Spartans pay tribute to ‘Princess’ Lacey Holsworth

Eight-year-old "Princess" Lacey Holsworth died April 8 after a two-year battle with cancer.

Al Goldis/AP

EAST LANSING, Mich. — They came to honor a little girl whose spirit and smile captivated one basketball player, Michigan State center Adreian Payne, before it hooked his entire team and then countless others.

An estimated 2,500 supporters came to Michigan State’s Breslin Center on Thursday night to celebrate the life of eight-year-old "Princess" Lacey Holsworth, who died April 8 after a two-year battle with cancer. The program ended with a video of her life composed by her parents.

There were plenty of moments to smile about: Lacey posing in front of Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World, running along the beach through waves slapping the sand, and dancing in her home to everything from "Disney to Drake," as her mother described it.

There were also moments from the last two years that gripped everyone in attendance: Lacey with tubes in her chest, expressionless in a hospital bed, a rash on her face and hair lost to treatments, and learning to walk again in rehab after paralysis.

And when Payne — the dominating big man who carried the Spartans to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament and a Big Ten tournament title — looked up at that on the arena’s video screens, he struggled to keep it together. He wiped his eyes with his right hand, took deep breaths and then leaned in to say something to her parents.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo fights back tears as he watches a tribute video during Thursday’s memorial service.

Payne didn’t speak during the program that lasted nearly two hours, but he led Lacey’s parents, Matt and Heather, and her three brothers off the floor of an arena that will now forever hold her spirit. Lacey attended games there with her family and escorted Payne on senior night, holding a bouquet of roses while her "knight in shining armor" held her and smiled proudly.

He called her "sister" and she called him "brother." On the video, Lacey’s mother explained that it confused her daughter that strangers didn’t believe Payne was her brother.

Heather recalled Lacey’s thoughts: "What do you mean? He’s a boy and I’m a girl. I’m big for my age, too."

Her mother added: "She loved every moment of being a princess — to be a princess at Breslin and honor him here."

Another video showing Lacey performing as a singer, dancer and cook played on the scoreboard screens as the crowd filed into Breslin.

Lacey stirred her "Sweetie-licious Lacey Cake" brownie mix while Heather recorded and interviewed her. Mother asked daughter about the secret ingredient to the recipe. Lacey said it was "love," and Heather asked if it had been added yet.

"No," Lacey explained. "I put love in there last because I have to spread it out." She looked up at the camera and grinned.

Heather and Lacey talked about mixing hearts into the brownie mix for boys.

"Especially A.P.," said Lacey, referring to Payne.

Heather added, "Make sure he gets a big heart."

The Spartans’ Adreian Payne performs a "silent dunk" in honor of Lacey.

Lacey, who lived in St. Johns, Mich., battled neuroblastoma, a nerve cancer, while drawing strength and joy from Payne. They met last season, when the MSU team visited Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, and a relationship developed that grew with every visit by Payne and their frequent texts, tweets and phone calls.

In lieu of a speech, Payne performed a "silent dunk," a two-hander on a practice basket, in front of his teammates and coaches wearing green and white team warm-ups.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo and his family also attended. The hard-driving coach was a softy around her, fighting to stay composed while introducing her at the team banquet.

"Lacey, thank you for everything you taught us," Izzo said on a video prepared by the team.

Payne added on the video: "Lacey, we love you!" And he blew a kiss.

Two months ago, I spoke to Payne about Lacey.

"She’s fighting cancer, and I’ve never known anyone going through that," Payne said. "It’s tough. You can definitely grow from watching her. I fight, too, but I’m just playing basketball.

"She can be tired, real fatigued and still be giving it her all."

Payne — no stranger to tragedy himself, as a youth having his mother die in his arms and then losing his beloved grandmother as a college freshman — paused.

"She’s like a sister to me," he added. "I know one thing for sure. I’ll stay in contact with her forever."

Hearts, once bound together, see to that.

Heather described Lacey as "a tom boy in a tutu" who was "composed yet wild," and noted that she loved ballet as surely as rap.

"The Spartan Princess — she’d want this place rockin’ today," said her mother.

The celebration was a mixture of wild stuff — like Lacey singing at the top of her lungs and telling a "booger" joke with a raucous laugh after the punch line — and graceful, touching moments. Lacey’s dance instructor, Heather Reed, performed what would’ve been Lacey’s recital this year, wearing fairy wings.

Spartans guard Travis Trice quoted comforting scripture from the Bible, and recalled how Lacey put a smile on his face when he walked out of the locker room after a tough loss to North Carolina in December.

"Her smile could change your day," Trice said.

She was the girl who changed Payne, and his teammates and coaches. And then she warmed the hearts of basketball fans everywhere — even getting to people who don’t care about sports.

Her mother said she struggled with what to say in her final tribute to her daughter.

"I love you more," Heather said. "I loved you first. Save a dance for me. Love, Mommy."

The daughter inherited her mother’s warm and yet adventurous glances and inviting eyes. At the end of the video, Heather asked Lacey for her advice to other cancer patients.

"Just keep believing in God," Lacey said, "and keep praying and staying strong."

She wore a tiara and a smile, and her expression was void of remorse. It was a look she had because, as her mother explained, she fought to survive, despite knowing how slim the odds were that she would.

Spartans players noted how she taught them to never give up, and on Thursday night, they celebrated her relentless spirit as surely as her loving nature.

Long after MSU’s triumphs this season are forgotten, this team’s link to Lacey through Payne will surely endure.