Lacey Holsworth has become as big a part of the Michigan State men's basketball team as any player, here cutting down the nets with her 'Superman,' Adreian Payne, after the Spartans won the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis earlier this month.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
The stories of friends and loved ones inspiring players and coaches in the NCAA Tournament often are as memorable as the games themselves. Every so often, they can transcend the madness taking place on the court.
The tale of Princess Lacey and her "Superman" from Michigan State is one such story, a lesson in friendship that warms hearts before melting them.
Princess Lacey is 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth from St. Johns, Mich. She continues battling neuroblastoma, a nerve cancer, all the while drawing strength and joy from Spartans center Adreian Payne. Princess Lacey and Superman first met last season when the MSU team visited the Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, and a brother-sister relationship developed that grows with every visit by Payne and their frequent texts, tweets and phone calls.
On Tuesday, Lacey suffered a seizure, another relapse in what has been a challenging winter when chemotherapy treatments failed and radiation was required in her jaw and neck. Last year, a large tumor in her abdomen wrapped around her spine and paralyzed her for a few months. Yet, the girl with the infectious smile and strong will keeps fighting.
On Friday she watched on television while her Superman scored a career-high 41 points for Michigan State in a second-round win over Delaware in Spokane, Wash.
On her Twitter site, @adorablelacey, this message was posted the following day:
After the game, Payne was asked whether Lacey motivates him after his big performance. While his relationship with Lacey has been public knowledge, her seizure at the time was not.
"For sure," Payne told reporters. "I talked to them yesterday, I talked to Lacey and her parents yesterday and it’s hard and it’s like having a family member that’s really sick and ill. The only thing you can do is just play basketball and you can’t be there with them. And just knowing that when I play well it makes her happy, it feels like I’m doing something in a way to help her feel better."
Basketball was the reason they had gathered, but Lacey was foremost on their minds.
Izzo, after beating Harvard on Saturday to advance to a Sweet 16 matchup Friday night with top-seeded Virginia at Madison Square Garden in New York, was asked about the relationship between his star player and team with Princess Lacey.
"It’s solely A.P.," Izzo said. "I mean, it has gotten a lot of national publicity. And I think you’re right, sometimes you see these kind of stories and sometimes the stories are for the publicity. There’s so many things that kid (Payne) does with her that never meets any media and never meets anybody. So many nights he goes over to her house when she’s sick or is at the hospital. I’ve spent a few with him there.
"I will never ever be prouder of a guy than I will be of Adreian Payne for a lot of reasons. The academic success he’s had, coming from the position he was in. But what he’s done, I think that’s why we’re on the planet, to make other people’s lives better. And he’s made this girl’s life better. He’s included her in every major thing, because we don’t know how much longer she has. We’re hoping, but we don’t know.
"And it hasn’t been great the last six months. And he’s just made it better for her. And our team has embraced it too and their family has embraced our team. But it’s hung on because of Adreian Payne solely — solely."
I spoke with Payne about Lacey recently, and his eyes instantly filled with conviction. We’d been talking about that night’s game, and his answers were nothing special. But when Lacey became the subject, well, that was different.
"She’s fighting cancer and I’ve never known anyone going through that," said Payne, who had his mother die in his arms as a youth and then lost his beloved grandmother while in college. "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 paused. He’s going to be the first in his family to earn a college degree and is a sure-thing, first-round NBA draft pick. Life for him will move on and away from East Lansing in the months ahead. But he doesn’t hesitate about one part of his future.
"She’s like a sister to me," Payne added. "I know one thing for sure. I’ll stay in contact with her forever."