Arch: ‘Superman’ Payne the toast of college basketball

There is no more admired, beloved or applauded player in college basketball right now than Adreian Payne.

The 6-foot-10 Michigan State power forward — a Jefferson High School product who has beaten the odds and will graduate in May and be a first-round NBA draft pick in June — received a prestigious humanitarian honor at the Wooden Awards Gala Friday night in Los Angeles.

During the ceremony to honor the top male and female players in the game, Payne got a standing ovation as he was presented the first Outreach Award by the Los Angeles Athletic Club for his loving, two-year embrace of Lacey Holsworth, the 8-year-old girl from St. Johns, Mich., who had battled neuroblastoma, an aggressive cancer that finally claimed her life in the wee hours this past Wednesday.

The story of the powerful big man and the charming little girl went nationwide and captured imaginations. And that didn’t surprise Dr. Richard Gates, the superintendent of the Jefferson Township Local Schools and the man who best knows the back-story of Payne, a guy he calls “a different beast … just a totally different cat altogether.”

He said Payne’s actions have special resonance because “you don’t have to embellish them. You don’t have to make anything up. It’s all legitimate. He is really sincere.”

Gates can say this with certainty because he’s seen it happen here, as well:

“The story of Lacey is out there and it’s beautiful and tragic and powerful, but the story you don’t see are all the kids he embraces back here when he goes to Blairwood (Elementary) or to our high school.

“When he comes home, he’s not the guy who walks around like the big guy on campus. He gravitates to kids who are sitting in the corner by themselves, kids who may be pushed aside. He has an affinity for children who need some extra care. He wants to make sure they are OK.

“I think it’s in his DNA.

“A lot of it is wrapped up in the fact that he’s had so much pain in his own life.”

Much to overcome

From the time Payne started school, he never had it easy.

By the time he was in first grade, he had been diagnosed with a cognitive disability that hindered him from learning at the rate of other students. And that got him relegated to special education classes, which sometimes prompted other kids to taunt him.

Life away from school was tough, as well. His first few years of grade school, his father was in prison on drug charges. While he and his mom, Gloria Lewis, developed a special bond, that too was shattered in traumatic fashion when he was 13.

Adreian’s late grandmother, Mary Lewis, once told the story of how Gloria, who suffered from asthma, was making fried chicken for Adreian when she was overcome by the cooking smoke.

She began coughing and managed to get upstairs and to an open window where she tried, unsuccessfully, to get fresh air into her lungs. She begged for her inhaler, but Adreian couldn’t find it and she ended up dying in his arms.

After that, Mary — a caring woman to all — became her grandson’s legal guardian and his rudder through life. Although Payne made the Jefferson varsity as a 6-foot-3 freshman, he was still at the end of the bench in the classroom.

Back then Gates was a math teacher at Jefferson and he happened to walk by the school’s resource room where he saw Payne, one of the Individualized Educational Plan students, simply watching TV.

“We expected everything of him on the basketball court and nothing of him the classroom — and he didn’t expect anything of himself either — and all that didn’t seem right,” Gates said.

“The next year I became principal and I talked to his grandma. I said, ‘He’s in the resource room just focusing on reading and arithmetic, but I know he wants to go play Division I basketball. But I’ll be honest. If he stays in this academic environment, none of that will be realized. And the thing is, the IEP is a legal document, so there’s nothing I can do without your consent.’

“And right there in front of my face, she took that IEP and ripped it up. She said, ‘I don’t want him in there. I don’t know how to get him to the next level, Dr. Gates, but I trust that the right folks are going to be around him here to help.’”

Several people at Jefferson stepped to the fore, especially Gates, who once was a college hoops star himself at Kent State and had a long history of helping Dayton-area kids in after-school programs.

While someone else taught Payne to read and comprehend, Gates began tutoring him in algebra and geometry and then, in the following years, more advanced math classes.

Payne would come to school before classes began at 7:20 a.m. and get some mentoring, and at 1:30 each afternoon — sometimes all the way to 5 or 6 p.m. — he’d get special tutoring from Gates and others.

By Payne’s junior year, Gates was the superintendent, which meant his office was in the administration building across the parking lot from the high school.

“Every day he’d walk across that parking lot for his tutoring session and a lot of the kids would get on him,” Gates said. “They’d say, ‘Hey, look at him. … Man, look at the little punk! … He’s Doc’s boy.’ ”

Payne didn’t listen. He never missed a day of school — or a tutoring session — and he began to learn.

