The bond between these unlikely friends has captivated the sports world, with the Michigan State senior using his star power to shine a light on little Lacey, who is battling a potentially fatal form of nerve cancer known as neuroblastoma.
The two met two years ago while Payne paid a visit to a local children's hospital, and Payne was immediately taken with her fierce optimism.
"She calls me her 'Superman,' but she's the one who's got the super strength," Payne told the Detroit Free Press. "She's incredible with everything she's gone through. [Doctors] told her she wouldn't walk again. But she did. She's just an incredible fighter. And if I can bring her a little bit of happiness to help her forget everything for a little while, then that's what I want to do."
True to his word, the two frequently talk and text – he's nicknamed her 'princess' and she calls him 'brother' – and Payne treats her like family. She joined him on the court for Senior Night recently, and later beamed as she helped him cut down the net following the team's Big Ten conference championship win.
"It can't be all about you," Payne told the Free Press. "I think that's one thing I've learned now that I probably didn't know as a freshman ... It's more important to have a role in other people's lives that you care for."
A Difficult LessonIt's a lesson Payne learned through heart-wrenching experience. At 13, his mother died in his arms following a severe asthma attack while he frantically searched for her inhaler. Later raised by his grandmother, she too died two years ago from asthma complications.
Payne's friendship with Lacey has caught the attention of social media in the best possible way. Earlier this month, Michigan State fan Jeff Martin started a crowdfunding campaign on Giveforward to help cover Lacey's medical expenses. His goal: to raise $50,000. By Thursday, donations already surpassed $30,000.
Last Friday, popular ESPN basketball commentator Jay Bilas, who has more than 660,000 Twitter followers, followed his very first person: Lacey.
Payne's biggest social media fan is Lacey herself, whose Instagram page is filled with sweet photos of the pair, and who often interacts with her hero on Twitter.
"Forever my brother," she captioned a trio of Instagram photos showing her and Payne together on the court three weeks ago. "Forever my team."