Three former Whitties globetrot into world of professional basketball

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The National Collegiate Athletic Association advertises the fact that most student athletes go pro in something other than sports. At Whitman, a small NCAA Division III school, the number of students whose athletic careers end with graduation is even higher.

For three Whitman graduates last spring, however, that has not been the case. Juan Pablo “JP” Alvarez, David Michaels and Jenele Peterson have all capitalized on the opportunity to do something very few Whitman athletes do: play professionally. After graduation, the trio of basketball players dispersed to other parts of the world to report to their teams and prepare for another year of the sport they love.

Jenele Peterson ’12 (left) at a Whitman women’s basketball game last year. Photos by Halley McCormick.

For Peterson, this meant uprooting and moving across the Atlantic to play for Goettingen, a club that plays out of central Germany. She may not have envisioned playing in the Basketball Bundesliga competing for the German Cup, but playing professional basketball has been a longtime goal.

“Playing professional basketball overseas is an opportunity that I am very thankful for … Signing a professional contract has been a long-term goal of mine from when I was very young,” said Peterson in an email.

Adjusting to life in Germany has been a difficult job for Peterson, who came in not knowing the language. In many ways, Whitman has prepared her for the cultural immersion. Like at Whitman, Peterson  is balancing sports and learning, taking intensive German courses every day before practice. The difference is that now basketball is a full-time job requiring two practices and a workout every day.

“Knowing that this is my job and no longer an extracurricular activity that I do for fun is an amazing feeling. Because it is your job, you are held to very high performance expectations every single day,” Peterson said of the transition to professional sports.

For Alvarez, continuing his basketball career meant a return home to the country he grew up in. Alvarez signed with Importadora Alvarado of Ecuador last winter before finishing up at Whitman and has already won a national championship with the team. Alvarez is currently weighing out his options on signing a new contract this winter.

“I had a pretty good season which helped me out to get noticed a lot more and as of right now I have a bunch of offers to continue my basketball career,” said Alvarez in an email.

The opportunity to play is not something Alvarez takes for granted, though.

“I think I am very lucky to be able to play the sport that I love and get paid to do it,” said Alvarez, who remains humble and has not overlooked the process that got him to where he is today. “Having spent four years in Whitman was crucial for me being able to get to where I am now. Whitman prepared me for the hardships of the court as well as life in general. I owe a lot to all the coaching staff at Whitman and the school’s athletics program.”

David Michaels ’12 at a Whitman men’s basketball game last year.

Michaels, Alvarez’s former teammate, is arguably the most talented basketball player to come out of Whitman. After a Northwest Conference MVP award and All-American honors in 2012, Michaels established himself amongst the ranks of some of the nation’s top players and ensured the continuation of his already illustrious career by signing with Holland’s Leewarden.

Even for Michaels, who last spring played with many of the nation’s best Division I athletes at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in front of NBA scouts, the experience of playing professionally is surreal.

“Professional basketball is something that I have dreamed about for a long time but never seriously considered until a couple years ago,” said Michaels in an email.

Michaels attributes a great deal of his success to head coach Eric Bridgeland.

“Whitman College is blessed to have [Bridgeland] … because he is the type of leader that everyone aspires to become,” said Michaels.

What the future holds for the talented Michaels is up in the air, but for now he is pleased to be playing the sport he has dedicated so much to.

“There are a lot of differences [between playing in college and playing professionally] now that this is my job, but at the same time it is a job that I love doing. So I am happy every day I have to go to work,” said Michaels.

While they might not have ended up where they expected, Michaels, Alvarez and Peterson have made a career of their sport. Their successes reflect their own dedication as well as the strength of Whitman’s athletics. They are living out childhood dreams but remain grounded in part because of their liberal arts education. Whitman athletics provides students with positive mentors, a strong sense of community, unique academic experience and, for its trio of professional basketball players, a window into success at the next level.

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