Anthony Cowan Jr. cringed when the needle pierced into his skin on his 18th birthday. He felt a sharp pain as an “A,” in black ink, formed on the left side of his chest.
Cowan was in agony for another four hours. But when he got up from the leather chair to look in the Suitland tattoo parlor’s mirror, “AMBITIOUS” covered his chest, in all capital letters, except for the I’s.
Growing up, Cowan felt he never received the same admiration as other guards taller than his 6-foot frame. So since he was a freshman in high school, he wanted a tattoo to reflect his demeanor as he worked for respect. But his parents didn’t give him consent, so he waited until he reached adulthood.
ABOVE: Anthony Cowan separated himself at this university with the same work ethic that helped him gain national respect in high school.
On Oct. 7, 2015, the day he turned 18, Cowan drove 20 minutes in his Honda Accord from his Bowie home to the tattoo parlor after school.
“When we think about basketball being a game for the big guys, he sees it as it’s a good deal more than just stature,” said Valencia Skeeter, Cowan’s grandma. “It’s about heart, and it’s about ambition.”
While Cowan felt disrespected throughout his basketball career, his solution never changed. He relied on a dogged work ethic to prove wrong those who he believed doubted him.
As the Maryland men’s basketball team seeks its first-ever Big Ten tournament title this weekend, Cowan will play with the same drive that helped him become a star at St. John’s College High School and earn the No. 25 Terps’ starting point guard job as a freshman.
“You just don’t bet against him,” St. John’s coach Sean McAloon said. “He always figures out a way.”
ABOVE: Cowan Jr. and his father, Anthony Cowan Sr., after a D.C. Assault game. When he wasn’t playing on the court outside his house, Cowan was working out with his dad or playing with his AAU team. (Photo courtesy of @acowan20 on Twitter.)
When Cowan was about 6 years old, his family hosted a cookout for his AAU team. Cowan played pick-up with his teammates throughout the afternoon on the half-court cement slab behind his house. While his friends stopped for hamburgers, Cowan never left the court.
Cowan’s parents decided to get a basketball court instead of a swimming pool. They figured it would be put to better use. Sure enough, every day after school, Cowan Jr. went straight to the backyard.
Skeeter said Cowan gave “no mercy” when he played against his AAU teammates, cousins or two younger sisters. When it snowed, Cowan’s dad, Anthony Cowan Sr., motivated him to shovel the court so he could play again.
Cowan Jr. beat up the court so much his parents replaced it when he was 14.
“Anthony can go forever,” his mom, Traci Cowan, said. “He has a hard time just playing for fun.”
When Cowan Jr. wasn’t playing at his house or with his AAU team, D.C. Assault, he worked out with his dad at gyms around Prince George’s County. The pair developed a routine throughout their two-hour regimes.
Cowan Jr. worked on his ball handling, setting up cones on the court to dribble around, first with his right hand and then his left. Afterward, they worked on Cowan Jr.’s shooting form near the basket.
He also shot around the court at a fast pace while his dad rebounded for him. The duo’s final component was defensive drills, working on lateral quickness between cones.
“I can’t even tell you how many hours we spent in basketball gyms and on the road,” his mom said.
ABOVE: Cowan Jr. with his father, Anthony Cowan Sr. (left), and mother, Traci Cowan (right), at St. John’s College High School graduation. (Photo courtesy of Valencia Skeeter.)
Cowan Sr. coached Cowan Jr. on D.C. Assault when he was between 8 and 11 years old. Cowan Sr. had higher expectations for his son “because he knew what I was expecting.”
That caused arguments on their car rides back from games, many of which his mom had to break up. While Cowan Jr. didn’t appreciate it at the time, Traci Cowan said the experience developed his skillset, toughness and competitiveness.
Even now, Cowan Sr. drives 25 minutes to Xfinity Center about every other week to rebound for his son.
“It’s nothing any other coach can say to him that can shake him up,” Traci Cowan said. “He had the roughest coach there is.”
ABOVE: Cowan (middle) signing with the University of Maryland. Cowan led St. John’s to its first WCAC Championship since 2000 against powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School. (Photo courtesy of Valencia Skeeter.)
Skeeter is an African American Studies professor at the University of Maryland, so she would bring Cowan to her office in LeFrak Hall when he was growing up. As a 4 year old, Cowan become infatuated with a 20-year-old woman who worked in the building’s front office.
One day, a graduate student was sitting next to her when Cowan walked into the office. Cowan balled up his fist and told him, “[She] is my girlfriend. Don’t be talking to her.”
Cowan has never shied away from a challenge.
“When he had an opportunity to go against somebody who was perceived [as] the best player on another team or people talked about that person being better than Anthony,” McAloon said, “he would make it personal.”
ESPN ranked Cowan the 30th-best guard in the 2016 class, while Rivals listed him at 22nd. Most of the top players in the country played in Nike’s AAU circuit, while Cowan competed in the Adidas AAU circuit. That’s why he felt he didn’t receive proper national respect. Plus, most guards ranked above him exceeded 6 feet.
