Adreian Payne #5 of the Michigan State Spartans walks on the floor for Senior night with Lacey Holsworth after defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes 86-76 at the Jack T. Breslin Student Events Center on February 6, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Photo: Gregory Shamus
Photo: Gregory Shamus

Hawks’ Adreian Payne old hand at overcoming hardship

He once was the quiet boy who didn’t much watch basketball and dreamed even less of one day playing among the chosen.

He was the 13-year-old who had suffered a trauma that would buckle a grown man — holding his mother as she fought for air, in the throes of a fatal asthma attack.

As well as the ninth-grader shuffled off to the side track of school, there to spend his days out of the way, never challenged and rarely taught.

When he was called to the stage in Brooklyn. N.Y., on Thursday night — with the 15th pick of the NBA draft, the Atlanta Hawks take Adreian Payne — the moment dripped with personal triumph. First, there was a gesture to make.

Payne straightened to his full height, 6-foot-10, and briefly before climbing the stairs, pulled open his blue-purple checked suit coat. There on the florescent pink lining was stitched the words: Adreian & Lacey. He pointed there first before going up to meet his future.

The loud dress of young men on draft day has become a trend. But these garish colors had meaning. There were the favorites of Lacey Holsworth, the 8-year-old girl Payne had taken in tow his last two seasons at Michigan State, who died of her cancer April 8.

There was too much of this joyous event to be shared with the souls of those who couldn’t be there.

“I wish (Lacey) could have been there, my grandmother and my mom,” Payne said the next day, after being introduced in Atlanta.

“It really was a great night to have my dad and my coaches and the Holsworths (Lacey’s parents) there. It is a blessing to have had the others in my life, but sometimes I wish they were here to be in the moment with me.”

Payne, 23, a graduate, already was old among the one-and-dones who populate the NBA draft. If he seems even older still — and he does carry more than his share of life experience — it is only natural.

When the Hawks drafted Payne, they acquired a tall fellow with impressive shooting range, a model so popular in the league these days. He flowered at Michigan State, benefiting from four seasons of Tom Izzo’s prodding. As a senior, Payne finished seventh in the Big Ten in scoring (15.8 points per game) and third in rebounding (7.4 per game). He went for 41 points in a tournament game against Delaware, the first to break 40 in the Madness since Stephen Curry in 2008.

The Hawks also got a fellow who has been thoroughly tempered by the trials of life.

Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Payne displayed few signs that he was NBA material. He played no organized sports. Doing short time for a drug conviction, his father was not around to herd him in that direction, either. So, he mostly kept to his own backyard.

When his mother, Gloria Lewis, suddenly died, in her room with only Payne there, powerless to help, his grandmother stepped in to raise him. Mary Lewis became the new focal point of his life.

As far back as kindergarten, Payne was diagnosed as learning disabled. No one had thought to challenge the diagnosis, or even push Payne academically to see how he would react, until a math teacher happened down the hall one day at Jefferson Township Jr./Sr. High. By this time, Payne had started growing in spurts and was playing basketball. As he walked by an open door, Richard Gates recognized the tall boy in the alternative-education room, staring rather blankly at the television that was serving as a poor substitute teacher.

Gates seemed to sense there was a spark being crushed underfoot. “I had seen him playing basketball and recognized him as a ninth grader doing literally nothing,” Gates, now the superintendent of the Township’s schools, said.

“There was nothing being expected of him, and he was giving nothing in return,” Gates said.

If there is a recurring theme to Payne’s life it is his innate ability to attract others.

Gates fell under the spell. By the next year, he and Payne’s grandmother were re-writing the boy’s school plan. So academically neglected had Payne been that he had trouble reading. But, with Gates tutoring him daily, he was tossed back into the mainstream. For his part, Payne was so diligent that he once turned down a recruiting visit out west because it would have meant a day away from classes.

Fast forward to his sophomore season at Michigan State. Payne won the basketball team’s scholar-athlete award. Shortly afterward, on a trip home, he stopped by Gates’ office and handed the award to him. It now sits in the high school’s main trophy case. “None of his athletic awards do,” Gates said.

In early 2012 a little girl picked Payne out from among a group of Michigan State players making a visit to a children’s hospital cancer ward. That was shortly after the death of Payne’s grandmother, her funeral attended by the entire Spartans team. Maybe he wasn’t feeling so great, either.

“Lacey had a knack for seeing good in people,” said her father, Matt Holsworth.

“I think I made her feel normal, like nothing was wrong and she really liked that about me,” Payne said.

“He seems to gravitate toward kids with needs,” Gates said of Payne. “He is someone who is there to tell them that they can keep on fighting, that they are worth it. Some of that has to be wrapped up in the pain he has endured.”

The story of the huge college basketball player and the frail little girl became a sentimental sensation around the State program. Payne called Lacey “Little Sis.” She called him “Superman.” She baked brownies for the team, blowing kisses at the batter before it went into the oven in order to infuse it with love. He hoisted her to the basket to cut a strand of the net after the Spartans won the Big Ten championship.

Less than a week before Lacey died, she and her family joined Payne in Texas for the slam-dunk contest preceding the Final Four. She blessed the basketball by kissing it before her friend took off for the rim.

Payne could not bring himself to visit Lacey later at her home as she lay dying. As he told Jason King of Bleacher Report: “(Dying) was the last thing I remember about my mom, the last picture I have in my head. My last picture of Lacey is of her … at that dunk contest. She had fun that day, and I had fun that day. We both smiled a lot. That’s the ultimate thing.”

On the night Payne was drafted, there were those in his life who fully shared the narrow maze that led him there, dead ends at so many turns.

“It was great that he included Lacey again, great that he included us. We were so proud of him,” Matt Holsworth said. Both he and his wife, Heather, were at the draft.

When, back in Dayton, Gates saw the Hawks take Payne, “all I could think about was the journey he had made.”

Too many others will have to celebrate, and be celebrated, alone in his memory.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.