It was late in the second half of a recent college basketball game when a referee’s call went in favor of visiting Howard University.
A fan of the opposing team, George Washington, held up a sign that said “Alternate Facts” to voice their displeasure at the Smith Center in northwest Washington.
A few feet away, on the Howard bench, assistant coach and Laurel resident Sean Whalen was immersed in conversation with Kyle Foster, one of seven freshmen on the Bisons roster this season.
Whalen, who grew up in Laurel Lakes and graduated from St. Vincent Pallotti High in 1997, was dressed in a brownish suit and carried a clipboard. He gave a few pointers to Foster, a reserve for Howard.
After several years coaching basketball overseas, Whalen has come back to Laurel and also returned to the coaching staff of Howard, a Historically Black College and University school that competes in the Division I Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
When 20 members of the Howard team stood on the court for the national anthem at George Washington, Whalen was one of just two people representing the school who were not African American.
Basketball, as Whalen has learned in coaching stints from Algeria to the Ivory Coast to China and Japan, has a way of negating cultural and racial differences.
“I grew up in Prince George’s. I grew up in a very eclectic area. I have always been one of the only white guys around. It is a very diverse area,” said Whalen, 38, who played basketball at the Division II level after leaving Pallotti. He was part of the Howard staff in the summer of 2010 before heading overseas.
Kevin Nickleberry, 53, a Washington native, has been the head coach at Howard since 2010. His associate head coach is Keith Coutreyer, a Laurel resident and former Laurel High head coach.
Their familiarity with Whalen helped ease his return to the Howard staff after several years abroad, including a stint as the Algerian national coach from 2011-14.
Whalen returned to the coaching staff at Howard for the 2015-16 season as a player development volunteer and is now a full-time assistant.
“He has worked with me before. He understands my personality,” Nickleberry said of Whalen. “He is an X and O guy for me. Keith is my right-hand guy. [Sean] has been a head coach before. He knows the whole playbook, which isn’t easy. We made a spot for him; he is valuable.”
Whalen brings other credentials to Howard.
“He is able to give some guys advice [for those] who may be interested in continuing their careers at the next level” overseas, Coutreyer said.
Whalen grew up in south Laurel and attended Oaklands Elementary and Eisenhower Middle schools.
He began high school at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville before transferring as a junior to Pallotti, where he played for head coach Mike Glick and was teammates with several future Division I players.
Whalen began his college basketball career at Division II Concordia in New York and scored more than 1,000 points in his first two seasons.
He later transferred in 2001 to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which was ranked No. 11 in the country in Division II going into the 2002 national tournament. Whalen was a 3-point threat for a team that advanced to the Elite Eight of the national tourney.
Whalen was an assistant coach at Archbishop Spalding High in Severn from 2000 to 2005 and among the players he worked with was Rudy Gay, who began his NBA career with Memphis in 2006 and is now with the San Antonio Spurs.
In 2005, Whalen became the head coach at the Potomac School in McLean, Va., where he posted a record of 73-42 through 2009.
Around the same time, Whalen was working with the One-on-One Hoops basketball company, which allowed him to work with programs overseas.
“That was my connection to Algeria; right place at the right time. The president of the federation [in Algeria] liked what I was doing,” Whalen said. “They brought in the national team and I did three practices in front of the federation. They said they wanted to hire me as the national coach. They liked my background.”
He was hired by Algeria in 2010, when he was in his late 20s and married to Jodi Buckingham, of Columbia.
Whalen said the job was something he couldn’t turn down, and he had full support of his wife.
Whalen said he was treated with nothing but respect while in Algeria, a county of about 40 million people in North Africa.
“I did Ramadan with my players. The giving [nature] of that culture is unbelievable,” Whalen said. “Players were inviting me to their homes. They would bring me groceries during the day.”
Whalen credits working with diverse student bodies at DeMatha and Pallotti with helping him shape his identity.
Whalen spent most of 2010 to 2015 coaching overseas and led his team to the Algerian Cup title in 2014.
He also coached from 2011-12 in Serbia.
“What the NBA games is now is what Serbia has been doing for 20 or 30 years,” Whalen said. “Our team was good; all five players were shooting the ball with pick and rolls and playing in space,” a style deployed by the champion Golden State Warriors.
Whalen had earlier experience overseas having gone to Greece while in college with an all-star team. His older brother, Larry, who attended Spalding, taught English in Japan, and Whalen visited him there.
His wife, a first-grade teacher at Jackson Road Elementary School in Silver Spring, joined him one season while she took a sabbatical from her job. His time overseas took him from Asia to Europe.
She played field hockey at Hammond High and spent most of the 2012-13 academic year overseas with her husband. The rest of the time she was teaching and making occasional trips to Europe, including jaunts to Spain, France and Italy, when time allowed for vacations together.
“My mother [Patti] was worried all of the time,” Jodi Whalen said of her husband’s work in foreign countries. “So much of it is being unknown. It was hard to know what to expect.”
She recalled watching CNN during Arab Spring in 2010 while her husband was in the Middle East.
“I just had a lot of faith in him to make the right choice,” Jodi Whalen said.
One memorable moment on the court for Whalen came as he stood for the Algerian national anthem while his team took part in the All-Africa Games in 2011, with his players locking arms during the song.
“The most surreal moment came when we made it to the semifinals in Mozambique and we played the host country,” he recalls. “There were about 6,000 people [jammed into the arena]. Unfortunately we didn’t win; we were one game away from a medal. That was the biggest thing that stuck out.”
On that day, Whalen was one of the few whites in the building, just like he is now at many Howard games.
“It is not a big deal,” he said. “The universal language of basketball … the guys still see I can play. If you are involved in their success, you create that relationship. It is the same thing I did in Algeria.”