Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
East London might have a couple thousands of years of history and a few Olympic venues, but it doesn’t have a Palestra.
And yet Sultan Adewale looked quite at home in the Cathedral of College Basketball, the English teenager and Neumann-Goretti forward playing like he’d been raised in 9,000-seat basketball gyms instead of outdoor stadiums built for soccer — or football, as Adewale and his fellow East Londerns call it.
Sultan Adewale (above) had a double-double as Neumann-Goretti won the 2022 Catholic League championship. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
Neumann-Goretti’s 61-57 win over Archbishop Ryan in the Philadelphia Catholic League boys championship on Monday night almost certainly wouldn’t have turned out quite so well for the Saints if not for Adewale’s performance.
“I don’t know why Sultan’s not here [at the podium],” Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale quipped at the post-game press conference. “He played his butt off. Sultan was a man tonight; he was a tower for us.
“We’re nowhere without him tonight,” the now-12-time PCL champion coach said. “He was really, really special.”
The 6-foot-8 forward was all smiles and spent energy after posting a 15-point, 14-rebound, four-block performance in the win, out-playing Ryan’s super sophomore Thomas Sorber to help the Saints control the paint and emerge with the title for the second time in three years and eighth time since 2009.
“It feels amazing,” he said afterwards, sitting on the sideline with a piece of net in his hand, having already posed for photos with a healthy dose of the sold-out Palestra crowd. “It’s been a long season. We’ve been waiting for a whole year, we went through all our ups and downs, adversity, I’m just happy we got to this moment, that we pulled through, I’m proud of my whole team.
“This is why I came here, to play in big games like this.”
Adewale picked up basketball relatively late, once his body took him away from his first athletics love, but that’s not apparent watching him play. He’s got a strong body with long arms and touch around the rim, and though he didn’t flash his face-up ability on Monday, he does have the ability to stretch the floor out to the 3-point arc.
His Division I offer list is nearly at double-digits, with the likes of Oklahoma State, Rutgers, DePaul, Memphis and more extending scholarship opportunities last summer. Small wonder he wanted to leave England and come to the States for basketball, even if it meant leaving his parents behind.
“I used to play soccer — football — and I’d kind of grown too tall for it,” he said. “So I was like, you know what, I’m going to play basketball now.
Adewale has Division I offers from Rutgers, Washington, Ole Miss, Memphis and more. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
“My love for the game started developing, watching Joel Embiid, Hakeem Olajuwon and those guys, and it was amazing [...] my love for the game just developed, I was like this is for me.”
One other video that caught Adewale’s eye: Neumann-Goretti’s 2020 Catholic League championship win over Roman Catholic, which he watched on YouTube during the early stages of the pandemic. He tried to get to Philadelphia for the 2020-21 season, but the pandemic made that impossible; he ended up playing his sophomore year for St. Louis Christian (Mo.), then made his way to Neumann-Goretti last offseason.
“I watched the 2020 (championship game) through the pandemic, and I was like yeah, this is where I want to be,” he said. “I wanted to come here last year but it didn’t happen because of COVID, so I went out to St. Louis Christian. But I knew (the PCL) was a tough league, I knew I was looking forward to this.”
Though Adewale missed most of the summer due to injury, and though Neumann-Goretti dealt with a long COVID layoff and then a crazy late-season schedule to catch up, he still finished second on the Saints in scoring (12.6 ppg) and tops in rebounding (6.8 rpg) in 19 appearances, making about 62% of his shots.
But as Arrigale knows, adjusting to the Catholic League is one thing. Adjusting to playing in front of more than 9,000 screaming fans, in a gym that’s always hot, with the most coveted title in the city on the line, is a whole different ball game.
“Sultan admittedly was a little nervous in the semifinal game,” Arrigale said. “He’s from England, they play on grass. And he came over here and walked out and got swallowed up a little bit by the ambience of the Palestra. He said, ‘I’ll be fine.’”
Indeed, he was. Adewale came up with eight of his rebounds on the offensive end in the championship game, leading to a number of second-chance buckets, both of his own achievement and on a few kick-out 3-pointers.
Sorber, a 6-9 post with a growing list of Division I offers, still gave Neumann-Goretti plenty of trouble, finishing with 17 points, five rebounds, two assists and eight blocks, leading a Raiders squad that was in it right up until the final seconds.
But in the final minute, it was Adewale who got knocked down a couple clutch free-throws, who got loose behind the Neumann-Goretti defense to throw down a big slam, who got his hands on the PCL championship trophy afterwards.
“I knew I just had to make it hard for (Sorber), on both ends, defensively and offensively,” Adewale said. “I just did my thing.”
Though there’s still a city championship game to be played on Friday night against West Philadelphia, and a PIAA Class 4A championship to chase, Adewale is already looking forward to being able to defend his Catholic League crown. With him back in the middle, plus an impressive group of sophomores led by Robert Wright III and Khaafiq Myers — who combined for 37 points in the title win — there’s no doubt the Saints will be on the short list of favorites next winter.
“We’re going to do this again, have a way better team, my skill set is going to be developed,” he said. “I just can’t wait to get out there with my coach and my teammates.”
“I’m happy I came here, I’m happy I came here for sure, it lived up [to expectations].”