JIM LITKE, AP Sports Writer
The sweetest tale emerging from this year’s NCAA tournament already included big-hearted Michigan State basketball star Adreian Payne and an 8-year-old fan battling cancer known as “Princess Lacey” to her Twitter followers — and now ESPN analyst Jay Bilas is aboard.
“That little girl has more toughness in her than a football or basketball team combined,” Bilas told The Associated Press on Friday, explaining why he reversed his longtime policy of not following anyone on Twitter and began following young Lacey Holsworth.
“Wait, what?!?! @JayBilas follows ME??????” @adorable Lacey tweeted in a response loaded with emoticons. “thank you!!”
Now, there’s just one thing that would make the story better.
“She had a seizure yesterday and started to perk up a little this evening,” Lacey’s father, Matt Holsworth, said late Thursday night, not long after Payne scored 41 points in an MSU victory that provided the family with a welcome distraction from his daughter’s struggle against neuroblastoma, a fetal-nerve cell cancer. “She’s been in bed for most of the last two days and she was only able to watch a few minutes. But every time she looked at the TV, Adreian was doing a lot.
“The doctors switched some her medications around,” he added a moment later, “So hopefully tomorrow will be a better day, and the day after that will go even better.”
After the game, Payne, who’s practically become a son to the Holsworths in the two years since they first met, talked as much about what his performance meant to Lacey as it did to the Spartans.
“It’s like having a family member who’s really sick,” he said. “The only thing you can do is play basketball. You can’t be there with them. Just knowing that when I play well, it makes her happy. It feels like I’m doing something, in a way, to make her feel better.”
Bilas did his part to add some momentum, joining Lacey’s 7,000-plus followers Friday morning.
The former Duke star and current college basketball analyst originally got caught up in the story when he watched the Michigan State basketball banquet and coach Tom Izzo brought Lacey up to the podium.
“Tom talked about how Adreian has taught him lessons about life,” Bilas told the AP, taking a break from his work during a second half timeout in Friday’s Duke-Mercer game. “What Adreian Payne has done is inspiring.”
Payne met Lacey when he and his teammates visited Sparrow Hospital. By then, Lacey was already well into a fight with the disease that first struck her with back pain while dancing in 2011. That 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 Lacey has had some victories in her battle, the cancer keeps coming back and has spread to her neck, head and pelvic region. She wears a long, blond wig because chemotherapy took her hair.
Matt Holsworth told the AP this week that throughout her fight, Payne and his daughter “communicate and hang out like a brother and sister. It’s a unique and special bond.”
Is it ever. When Payne’s turn to be honored during the Spartans’ Senior Night ceremony arrived earlier this month, he scooped up Lacey and carried her around the court. He did it again Sunday, taking her toward the top of a ladder as the Spartans celebrated winning the Big Ten tournament by cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.
Bilas, who records lots of coach’s show, watched Spartan Basketball on Wednesday night. The TV show opened with a 6-minute piece about Payne’s relationship with Lacey and the story closed by showing Holsworth’s @adorablelacey for those who want to know more about her.
“If you could watch that and not be moved to tears, you need to check yourself because I was,” Bilas said. “I was blown away by it and by her.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage contributed reporting to this story.
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