EAST LANSING, Mich. — After she was wheeled out of surgery and into her room, eight-year-old Lacey Holsworth—“Princess Lacey” to her Twitter followers—issued a strict order.
Everyone at Sparrow Hospital, though, knew the rule didn’t apply to Adreian Payne.
Two days earlier, Michigan State’s senior star forward had received the crushing news about the little girl who wore his No. 5 jersey to games, the one who gave him a stocking filled with goodies at Christmas and has a special spot in her bedroom for his newspaper articles and pictures. “The A.P. Wall,” she calls it.
Lacey, Payne learned, had just returned from Disneyland—a celebratory trip after being informed she’d conquered neuroblastoma, the aggressive form of childhood cancer that had threatened her life for nearly two years.
But as she lounged at home a few days later, Lacey felt a familiar pain in her jaw. She was hurried to the hospital, where tests and scans confirmed her doctors’ worst fear.
The cancer had returned.
And chances were good that, this time, it wasn’t going away.
Confined to campus with a game the following evening, Payne immediately got online and asked his 18,000-plus Twitter followers to pray for Lacey. The two had met more than a year ago, when Payne and his teammates stopped in her room during a tour of Sparrow Hospital.
As the rest of the Spartans were leaving, Lacey asked Payne to stay. She said she liked his smile.
“I guess she could feel my spirit,” said Payne. And make no mistake, he felt something, too.
In some ways, Payne could see himself in Lacey. Watching her struggle reminded him of the frailties of his own childhood, of the challenges he faced after losing his mother at age 13, of the learning disability that could’ve prevented him from going to college.
Payne gave Lacey his phone number that day, and the two began trading motivational quotes via text. They tweeted back and forth and, when Lacey got out of the hospital, Payne started leaving her tickets to games.
Seeing Lacey in the stands wearing face paint and shaking green and white pom-poms energized Payne. And the times he would bring her onto the court during warm-ups—and the hugs he gave her before disappearing into the postgame locker room—made Lacey feel like a star.
When Payne arrived at the hospital on Nov. 19, though, he hardly recognized his friend.
Asleep in blue pajamas under a pink flannel blanket, she’d undergone chemotherapy that morning and surgery in the afternoon. Groggy and disoriented from anesthetics, Lacey hadn’t opened her eyes for hours. Her parents, Matt and Heather, said she hadn’t smiled in days.
“Laaaccceeey,” Heather whispered. “Adreian is here to see you. Laaaccceey, Adreian’s here.”
After a few moments, Lacey rolled onto her back and opened her eyes. Sure enough, standing next to her bed was Payne, his 6’10” frame nearly stretching to the ceiling as he clutched the stuffed zebra he’d brought as a gift.
Grinning, Lacey extended her arms as Payne bent down to embrace the girl he calls his “little sis.”
“Superman!” she said. “You’re here.”
Nearly two months later, Adreian Payne is sitting on the edge of the cold tub adjacent to Michigan State’s locker room, his right foot submerged in frigid water to reduce the swelling in his heel.
The night before, Payne had been in tears as the Spartans prepared to take the court against Ohio State. The plantar fasciitis that had lingered for months had become so intense that he felt as if needles were piercing his ligaments and tendons.
Payne skipped pregame warm-ups and told coach Tom Izzo he didn’t think he could play. But five minutes into the game, there was Payne, checking in at the scorers’ table after a sudden surge of adrenaline. He finished with 18 points and six rebounds in an overtime victory.
“He showed me something,” Izzo said the following morning. “He toughed it out. When everything was stacked against him, he found a way to get it done.”
That’s always been Payne’s greatest attribute.
When classmates teased him for being an “idiot” in high school, Payne proved them wrong. When the death of loved ones could’ve overwhelmed him, Payne became stronger. When Izzo pushed him to his breaking point, Payne responded.
The fans who watch Payne on television and the scouts who attend his games know him as the versatile forward who averages 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds, the future millionaire who projects as a first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
But those closest to Payne realize his story is about so much more. By changing his own life, they said, he’s changed the lives of others: teammates, coaches, teachers.
