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For Michigan State's Payne, 'Princess Lacey' remains on mind as draft approaches

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CHICAGO - There wasn't a more touching story in college basketball this past season than the friendship between Michigan State star Adreian Payne and Lacey Holsworth.

An 8-year-old girl dying from cancer. A basketball player bonding with her like a big brother.

NBA executives wanted to hear all about it. Payne was happy to oblige.

The story came up quite a bit in meetings at the NBA draft combine in Chicago this week, with teams asking him to recount how he became friends with the girl from St. Johns, Michigan, who died April 8.

"They really like what I did," Payne said. "That's what they say. They just tipped their hat off to me about things that I did in the community."

Payne, likely a late lottery or mid first-round pick, skipped the on-court portion of the combine this week. He said he has been dealing with mononucleosis since January and isn't sure when he'll be clear of the energy-draining virus. He won't know for sure if he's 100 per cent until the blood tests show it's gone, and he didn't have a timetable for that.

"I could still work out, but I'm not at 100 per cent," he said. "I won't know until (blood tests show it's gone)."

It's been an eventful few months for Payne between the mono, a foot injury, a Big Ten tournament title, a trip to the NCAA regional finals and the death of a little girl he had befriended. He has another big event coming up with the draft — and in many ways, she will be right there with him.

The little girl affectionately known as "Princess Lacey" died of neuroblastoma she had battled since 2011 in April. But her story lives on.

She and Payne met during one of her hospital stays and their friendship grew from there. She became known to legions of fans, cheering on the Spartans as they became a favourite to win it all this past season.

She was there with Payne, getting scooped up by the 6-foot-10 centre and carried around the court when he was honoured during Senior Night. She was there with him cutting down the net after the Spartans knocked off Michigan in the Big Ten title game, on top of the ladder and on top of the world. She was there at the Michigan State basketball banquet in March with coach Tom Izzo putting his arm around her as he addressed the hundreds of players, families and others on hand, his message being that her struggles put the team's injury woes in perspective.

It's a story that gets Dick Vitale choked up.

He remembers calling the Michigan State-Indiana game with Magic Johnson and Mike Tirico two years ago. The Spartans lost at home, but what really stuck with him was what happened after the game.

"Here comes Adreian Payne, and he goes over to this little girl," Vitale said. "He starts to hug this little girl. Fans are standing there to take pictures with me. I asked, 'Who's that?' They said that little girl has cancer and Adreian (befriended her). So I walked over. I start talking to Adreian, to the girl, start talking to the family. And then, from that moment on, we started to stay in touch."

Vitale invited Lacey and her family to his fundraising gala for the V Foundation for Cancer Research last year. And when she passed away last month, he vowed to raise $250,000 in Lacey's name in time for this year's event.

The gala was Friday night, and the goal was met.

"I will never forget Lacey's angelic smile," Vitale said.

And Payne will never forget her, either. He remains close to the Holsworths and thinks of them like family.

"I'm like another son to them, so we talk about everything," Payne said. "It's not just basketball to them. That's the thing I like about their family and about them. They just like me as a person and I like them as people. I look to them for advice."

And after a video conference on Thursday, right before a meeting, Lacey's mom, Heather Holsworth, had some advice.

"I was chewing gum, and she told me to spit the gum out before I went into the interview," Payne said.

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