By Chris Emma-
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (CBS) — In the middle of Michigan State’s Big Ten Tournament championship celebration Sunday, an 8-year-old girl couldn’t stop smiling.
Lacey Holsworth, better known as “Princess Lacey,” sat on the lap of her hero and admired the championship trophy. Spartan senior forward Adreian Payne, who stands more than three feet taller than Lacey, looked down on his lap and smiled along with the little girl.
At this moment on the court of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, after Michigan State defeated Michigan, 69-55, in the title game, Lacey wasn’t a kid battling neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of childhood cancer. She was a Michigan State Spartan.
“That was really special,” Payne said in the postgame press conference, still wearing the same smile on his face.
Two years ago, Payne formed a friendship with Lacey while the Spartans visited a local hospital. The 6-foot-10 forward, a likely first-round pick in the NBA Draft, was her hero.
Upon seeing Lacey’s resiliency, Payne decided she was his hero, too.
Lacey beat cancer after a two-year fight and was living like a kid should. But devastating news came in November, upon her return from a trip to Disneyland. The cancer had returned.
When Lacey first came out of surgery, she allowed one visitor: Payne.
Their friendship continued to grow stronger as the visits grew more frequent. Payne visited Lacey at the hospital, and she would attend the Spartans’ games wearing the forward’s No. 5 on her jersey.
Michigan State endured adversity this season, battling a brutal schedule and facing unfortunate injuries along the way. But seeing Lacey put everything in perspective.
“If we lose a game and we have a little injury here or there and we want to get down about it,” Spartans guard Gary Harris said. “But there are people that have it way worse than us. She’s a strong girl. We all look up to her, even though she’s younger than us. She’s definitely somebody that pushes us.”
Added senior guard Keith Appling: “She means a lot to the team … She’s a strong girl, and we’re hoping she stays healthy.”
The Holsworths have become part of Payne’s family. During Michigan State’s senior night ceremony, he walked onto the court holding Lacey’s hand. At one point, Lacey was left paralyzed by a tumor that wrapped around her spine and left her unable to walk.
When the Spartans won on Saturday night to earn a shot at the conference tournament title, the Holsworths hopped in the car and made the four-hour trip to Indianapolis. Lacey had to be there for her hero.
“Just to have them support me like that, it was great,” Payne said.
As the confetti fell to the floor Sunday, Lacey was part of the celebration. When Payne was called to cut down the net, he couldn’t do it alone. He carried Lacey to the top of ladder, and the two continued to smile.
The Spartan players watched on with joy as their hero, Lacey, shared in their triumph.
“She’s our inspiration,” Harris said. “For her to go through everything she goes through and still have a smile on her face, that just puts things in perspective.”
It’s the smile that has helped an 8-year-old girl through a brave a battle with cancer and inspired all around her. The smile is infectious.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter@CEmmaScout.