to come back even stronger with pink and black referee jerseys.

Karn has lost track of the number of whistles sold. “I stopped counting after 2,000,” he says. And while he never expected to raise $215,000 14 years in, what most surprised him was how a little pink whistle could erase the divide that can arise between the officials and the two opposing teams being enforced.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a player and I’m a referee — or you’re a coach or a fan — we’ve all been touched by this disease. It’s not, ‘Don’t yell at me because I’m wearing a pink shirt’ but it provides that commonality.”

Over the years, countless people have approached Karn to share stories about their “twin, father, mother, brother, uncle, fellow official or partner” who faced cancer.

He recalls one coach in particular who had taken a few weeks off to grieve. “Upon his return to the basketball court we all knew he had lost his father. He donated and when we shook hands it wasn’t just ‘Hey Coach, have a great game. It was ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ and ‘I understand your pain.’”

And then it was back to business, says Karn. “I went and did my job, and he did his.”

But every time that pink whistle was raised to mouth, it was more than just a signal to stop play. It was a salute to the struggle so many families have faced — and a rallying cry that together we can make a difference.

Donate today to help the Basketball BC and the Pink Whistles/Call a Foul on Cancer Campaign reach a milestone $250,000 to improve outcomes for British Columbians diagnosed with cancer.