“One day when that light went on, it was like, ‘Hey, I can do this!’ And then he wanted more and more,” Gates said. “And after every tutoring session — without fail — he’d say, ‘Thanks Doc.’ ”

By his senior year, Payne had grown to 6-foot-10. He excelled on the basketball court and the Broncos won the Division IV state title. In the process he was recruited by all the major colleges, yet he let nothing — and no one — get in the way of his learning.

When Kentucky’s John Calipari showed up at Jefferson in a helicopter that landed on the practice field behind the school, Payne made him wait in the gym for an hour while he finished a tutoring session.

Ohio State’s Thad Matta came early to a game to watch warm-ups, but Payne didn’t show up until tip-off because he was being tutored again.

When Arizona wanted to fly him out on a recruiting visit, he first said no because he would have to miss part of a school day.

Payne made sure the coaches met with Gates, who promised each of them that the big kid would be academically eligible when he got to college.

“And I told them we’d do it the right way,” Gates said. “We wouldn’t be sending any stooges in there to take the ACT test for him.”

Although his IEP designation would have ensured Payne got special considerations while taking the ACT, he refused any such treatment, got regular tutoring sessions on the test and ended up raising a single-digit effort early in his senior year to one that surpassed the necessary qualifying score.

When Michigan State’s Tom Izzo came to Jefferson, Mary Lewis and her grandson took to him because he skipped the splashy entrance and offered a straightforward promise, Gates said:

“He said, ‘I won’t promise you anything athletically, you’ll have to work for it just like you will academically, but I do promise you, if you want your degree, all the support will be there for you.’

“And he lived up to that promise. Michigan State has been marvelous. They’ve had tutors and advisers and Adreian responded.”

As a sophomore Payne won Academic All-Big Ten and MSU Academic Excellence honors and those plaques are displayed in the foyer of the Jefferson administration building.

On the court, it was a struggle for Payne his first couple of years as he got used to Izzo and the demands of college basketball. Then the light “went on” there, too. He was named second-team All-Big Ten as a junior and a senior and was the second-leading scorer and rebounder on the 29-9 Spartans this year.

‘My Lil’ Princess’

In late August 2011, Mary Lewis died of asthma complications. The funeral was at the Omega Baptist Church and the entire Michigan State team, along with coaches and academic advisers showed up to pay their respects.

That fresh hurt made Payne even more receptive when he and his teammates went to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Mich., a few months later and met Lacey, a 6-year-old who loved dancing and had just been diagnosed with cancer.

She and Payne hit it off. They exchanged phone numbers and began to text and call each other almost daily.

He called Lacey “Lil’ Sis” and she called him “Superman.”

When she had a relapse last fall, Payne immediately petitioned his 18,000 Twitter followers to “Pray for Lacey.”

When Lacey, by then known to all as Princess Lacey, got out of the hospital, Payne began leaving game tickets for her and the family. She’d show up wearing his No. 5 jersey. Sometimes her face was painted and she’d be waving green pompoms. He’d sometimes bring her onto the court during pregame warm-ups.

At home she had an AP Wall in her bedroom filled with newspaper articles and photos of her “big brother.”

On Senior Night, Payne carried Lacey — with a bouquet of roses in her arms — onto the court to be honored with him. When the Spartans won the Big Ten title in Indianapolis, he carried her up the ladder with him to help cut the nets.

She and her family were with him for the Spartans’ NCAA tournament Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in New York and just six days before she passed away, Lacey was with him at the Slam Dunk contest before the Final Four in Dallas.

Before Payne competed, he brought the basketball over to her, she kissed it and then he went out and slammed home a powerful 360, double-clutch dunk that had Lacey and the crowd roaring.

After Lacey died at her home early Wednesday, Payne issued a statement that said, in part: “It was time for my Lil’ Princess to go home and feel no more pain … I know she’s smiling and dancing in heaven right now. My princess is now an angel.”

Izzo praised Payne on a Michigan radio show Wednesday: “I just told him how proud I was of him for helping make these past two months incredible for her. He just had an appreciation and that bond grew between them like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Lacey was supposed to be at Friday night’s ceremony in Los Angeles and after she passed, organizers thought the grieving Payne might bow out. But he not only showed up, he made sure that during the awards there was a video screen with information on how people could help Lacey’s family with medical expenses.

(Go to and then under fund raisers enter #Kissitcancer.)

Gates said Jefferson plans to have a day this spring honoring Payne:

“I’m proud of how he’s represented Jefferson Township and this whole community. He’s just such a great ambassador for all of us.

“And what I love most is the way he uses the spotlight he has to help others rather than using it to highlight himself. You saw that with Lacey when he told everyone to pray for her.

“He’s one of the most gracious student-athletes I’ve ever seen. He’s just not your typical college star.”

No one is more admired, more beloved, more applauded.

No one is Superman.

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