LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Adreian Payne’s infectious, boyish personality attracts kids. The children of Michigan State’s basketball coaches point to Payne as a favorite.
No kid, though, is a bigger fan of him than 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth.
The cancer-stricken girl quickly befriended Payne when she met him during one of her hospital stays two years ago and their relationship has become a feel-good story.
“They communicate and hang out like a brother and sister,” her father, Matt Holsworth, said in a telephone interview Monday. “It’s a unique and special bond.”
When it was Payne’s turn to be honored during the Spartans’ Senior Night ceremony earlier this month, Payne carried Holsworth around the court.
“She was tired that day,” Payne recalled last week in an interview with The Associated Press. “I just figured I’d pick her up instead of having her walk.”
He scooped her up again Sunday, taking her toward the top of a ladder as Michigan State celebrated winning the Big Ten tournament by cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.
“People from Michigan State got us out of the stands and brought us down to the court, and Adreian waved her over,” Matt Holsworth recalled. “They gave her a championship hat and she’s still wearing it.
“Then, we watched the selection show with the team and she was pretty wiped out after that.”
The little girl affectionately known as “Princess Lacey,” has neuroblastoma, a fetal-nerve cell cancer. She wears a long, blond wig because chemotherapy took her hair.
Back pain while dancing in 2011 led to the discovery of a football-sized tumor that had engulfed her kidney. After another tumor wrapped around her spine, her father had to carry her into a hospital on Dec. 28, 2011. She lost feeling below her belly button and couldn’t walk on her own for several months, a long stretch that included the first of many visits from Payne.
While Holsworth has had some victories in her battle, the cancer keeps coming back and has spread to her neck, head and pelvic region.
“We almost got rid of it after it was all over his body,” her father lamented. “She has been doing radiation because the chemo isn’t working. We may be part of a new, antibody-therapy study at the University of Michigan next week that.
“We’re just trying to buy time.”
Instead of getting paid to play this season in the NBA and a likely first-round pick, Payne chose to stay in college for his senior season and endured an injury-plagued season personally and collectively as a team.
He missed seven games with a sprained right foot, one of the several injuries and ailments that set the Spartans back during the regular season
“I haven’t regretted it, or second-guessed it,” Payne insisted. “I think it was a great decision.
“I’ve got to finish only one class — in sociology — to graduate May 3. That means a lot because coming into college, I wasn’t a good student and I’ll be the first one to graduate from college in my family.”
Payne was diagnosed as cognitively disabled as a child in Dayton, Ohio.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Payne will rank No. 1 among his players who have developed the most as players and people.
“I’d say he’s the full package,” Izzo said.
Even though the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Payne had improved his game enough last year to start making millions in the NBA this season, he decided to come back as a senior in part to have another chance to reach the Final Four for the first time.
The fourth-seeded Spartans will face 13th-seeded Delaware on Thursday a long way from campus in Spokane, Wash., but that won’t stop Payne and Holsworth from staying in touch.
“Almost every day, we text each other,” he said. “She’s like a little sister to me.”
Dick Vitale got to see Payne’s relationship with Holsworth up close last year.
When the ESPN broadcaster had his annual gala last year to raise money for and awareness of pediatric cancer research, he invited Payne, Holsworth, her parents, Izzo and team spokesman Matt Larson to the event in Sarasota, Fla.
“She and Adreian stole the show and helped us raise $1.7 million that night,” Vitale recalled Monday. “Lacey was a hit and so was Adreian because you could see and feel how genuine he is about sincerely caring what happens to her.”
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