Michigan State forward Adreian Payne has built a large following of fans as he’s helped lead the Spartans to the brink of the NCAA Final Four.
But one fan has stood out and caught the attention of the national media.
Payne has befriended 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth and her family since meeting the girl during a team visit to a children’s hospital in Lansing, Mich. The two bonded, and Holsworth has helped inspire Payne this season. Michigan State (29-8) and Connecticut (29-8) play at 1:20 p.m. Sunday at Madison Square Garden for a berth to the Final Four in Arlington.
And Holsworth and her parents are in the Big Apple to cheer on Payne and the Spartans. He was sharing a text with her before meeting the media Saturday afternoon.
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“When I get some spare time they’ll come over to the hotel and I’ll get to see them,” said Payne, whose mother died when he was 13. That loss, he suspects, is one reason why trying to help Holsworth, who has an aggressive form of childhood cancer called neuroblastoma, appealed to him.
“That may have something to do with it. And then I lost my grandmother when I was in college,” he said. “So I’m always willing to help. I always want to see kids do well.”
Plus, her toughness while battling cancer has helped Payne put things in perspective.
“She was a dancer and it was taken from her with the cancer,” Payne said. “She wasn’t able to walk or dance anymore. If basketball was taken away from me, how would I feel? So I wanted to help her get back strong so she could dance and smile and do something she loved.”
The friendship grew slowly at first because Lacey was so ill when they first met. But they kept in touch, and when she started recovering, they began to share text messages and phone conversations.
“There wasn’t really too much I could do with her at that point because she was so sick, but my presence was enough,” Payne said of their initial meeting. She really liked me being there, and her parents were going through so much. I told him they could call or text me to take their mind off it sometimes. And it grew from there. Lacey texted me and I talked to her and texted her back.”
And an unlikely friendship began to grow.
Payne’s bond with Lacey has touched the hearts of fans as the story spread during the Spartans’ tournament run. MSU coach Tom Izzo introduced her at the Spartans’ team banquet and Payne held her as she helped cut the net after MSU won the Big Ten tournament. The story even inspired ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who has over 668,000 Twitter followers but has famously rarely followed anyone else. He’s following one person now: Lacey, whose Twitter handle is @AdorableLacey.
“I was so moved by it I pushed the follow button,” Bilas told Keith Olbermann a few days ago. “We talk about toughness all the time, Tom Izzo talks about it. We’re all wimps compared to Lacey. She’s the tough, tough one. I haven’t done anything. The people that have done something are Adreian Payne, Tom Izzo and the Michigan State team and Lacey Holsworth. She’s a hero.”
And she’ll likely be in Payne’s arms, helping cut down the net Sunday afternoon if the Spartans punch their ticket to Arlington.