There are so many things to be cynical about in today’s college sports world. Cheating, greed, corruption and crime scandals have plagued the NCAA and its institutions for decades.
Sometimes it can feel like being a college sports fan is a test of your morality. Far too many times, I have heard intelligent people blindly defending despicable actions of athletes or coaches simply because they want to support their team. An obsession with sports can bring out the worst in people.
Yet it took an 8-year-old girl’s infatuation with the Michigan State basketball team and her special bond with senior center Adreian Payne to make me realize just how extraordinary special sports can be.
Lacey Holsworth was diagnosed with a rare and advanced form of cancer called neuroblastoma in 2011. Doctors found a football-sized tumor engulfing her kidney and another tumor wrapped around her spine, restricting her ability to move. Soon after Lacey’s diagnosis, it was Payne’s commitment to basketball that brought him and the rest of the MSU basketball team to Lacey’s bedside to wish her well. Lacey was a die-hard Spartan, and from that day forward her and Payne were inseparable.
For more than two years, the two texted regularly and Payne would visit Lacey in the hospital. Lacey said the reason she liked Payne so much was because of his smile and she always called him her big brother. This past season, Lacey, or as she is affectionately known, “Princess Lacey,” was able to join Payne at his Senior Night, the Big Ten Tournament and some of their NCAA Tournament games. Sporting a long blonde wig after losing her hair to chemotherapy, it’s almost impossible to find a picture of her without a smile on her face at the games.
After winning the Big Ten Tournament, Payne wrapped Lacey in his arms and brought her to the top of a ladder so she could help ceremoniously cut down the nets. At such a young age, Payne was helping Lacey live out the perfect sports moment. In front of the filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse, she was the apple of everyone’s eye.
Lacey passed away April 8, losing her three-year battle to neuroblastoma just days after attending the College Slam Dunk Championship with Payne in Dallas during Final Four week.
“Words can’t express how much I already miss Lacey,” Payne said in a statement after Lacey’s passing. “She is my sister, and will always be a part of my life. She taught me how to fight through everything with a smile on my face even when things were going wrong. I’m a better man because of her … I know she’s smiling and dancing in heaven right now. My princess is now an angel.”
Lacey was blissfully unaware of the brutal realities that exist within college sports, and the world in general; she just loved watching her “big brother” play basketball. Far too often, we take the outcome of sports too seriously. No matter how many games the Spartans won or lost this season, the beaming smile and Lacey’s blonde wig made the players and Payne’s hard work all worth it.
Sports gave Lacey hope, brought thousands of people together to cheer for her and created a life long bond between her and Payne.
Some might say Payne’s legacy at MSU is being part of the first senior class recruited by coach Tom Izzo to not play in at least one Final Four in their career. But I have no doubts I will remember Payne far longer than any Spartan player from those Final Four teams.
He not only helped bring an extraordinary amount of joy into this young girl’s far too short life, he showed me the best sports has to offer.