LARRY LAGE,AP Sports Writer
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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan State’s Adreian Payne blocked a shot and made a long jumper on ensuing possessions, providing another glimpse of his vast potential and boosting his stock as an NBA prospect.
At least two teams in the league top executives who have witnessed Payne play in this NCAA tournament, and his latest performance had to impress anybody watching in person or on TV.
The 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward had 14 points, 10 rebounds, a career-high five blocks — a school record in the NCAA tournament — and two steals in a 70-48 win over Memphis that put the Spartans in the round of 16.
Payne may be a pivotal player when third-seeded Michigan State faces second-seeded Duke on Friday night in Indianapolis. He’s likely to match up against Ryan Kelly, who has helped the Blue Devils win 20 of 21 games when he’s healthy enough to play.
Payne’s improved play has been impressive, yet it pales in comparison to his off-the-court story.
He has befriended a little girl during her bout with cancer and has become a scholar-athlete honoree after being diagnosed as cognitively disabled as a child.
Payne acknowledged his life has a lot of elements that would make for quite a book.
“It is very interesting,” he said. “I think it’s good to get your story out there because there’s other kids just like you, or me, and if they see or read about somebody that has had it just like them, it gives them hope that they can do something, too.”
Payne grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and was more interested in exploring the creek in the backyard with his brothers than shooting hoops at the park.
He was relegated to going to school with other cognitively disabled students from kindergarten through ninth grade, joining the rest of his classmates for gym and art.
When Payne was in the ninth grade, his path crossed with Richard Gates, who was a math teacher then and became the superintendent two years later. The educator saw a student whose future looked bleak if a change wasn’t made.
“He couldn’t read in the ninth grade,” Gates recalled Wednesday in a telephone interview. “We had lowered the bar for Adreian, expecting nothing and getting nothing.”
Gates strongly advised Payne’s late grandmother, Mary Lewis, who raised him after his mother died when he was 13, to get him out of the school district’s special-education program.
“I told her that she would have to refuse the recommendations from the specialist so that he could be in regular-ed classrooms,” Gates recalled. “She bought in and Adreian went from hiding in class to being the kid who would go to the board in precalculus class.”
A few years later, Payne did well enough in school to be an Academic All-Big Ten honoree and won Michigan State’s scholar-athlete award as a sophomore.
And if he doesn’t skip his senior season to enter the NBA draft, he should have an interdisciplinary-studies degree in May 2014.
“I’m on the path to graduate on time,” Payne said “Next year, I will not have a full schedule like a normal senior. I could’ve graduated early, but I wouldn’t be able to play, so I can’t.”READ MORE: Florida Woman Injured When Turtle Crashed Through Windshield
Lacey Holsworth probably can’t fathom Payne going pro.
The seven-year-old girl from St. Johns was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a fetal-nerve cell cancer, when back pain while dancing led to the discovery of a football-sized tumor that had engulfed her kidney. Another tumor wrapped around her spine after she was so weak her father had to carry her into a hospital on Dec. 28, 2011. She lost feeling below her belly button and couldn’t walk on her own for several months.
A month into a long hospital stay, Michigan State’s basketball team visited her in the hospital. Payne plopped down next to her and instantly started to form a bond. When Holsworth was told only a couple of players could stay in her hospital room, she pointed at Payne.
“Ever since then, she has been all about Adreian,” said her mother, Heather Holsworth.
Chemotherapy has taken her hair, but not her spirit. She wears a long, blond wig.
“Now, she thinks she’s Barbie,” her mom says with a smile.
And she looked like one, too, while wearing a pink tutu during Michigan State’s practice on Monday. Joined by her mother, father and three brothers, she locked in on Payne’s every move.
What does she like about him?
“His smile and his hugs,” she said.
When Payne’s day was done on the court, his biggest fan was waiting with brownies in a brown bag. He bent over to give her a hug and chatted for a few minutes before sitting down for an interview with a group of reporters.
Lacey Holsworth, though, wanted to give Payne one more hug before she went to dance class. She left her family briefly for one more embrace.
“She calls me her big brother and I call her my little sister,” Payne said later. “We’re very, very close. … It’s just another thing God blessed me with to be able to help other people. It’s just me being me, helping people.
“It gives me something other than basketball to do and to think about.”
Holsworth’s relationship with Payne, which includes frequent calls and texts with him through her parents’ cellphones, also seems to help her. Even though the family found out she is not ready for a bone-marrow transplant and needs more chemotherapy on Tuesday at Michigan Mott Children’s Hospital — where the little girl was decked out in green and white and turned down maize-and-blue garb — her condition is improving.
“Most people her age and at her stage don’t make it,” her father, Matt, said softly. “Doctors are confident they can help her beat this and I have no doubt (Payne) is helping, too. He makes her smile and takes her mind off the pain and anxiety she has every day.”
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