Anthony Cowan Jr. Credit: Maryland Athletics

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Anthony Cowan Jr. always reads the comments. He sees what people say about him on social media. He stores them away in his mind and, sometimes, he’ll even screenshot the online attacks on his phone to revisit later, another cynic to add to his personal collection.

“It’s just the negative, whatever the opponent is, ‘He’s better than you.’ ‘You suck.’ The usual stuff,” Cowan says. 

His 1,881 career points heading into Friday’s Big Ten tournament game ranks seventh on the Maryland men’s basketball all-time scoring list, ahead of legendary Terps players like Keith Booth and Walt Williams. Fans at the Terps’ regular season home finale against Michigan on March 7, his senior day, chanted “MVP!” while he was at the free throw line. Cowan walked off the court after the 83-70 victory surrounded by family and friends, with a celebratory piece of the basketball net around his neck.

But hours before Maryland clinched a share of the Big Ten regular season title that day, Cowan, against his self-admitted better judgement, scrolled through Twitter. The critics are never far, and Cowan, as he has throughout his basketball career, feeds off the doubt. 

The constant chip on his shoulder can have an adverse effect. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon has criticized Cowan’s attitude in the past. And during his junior year at St. John’s College High School, the basketball team lost two games to start the season. Cowan had tried to take over the game with his scoring, and afterward, his coach, Sean McAloon pulled him aside. He told Cowan he should transfer. 

“We’re already losing with you doing what you’re doing,” McAloon remembers saying. “It’s not personal. I love you as a kid, but you obviously feel like you need to prove everything in the world with every basket you make. No team will win with a leader like that.”

***

Cowan’s mother, Traci, laughs at her son’s competitiveness. It never ends. At their home in Bowie, the place where Cowan and his younger sister, Alex, grew up, and where his youngest sister, Aryn, still lives, a cement slab marks the space in the backyard where the basketball hoop used to be. Heavy wind and storms forced the Cowans to take it down a few years ago.

It’s where Cowan, 22, honed his basketball skills before he became a star at St. John’s. When the family moved from Langley Park to Bowie when Cowan was 2, his parents debated between installing a swimming pool or basketball court.

“Obviously a basketball court is more feasible,” his father, Anthony, explains. “It was more of what their interests was anyway.”

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Cowan can turn anything into a competition. Visits to the backyard would start with a casual shootaround with Alex, who is three and half years younger. Moments later, it would turn into a full-on game with points. The two also competed in video games, and on Christmas, they raced to see who could open presents the quickest. Cowan would not let his sister win.

“Never,” he says with a smile.

That personality comes from their father, according to Traci. 

The older Anthony played basketball, football, and baseball at Northwestern High School, located less than a mile away from the University of Maryland campus. Jay Bias, the late younger brother of Maryland Athletics hall of famer Len Bias, was in the grade above.

Anthony coached his son’s Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams from ages 8 to 12, and says he had his “biggest epiphany” about his son’s talent during a local 12 and under All-Star game played at a Prince George’s County recreation center.

Before the game, Cowan walked by his father, the opposing team’s coach, and said, ‘I’m gonna get you for 35.” Anthony brushed him aside: “Do what you do.”

Cowan finished with 37 points.

Anthony smiles at the memory: “I looked back and said, ‘You know what, I’ve been holding this guy back.’” 

***

This year, Cowan has channeled the criticism and doubts into one of the best careers that Maryland has seen. The point guard is unique in Division I college basketball—a local high school basketball star who has played all four seasons for his hometown university. 

Maryland heads into the postseason ranked 12th in the nation with a 24-7 record. Cowan is the undisputed leader of the team, averaging 16.3 points, 4.7 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game.

Ask his teammates and the first answer they’ll give about Cowan’s improvements is his leadership. An introvert, Cowan still prefers to let his game do the talking, but he knows when to huddle the team together. 

“Last year, I would say, the leadership was broken up between him and Bruno [Fernando], and this year, he took it all on himself and we just following his lead, and we play as he play,” says Maryland sophomore forward Jalen Smith. “He’s talking a lot more, grouping us up a lot more, making sure we’re all focused and knowing what to do on defense and offense, and he’s just out there talking for us.”

At a recent practice, Turgeon called Cowan out for sulking and expressing negative energy. 

“Change your attitude,” Turgeon told his point guard. And to Cowan’s credit, he did. 

“Our relationship’s really grown because toward the end of his sophomore year, he didn’t like me, and I didn’t like him,” Turgeon says. “He just wasn’t being the point guard I wanted him to be. We had a sit down, we talked about it. I loved him, but I wanted more out of him.”

It was reminiscent of the conversation he had with McAloon, his high school coach who is now the varsity national head coach at IMG Academy in Florida. 

Cowan did not end up transferring from St. John’s, and that season, he led the Cadets to a D.C. State Athletic Association title over Gonzaga. The Washington Post named him the All-Met Player of the Year for boys’ basketball, beating out DeMatha Catholic High School’s Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

McAloon knew exactly which buttons to push to get the best out of Cowan.

“The reason why me and Anthony get along as well as we do, is because we are the exact same person,” McAloon says. “He would tell me [DeMatha coach] Mike Jones was the best coach he’s ever met … I would say, ‘I thought you were the best under 6 guard until I met [former Gonzaga High School star] Chris Lykes … We would go out there and prove we were better.”

***

A few comments can get under Anthony’s skin. Like his son, he’ll occasionally read social media posts about the Maryland men’s basketball team. 

When he sees one personally criticizing his son, he’ll start to draft a response, only to delete it.

“Just to kind of get it out, just to kind of like express how I feel even though I don’t hit the send button,” Anthony says. “The thing that probably bothers me the most is that it seems that those with the biggest opinions or that are the most opinionated, seem to know the least about the game or have watched the least amount of Maryland basketball. And when you read their opinions, it’s so glaringly apparent that in some cases people form an opinion [when] they didn’t watch the game.”

At one point, Cowan told his parents he wanted to go to college where he could wear a tanktop and sandals every day. “That’s not going to be here,” his dad replied.

Ultimately, Cowan chose Maryland. He has plenty of roots in the area. He attended day camps at Maryland and overnight basketball camps at Georgetown University. His family watched the Terps win the 2002 national championship on their TV at home.

Cowan is also a homebody. He visits his parents in Bowie and his 2-year-old French bulldog, Drizzy, at least once a week. With the pressure and outside noise of playing Division I basketball, his family remains a constant. It was his dad who taught him the importance of staying even-keeled.

“I realized early if you get too high … you gonna keep chasing it,” Cowan says. “And if you get too low, then that’s when you start having issues, you start thinking too much, start overthinking. So that’s been my thing. Never get too high, never get too low. And it’s been working for me. Just because obviously you never know what type of things you’re going to go through during the season. So not even only in basketball, but in life, never get too high, never get too low. That’s what I live by.”

Near the end of the regular season home finale, Cowan walked off the court to a standing ovation. Turgeon waited for him on the sidelines, and the two embraced, with his coach lifting him up in a bear hug. 

Cowan allowed himself to smile. He had about 50 family members, friends, and family friends, at the arena to celebrate with him, many wearing a white long sleeve T-shirt with a photo of Cowan on the back. He later posed for selfies with fans and took time to soak in the celebration. After it was done, Cowan walked to the parking lot with his parents. He had his biggest supporters by his side and the doubters silenced on his phone.