And, especially, a little girl.
Adreian Payne was 13 the night his mother raced out of the kitchen, gasping for air.
Gloria Lewis had been cooking her son’s favorite meal—fried chicken—when she became overwhelmed with smoke. A longtime asthma sufferer, Lewis labored up a staircase and into her bedroom as Adreian followed closely behind. She opened her window and hung her head outside, pleading for her inhaler while trying to calm her breathing.
“I can’t find it, momma!” Adreian said as he rummaged through drawers. “I can’t find it!”
Gloria stepped away from the window and collapsed onto the bed. Cradling her, Adreian watched her take her final breath.
“She died in my arms," he said.
Gloria was 41.
People in the Dayton, Ohio, neighborhood where Payne grew up worried about him after his mother’s death. They’d marveled at the bond he shared with Gloria, who raised Adreian on her own while his father, Thomas Payne, was incarcerated from 1996-99 on drug charges. Adreian was in the fourth grade when Thomas was released.
“They had a beautiful relationship,” Thomas said. “I kept tabs on him. We were close then and we still are. But his mom was the rock. She was the anchor.”
Thomas’ role in Adreian’s life increased after Gloria’s passing. He stressed the importance of family and introduced Adreian to one of his favorite hobbies: attending church. Rarely did Adreian miss a Sunday service. He loved listening to the choir at Omega Baptist Church and, unlike most teenagers, was always attentive during the sermon.
Outside of church, though, Payne felt lost.
While many of his friends participated in sports, Payne and his brothers spent most of their time wandering the neighborhood, climbing trees and picking up empty beer bottles to throw at one another near a creek by their house.
Rarely was Payne in trouble. The main reason was because of his grandmother, Mary Lewis, a stern disciplinarian who became Payne’s guardian following his mother’s death. It’s because of her, Payne said, that he steered clear of the temptations that existed in his neighborhood—drugs, gangs, crime—during such a fragile time in his life.
“I could’ve gotten my hands on anything,” Payne said. “It would’ve been so easy. But my grandma made sure that didn’t happen. She made sure I knew right from wrong.”
Still, as he prepared to enter ninth grade, Payne’s life had no direction. He remembers an afternoon in school when the teacher posed a question to the entire class.
“What’s your ‘Plan A’ in life?’” she asked. “And what’s your ‘Plan B?’”
Payne didn’t have a response.
“All of my other friends had goals,” Payne said. “They had jobs they wanted to do someday and things they wanted to be. Me...I wasn’t a good student. I didn’t have anything I was good at. I didn’t have anything I really liked. I didn’t know where I was going.
“I didn’t have a Plan A, and I sure didn’t have a Plan B.”
Payne had dabbled in basketball as a child, but oftentimes his older brothers sneaked off to the park without inviting him. When Thomas Payne asked them why, they laughed and said Adreian was so uncoordinated that no one wanted him on their team.
Shortly into his first year at Jefferson High School, though, Payne’s life began to change. He hit a growth spurt and made the varsity squad as a 6’3” ninth-grader. He rarely played—“All I knew how to do was rebound and run the court,” he said—but it was obvious he was no longer the clumsy kid he’d been back at the park.
The following summer, a friend named Juwan Staten convinced Payne to accompany him to tryouts for All-Ohio Red, a prominent AAU team based in Columbus. Payne figured his inexperience would keep him from making the squad, but when the roster was announced, there was his name alongside the likes of Jared Sullinger (now with the Boston Celtics), Aaron Craft (Ohio State) and Staten (West Virginia).
By the time his sophomore year began, Payne stood 6’7”. Recruiting letters began arriving at his high school from colleges all across the country: Kentucky, Arizona, Michigan State and others. Some of the nation’s most high-profile coaches were showing up at his games, where Payne’s grandma led chants with a bullhorn.
All of a sudden, Payne had a passion, a purpose.
“Maybe this is my future,” Payne thought. “Maybe basketball is my Plan A.”
There was only one thing holding Payne back.
At 16 years old, he barely knew how to read.
Administrators at Jefferson High School lost count of how many college recruiters flocked to their campus to visit with Adreian Payne, but they do remember this: Only one arrived in a helicopter.
