A little girl died Tuesday night. A college basketball program wept. And barely 24 hours after the close of the NCAA tournament, we were reminded of what losing really and truly means, and it certainly has nothing to do with a game.
We were reminded of what heroism and courage looks like, in the short life and tragic death of an 8-year-old. And it certainly has nothing to do with a box score.
We were reminded of what a champion looks like. And he’ll never need a ring to prove he was one.
A top contender for the most outstanding player in the tournament was nowhere to be seen at the Final Four. His team was long eliminated. It was Adreian Payne.
He was there to help fight Lacey Holsworth’s hopeless fight. He was there to help her get some net at the Big Ten tournament, and there to be a friend, in the middle of a family’s very worst nightmare.
There was no confetti at the end for Payne. No trophy. His is the first senior class of Tom Izzo’s to come and go from Michigan State without a Finial Four trip. But are we talking one shining moment? This one is his for life, even if it came with heartbreak at the end.
Lacey Holsworth wore a long blond wig because cancer took her hair. She looked so small in the arms of the Michigan State giant who made her cause his own. But the pictures always showed her smiling, and how hard must that have been in the final weeks?
The news report tells us of her passing away as her parents held her. It includes text messages from various Spartans, and a statement from Izzo. “Princess Lacey has taught us all an incredible lesson about love, strength and toughness.”
Adreian Payne gave everything he could to a dying little girl he had only come to know in recent years. Is there a player out there in America who did anything more important this season?
I love to watch seniors in March. I love to listen to their wisdom, and see their will and desperation, now that they are down to their last chance. I love to see their leadership, and their appreciation of the moment.
And there is something else. I love to see how so many of them have grown into men. How they have become so much more than just gifted athletes, and their value measure by something above points per game.
Headlines don’t do that. Statistics don’t do that. Only time can do that.
And so when the discussion rages about the world of one-and-done, and when the lights stay upon the freshmen and their remarkable talents, it is nice to remember there is another side to college basketball.
That it is not all based on the potential NBA contracts.
The seniors. The ones who have a clue about life, not to mention basketball. The ones who have been around long enough to begin to understand what it is important.
Shabazz Napier is like that, and he’ll have the memories of a championship to show for it.
So is Adreian Payne. The guess is, among the things he will remember from his career are the hospital visits.
The 2014 season ended this week. The final victory beloved to a resolute team from Connecticut. But part of it belonged to a brave little girl in a blond wig, with some net in her hand and a smile on her face and a Michigan State cap on her head. Also to the young man holding her.
Teammates, in the most awful sense. And the most wonderful.