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Basketball player reigns supreme on, off court

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By Ryan Finley -- Arizona Daily Star

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - At 6, Wynona Peters was insistent. And even though her grandma was often busy cooking dinner or doing chores at their home in Mission View RV Park, she always caved.

Grandma and her dark-haired, dark-eyed little basketball player often lost track of time as the girl launched two-handed shots into the night.

''We would plan on going for 30 minutes, and it would end up being like two, three hours,'' said Verna Miguel, Peters' great-aunt, but known as her grandma. ''That's about all we ever did. I enjoyed it. I knew right from the start that she was going to be a big baller.''

She was right.

Peters, now a senior at Salpointe Catholic High School, is arguably the best girl's basketball player in southern Arizona. She also has become an expert in the Tohono O'odham tradition.

The 17-year-old is the tribe's reigning Wa:k Pow Wow Princess and a member of the Wa:k

Tab Basket Dancers, a group that performed last July Fourth at the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

And thanks to her grandma and Tucson benefactor Dan Frost, Peters will head to college soon.

Peters would not offer any of this information without prompting. Her Salpointe classmates learned of her tribal honors only a few months ago, when she was profiled in the school's student magazine. She kept quiet about her achievements for more than three years.

''As O'odham people, we don't like to show emotion,'' she said. ''We like to keep it inside. That's how we are.''

Miguel enjoys watching her protege most. She was a standout basketball player at St. John's Indian School in Laveen in the 1960s. When she ''was too old to play,'' she moved back to the reservation and began to coach. It was when she coached the Redskins, a women's team that traveled to other reservations, that her great-niece discovered the sport.

''She picked it up as a baby,'' Miguel said. ''She started playing on her own at age 4, and after that, she started playing in leagues. She's been doing that since.''

Miguel, who never had children of her own, taught Peters both basketball and O'odham tradition.

Peters won the Little Miss Wa:k crown at age 5 after singing a song about four children who sacrificed their lives to stop a flood. She won similar titles at ages 10 and 13. Peters was named Pow Wow Princess last March after a pageant that required her to display both traditional and modern O'odham talents. She's since represented the tribe at the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque.

Peters sees herself as an ambassador for the O'odham.

''When I play basketball, I guess it's more exposure for me on the court. When I dance, I get more exposure for my tribe. Both of those things ... let non-Native Americans know who I am and what I stand for.''

The once-shy girl has become a member of the Salpointe community, an exclusive group that few from her tribe have the opportunity to join. She was accepted to the school after attending grade school at the San Xavier del Bac Mission School.

Her tuition is paid for by Frost, an 85-year-old philanthropist who has long sponsored students from the mission school. Frost first met Peters when she was in the sixth grade; he has since followed her academic and athletic achievements closely.

''It brings joy to me,'' Frost said. ''There have been some great kids to come through the mission school, but Wynona is very, very special. She has that maturity and spirituality about her.

''I don't know how she does it.''

What basketball brought out in her, she gives back to the team.

Peters averages 16 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game.

''She makes everything go,'' said Scott Moushon, the Lancers' first-year coach. ''She doesn't ever get a rest, and she doesn't ever come out.''

Those who know Peters the best paint her as a quiet, willful girl who exudes the grace befitting a Wa:k princess. She will leave the reservation soon, and basketball. A hardworking student who has a 3.2 grade point average, she's set on attending the University of San Diego.

''I'm close to everybody on the reservation, so leaving will be hard,'' she said.

Peters also will give up basketball to concentrate solely on school. She plans on returning to the reservation as a pediatrician after medical school.

Frost, her benefactor, has agreed to pay for all her educational expenses. He has accounted for Peters in his will.

''Some people just know who they are,'' Frost said. ''She has this inherent wisdom, self-confidence and leadership. Because of what she is and how she is, she can be a great leader.''