People in Payne’s hometown still buzz about the day John Calipari landed his aircraft on the school’s baseball field—and about what happened a short time afterward.
Instead of hurrying to greet the Kentucky coach as he entered the building, Payne made Calipari wait in a hot gymnasium for nearly an hour before finally hitting the floor for his workout.
Payne, Calipari was told, was in a tutoring session.
And he wasn’t going to leave until it was complete.
“Adreian didn’t have a choice,” said Dr. Richard Gates, the school's former principal. “He knew if he didn’t take care of things academically, he wasn’t going to play for John Calipari or Tom Izzo or anyone else.”
Payne had to work harder than the other students at his high school to fare well academically. In kindergarten, he was diagnosed with a cognitive disability that prevented him from learning at the same pace of his classmates.
When Payne entered the ninth grade, he was placed in the special education program at Jefferson. While his friends bounced from class to class taking various math, English and history courses, Payne stayed in the same room each day working on addition and subtraction problems.
When it came to reading, Payne recognized various words and could get through certain sentences. But he couldn’t complete an entire page of a book.
Gates remembers walking past Payne’s classroom one morning and seeing a group of students watching television while others were engaged in casual conversation.
“There was no teaching taking place,” said Gates, a math teacher at the time. “No learning.”
Gates didn’t know Payne personally, but he recognized him from the basketball court. When Gates was promoted to principal that summer, he contacted Payne and told him that if he wanted to compete at the Division I level he’d have to take normal classes, as the credits he was receiving in his special ed courses wouldn’t transfer to Division I schools.
“He was either going to work to be able to take advantage of his gifts,” Gates said, “or he was going to be the tallest janitor we had.”
From that point forward, Payne embraced academics as if it were a sport, showing the same intensity in the classroom as he did on the basketball court.
One year removed from working on multiplication tables in his special ed class, Payne took both Algebra I and geometry as a sophomore, a task that would seem daunting to most any student. The next year, he passed Algebra II and continued to improve his reading and comprehension skills in English classes.
Payne certainly had help. Each day, he spent at least an hour after school studying math with Gates before meeting with other tutors for various subjects. If Payne was willing to put in the extra time, so were they.
The normal routine was for Payne to attend class from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. before working with tutors from 2:45 to 6. Basketball practice was at 7, meaning Payne usually didn’t arrive home until after 9 each night.
“I knew I had that opportunity to go to college right in front of me,” Payne said. “I was so driven. Nothing was going to stop me.”
Payne became so obsessed with academics that he complained when Arizona scheduled a weekend recruiting trip that caused him to miss his Friday afternoon classes. He told Gates he didn’t want to go.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta once showed up for a game at Jefferson and noticed Payne wasn’t in the pregame layup line. As was the case during Calipari’s visit, Payne was in a tutoring session and arrived just before the jump ball.
Gates’ favorite story, though, involved a phone call he received from Payne—during school—about his precalculus teacher.
“She’s not explaining quadratic equations right,” Payne whispered from the classroom.
A few days later, Gates sat in on the class and realized Payne was correct.
Payne scored poorly on the ACT during the fall of his senior year. Because of his learning disability, he was offered the opportunity to retake the test untimed. Payne refused, saying he didn’t want to be treated differently than other students.
After some extra tutoring sessions with Gates, Payne eventually earned a qualifying score and was off to Michigan State, where his drive has only improved.
Although he works closely with tutors in East Lansing, Izzo said Payne “isn’t in any watered-down classes. He’s being asked to do the same stuff as everyone else.”
In what may have been his proudest moment, Payne won the team’s Scholar Athlete Award as a sophomore and was also named Academic All-Big Ten. In May, he’ll become the first member of his family to graduate from college. He'll get his degree in interdisciplinary studies.
“He’s a role model for our entire family,” Payne’s father said. “People used to make fun of Adreian for being in special ed. They said he was dumb and called him an idiot. They’re not saying that anymore. He’s conquered so much.”
