March Madness is undeniably my favorite time of year. Forget Christmas, since materialistic expectations have negated the true holiday spirit. Thanksgiving usually equates to a day-long gorging and dieting immediately thereafter. Nix my January birthday, since it is always cold, usually snowy, and my friends are in debt from Christmas overspending.
Annually I anxiously anticipate the Sunday evening NCAA selection show announcing which college basketball team will play what opponent, and in which region. This year it aired March 16 at 6 p.m.
That evening’s pairings gave Ohio State a seeming easy first-round opponent from an obscure university located in Dayton. Their mascot sounded more like a hockey powerhouse than one for basketball since they are “The Flyers,” but instead gives ode to those famous flying pioneers, the Wright Brothers.
The collective thought of Buckeye fans was an expected easy win. That was not the outcome. Scarlet and Gray followers and those emblazoned in Syracuse Orange, will no longer underestimate the force of a small university, especially one with an aviation-themed mascot. Dayton soared, while both Ohio State and Syracuse fell to Earth, ending their seasons with a resounding thud.
The Dayton Flyers and the David-like stance they achieved by the dethroning of two Goliaths, negated any potential of someone winning Warren Buffet’s billion-dollar perfect basketball bracket offer. It also derailed my usual unbridled enthusiasm for March Madness until a new storyline captured the nation’s attention.
During the NCAA tournament, there is always a “Cinderella” team, or teams. This year there were two. Mercer University defeated powerhouse Duke while Dayton upended the Buckeyes and Orangemen. That personal disappointment lasted only a few days until hearing the unlikely story of little Lacey Holsworth and the towering Michigan State University team center, Adreian Payne. My usual thrill for March Madness, once neutralized, was reinvigorated.
Adreian Payne is 6’10”. Lacey Holsworth barely reaches his knees in stature. He is 23, while she is 8 years old. Adreian is expected to be drafted in the first round by the NBA in a few months and is the specimen of perfect health and athletic ability. Lacey has cancer. Adreian most recently shaved his head. Lacey wears a long flowing blonde wig, giving her a striking resemblance to a miniature “Goldie Locks.”
Lacey has not just any run-of-the-mill-cancer, but one of the worst, Neuroblastoma, a form that attacks the nerve endings. Early during her diagnosis, two tumors were discovered. A football-shaped one was found in her stomach, and another with tentacles that encased her spine, which rendered her partially paralyzed. Potent chemotherapy warded off the octopus-style invasion and returned her mobility. Surgery removed the other ironically athletic-shaped tumor.
When Adreian and Lacey met early in 2012 during a Michigan State basketball team tour of Lansing, Michigan’s Sparrow Hospital, she had just been diagnosed with this hideous disease and the prognosis was grim. Adreian was an unlikely savior who by chance walked into Lacey’s hospital room. The bond was instantaneous and a fast friendship was forthcoming. Daily text messaging commenced. During the summer of 2013, the cancer was diagnosed to be in remission. That all changed by Christmas, with more chemotherapy and a continued battle for Lacey’s life which continues now. Adreian has been her cheerleader.
Adreian was raised by his grandmother, Gloria Lewis, after her daughter, Mary, died young from an asthma attack. Adreian was 13 and searched in vain for her inhaler, but Mary was dead before medical assistance arrived. I can only imagine the guilt and sadness this young man has carried from that tragic incident ten years ago.
Lacey has an intact family with two parents and her three brothers. Adreian has now become “a fourth brother” and spends extensive time with all of the Holsworths, a family he lacked for the majority of his 23 years. This isn’t just a story about a little girl with cancer and about a young man from Dayton who could have fallen through the cracks, but thankfully did not. The backstory is one that crosses age, athleticism, and race, but also the value of chance meetings and unlikely pairings of Black and White, big and small, young and younger. Goodness comes in many colors, sizes, and ages.
Michigan State’s March Madness “dance” ended Sunday against the University of Connecticut. I cried. It has been a story of unlikely friendship, and love between two people with little in common, who somehow crossed paths, and became essential to each other for healing and hope. During the tournament, the roles were reversed as Lacey became not only Adreian’s cheerleader, but a mascot for the entire Spartan team.
For a few minutes during the NCAA tournament and Michigan State’s victories, we could forget about an unexplainably lost airliner and the mudslide misery to a devastated Seattle-area neighborhood. My hope of a tropical island, shipwrecked happy ending for those aboard Malaysian Airline 370 is now gone. That coupled with Mother Nature’s wrath of saturated soil and unstable topography, which buried the unsuspecting Washington state victims, and for those of us who have helplessly watched, it has equated to several melancholy weeks.
“She calls me her ‘Superman,’ but she’s the one who’s got the super strength,” stated Payne. “And if I can bring her a little bit of happiness to help her forget everything for a little while, then that is what I want to do.” Thank you, Adreian and Lacey for a reprieve from the recent tragedies and giving us all hope that miracles can occur, just through reaching out and offering to others what money cannot buy. (And also, thank you to Vito’s Wine Bar and Brad the bartender, for your gracious Monday evening internet access.)
Mariann Main is a Licensed Counselor and a Delaware native. Her column appears weekly on Wednesdays. To submit a question and have Mariann answer it anonymously, send mail to the Delaware Gazette office, 40 N. Sandusky St., Suite 203, Delaware, OH 43015.