Whenever he gets the chance, Payne returns to Jefferson to share his story with students and offer advice. Gates has noticed that Payne often takes extra time to talk to teenagers in the back of the room who may not have been listening, or ones who come off as insecure and lacking confidence.
Payne relates to those students well. For a time, he was one of them.
“Me being in that (special-ed) class...it made me want to help kids and be friendly to people who are going through a tough time,” Payne said. “It’s really not that hard to do.”
Gates said Payne’s energy is felt not just in the halls of Jefferson, but in the community, as well.
“He has an innate ability to know when someone needs attention, when someone needs to be reached out to,” Gates said. “What he’s doing with that little girl (Lacey)...that’s him showing his spirit, his heart.
“It’s almost like he’s using all that pain from his past to say, ‘How can I turn this into a positive? Who can I help? Who can I uplift?’”
A few years ago, that person turned out to be Gates, who was surprised when Payne returned to Jefferson holding the plaque he’d just received for being named Academic All-Big Ten.
“This is yours,” Payne said. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
During Midnight Madness in the fall of his freshman year, Adreian Payne’s face appeared on the video board at the Breslin Center.
“I came to Michigan State,” Payne said into the camera, “because I wanted to play for Tom Izzo.”
Just as he did in high school with Gates and coaches Art Winston and Mark Parker, Payne has found another male role model in Izzo.
The relationship hasn’t always been rosy.
Payne played sparingly as a freshman before working his way into the rotation as a sophomore. Even last season, when he averaged 10.5 points, Payne often had trouble understanding schemes and scouting reports.
At times he’d be out of place on the court. That would draw the ire of the feisty Izzo, a Hall of Famer who is known for a “tough love” approach that often involves yelling at and challenging his players to motivate them.
“It’s hard to adjust to another man yelling at you,” Payne said. “When someone challenges you like that, you want to challenge them back, when you should really just listen to what they’re saying.
“In high school, I just showed up and played.”
One of the things that frustrated Izzo the most was the way Payne responded to every order by asking “Why?”
Izzo: “We’re switching to a zone out of the timeout.”
Izzo: “We’re gonna set a screen for (Keith) Appling.”
Izzo: “Because I freakin’ said so, that’s why!”
“I told him I didn’t have time to explain every decision in a 30-second huddle and that he had to trust me,” Izzo said. “He wasn’t being disrespectful. He just wanted to educate himself. When you think about it, it’s kinda cool.”
Izzo said he had numerous conversations with Winston and Parker, the high school coaches, about how to best reach Payne. They reminded Izzo of Payne’s learning disability and told him to use caution with his words.
“You have to talk to him like a normal person,” Winston said. “Anytime you call him stupid or even try to explain something to him in a way that makes him sound dumb, he gets offended. He wants to be treated like everyone else.”
Payne experienced another setback before his junior season. That August, he had taken his grandmother to the movies and to Golden Corral for lunch. As he left Dayton for East Lansing later that afternoon, he noticed that Lewis remained on the porch, watching him until his car reached the end of the street.
“It was almost like she knew that was the last time she was going to see me,” Payne said.
The very next afternoon, his grandmother died of the same disease that had robbed him of his mother years earlier: asthma.
Payne thought about that day a lot the following spring when he was deciding whether to leave school early for the NBA. Payne had averaged 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds as a junior, and most mock drafts predicted he’d either be a late-first-round or early-second-round pick.
After consulting with Izzo and his high school coaches—and remembering the promise he’d made to his grandmother to graduate—Payne opted to return to school. The decision is paying off, as Payne ranks second on the team in both points and rebounds.
An NBA scout said this week that Payne could be a Top 20 pick in this summer’s draft.
“Socially, I didn’t know if he was ready for it a year ago, but I think he is now,” Izzo said. “On the court, it’s all falling in place for him. He’s a better player, a more cerebral player. He’s picking up scouting reports better. I’m not sure I’ve ever had someone grow as much over the course of their career than A.P.
“He’s the life of the team.”
And not just in the locker room.
Izzo continues to be astonished by Payne’s efforts to make people smile off the court. He said it’s normal to see Payne talking to fans in the handicapped section before games and signing autographs afterward.
“If I brought 10 kids into our locker room to see him,” Izzo said, “he’d be like Santa Claus at Christmas.”
Izzo witnessed it firsthand when he accompanied Payne to Lacey’s hospital room back in November, when her outlook appeared grim. But as Payne sat at the foot of the bed that evening and chatted with Lacey, everything—if only for those few minutes—seemed normal. Everything seemed OK.
“Of all the things I’ve done—and I’ve had some incredible experiences here—I wouldn’t trade that moment,” said Izzo, his voice beginning to crack. “I’ve never seen something like that.”
“I really hope I’ve taught him something,” he said, “because that kid has taught me a lot.
“He’s taught me a lot.”
Last Monday, as Michigan State prepared for a road trip to Iowa, Adreian sent Lacey a text message.
“Wish I was there with you,” it read.
Earlier that afternoon, Lacey had arrived back at the hospital to continue her battle with cancer. According to Lacey’s father, the chemotherapy Lacey had been receiving since November was not working quickly enough. She has a tumor on her forehead that is also growing on the inside of her skull, pushing against the brain and causing swelling.
A new, more intense form of chemotherapy was to begin last week.
“It will NOT be easy on her,” Matt wrote on Lacey’s blog. “Not all of the doctors think she can handle it or fully recover from it, but this is our only option right now other than saying goodbye to her.”
Matt said Lacey has remained in good spirits. Encouragement from others has certainly helped.
Dick Vitale was working the Michigan State-Iowa game last Tuesday, just 24 hours after Lacey had returned to the hospital. Vitale mentioned Lacey’s name on television and told her to keep fighting. The legendary ESPN broadcaster met Adreian and Lacey last summer, when they traveled on a private jet to Vitale's charity gala in Sarasota, Fla.
“I brought them onto the stage, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Vitale said. “Their relationship is so genuine. It’s a beautiful thing.”
No one has brightened Lacey’s spirits more than Payne.
When the Spartans had a day off last month, Payne invited Lacey to join him and his teammates for dinner at Champps, a popular restaurant in East Lansing. It was a touching site, to be sure: little Lacey sitting among a group of behemoth basketball players, wearing the black and pink shirt with the heart in the middle that Adreian gave her for Christmas—and a charm necklace with the number “5” dangling from the chain.
Watching from a table across the room, Lacey’s parents couldn’t help but smile, just as they did when Adreian invited them back to his apartment so he and Lacey could watch movies and play on his keyboard.
“A lot of people see her as this crazy little fan,” Matt said. “But she’s not. She loves him for who he is. She’s made an attachment to him and loves him like a brother. They’re wrapped around each others' fingers.”
That was obvious last week, when Payne wore his #prayforlacey bracelet during the Iowa game. He also sent her a tweet before her first round of treatment.
I love you @adorablelacey wish I could be there. So fight this chemo and be strong 💪😚🙏— Adreian Payne (@Adreian_Payne) January 28, 2014
Lacey was quick to respond from the hospital.
@Adreian_Payne I love you too Superman ❤️😘 I will do my best💚💪🙏🙏 I wish you could be here too...— Princess Lacey (@adorablelacey) January 28, 2014
As much as his presence has helped Lacey, Payne said he’s benefited from the relationship, too. The classes that have given him trouble...the injuries that have limited his progress...the times he misses his mom and grandmother.
During tough moments, he thinks about his friend in a hospital bed, fighting for her life.
“She gives me strength,” Payne said, “during times when I don’t think I have any left.”
With each new gesture, Matt and Heather Holsworth become more and more amazed with Payne’s uplifting character. They said they’ll always be grateful for the impact he’s made on Lacey, for the love he’s shown their daughter, for the happiness he’s brought to her life.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when she’s called and he hasn’t picked up the phone,” Matt said. “He’s a good guy. Our family is proud to be a part of his life.”
Not long ago, as one of his visits with Lacey was ending, Heather pulled Payne aside and expressed how deeply she and her family cares for him.
“While it breaks our hearts that we might be losing our precious girl,” Heather told him, “we find comfort in knowing we’ve gained a son.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.