So, Cowan had extra incentive when he faced high-profile guards.
He loved playing Bishop O’Connell High School’s Melo Trimble, and Skeeter said her grandson gave his future Terps backcourt mate “the hell.”
There was also DeMatha Catholic High School’s Markelle Fultz, whom experts project to be a top-five selection in this summer’s NBA Draft, and Gonzaga College High School’s Chris Lykes, a University of Miami commit.
One of Cowan’s most memorable matchups came against Kobi Simmons of St. Francis High School in Alpharetta, Georgia. ESPN ranked Simmons the 20th-best player in his class.
When the McDonald’s All-American rosters were announced five days before the showdown, Simmons was among the 24 players selected. Cowan wasn’t.
Cowan, who said he was “very angry,” matched a career-high 40 points on seven 3-pointers in St. John’s win. Simmons scored 22.
His mom remembers fans and scouts in the crowd talking about Simmons’ prowess before the game, while some didn’t know Cowan. By the end of the contest, some spectators were calling the game “the Anthony Cowan show.”
Cowan also had extra incentive when St. John’s traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, in December 2014. Cowan and his parents were scheduled to meet with University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, but his dad said an assistant coach called Cowan and told him Pitino had a scheduling conflict with donors.
In the semifinal of the tournament, which featured another player Louisville was scouting, Cowan knocked down a 3-pointer to tie the contest with a few seconds remaining. St. John’s won the tournament, and Cowan earned MVP.
“After the game I was sitting there talking to the assistants, and I was just like, ‘The kid’s got guts,’” McAloon said. “He was never afraid of the moment.”
Cowan continues to take pride in going against higher ranked foes.
In Maryland’s win over Indiana on Jan. 10, Cowan stole the ball from freshman Hoosiers guard Curtis Jones, who ESPN ranked 22 spots higher than Cowan. Cowan ran down the court for an easy layup, and Indiana substituted for Jones at the next stoppage.
“Anthony looks at it and is like, ‘OK, we’re back playing against each other, and now I got something for you,’” his AAU coach, Zach Suber, remembered. “‘You got all the accolades, but I’m going to do this and win the game at a higher level now.’”
ABOVE: Cowan (second to left) and other St. John’s seniors celebrate Senior Day at the Washington school. After being the star of most of his teams growing up, Cowan came off the bench for the first time in his basketball career at St. John’s as a sophomore. (Photo courtesy of Valencia Skeeter.)
After Maryland’s victory over Michigan State on March 4, Cowan liked a tweet that read “listening to MD game on the radio anthony cowan is trash even on the radio like hit a shot go back to high school sheesh.”
Before and after some games, Cowan searches his name on Twitter to read negative comments about himself. It fires him up.
“In this area, there’s a lot of people who talk about the individual,” McAloon said. “His name was never mentioned toward the top early on. He took it and ran with it. He’s got an innate drive to be the best.”
Cowan’s dad shows him negative articles and rankings. When McAloon and Suber needed Cowan to regain his focus during a game, they’d tell him the opposing guard was outplaying him.
Cowan has always been competitive. He turned family bike rides into races, and he cried after losses until he was 10. But when he heard someone speak poorly about him, he played on another level.
“He’s a much better player,” his dad said, “when he has that chip on his shoulder.”
In the midst of Big Ten play, Cowan averaged six points per game through a five-game slump. Cowan Sr. sent stories to his son about how he had missed his past 11 three-pointers.
While Cowan Jr. usually sets aside time before and after practice to hoist extra shots, he spent more time in the gym leading up to Maryland’s ensuing bout with Ohio State on Feb. 11. Cowan finished with 19 points on 3-for-4 three-point shooting in the Terps’ victory.
Cowan, though, continues to hear criticism around campus.
After Maryland’s win over Oklahoma State on Dec. 3, Cowan Jr. was walking near Route 1 when a driver rolled down his window and screamed, “Make your free throws.”
“That type of stuff,” Cowan Jr. said, “ I laugh at.”
ABOVE: Whenever Cowan went against a guard who received more national attention than him, he made it personal. (Photo courtesy of Valencia Skeeter.)
While driving home from Cowan’s practice at St. John’s last February, Traci Cowan had to play an audio clip.
It was a YouTube video that predicted DeMatha would rout St. John’s in the upcoming WCAC Championship. She then told him about an article by The Washington Post that picked DeMatha to win.
“OK, that’s enough,” Cowan Jr. responded, nodding his head. “We’ll see.”
St. John’s defeated DeMatha, 71-57, behind his 21 points for the school’s first conference championship since 2000. The win embodied his conversion from a bench player his sophomore year to The Washington Post’s All-Met Player of the Year two seasons later.
“It was a redemption moment,” his mom said, “for the team, the school and for Anthony.”
The road to that championship started when Cowan made All-WCAC Third Team at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School his freshman season. But after the coach left in 2013, he transferred to St. John’s.
The Cadets started five seniors, so Cowan came off the bench as a sophomore for the first time in his basketball career.
He hated it.
“It was torture living with him,” his mom said. “He did not want to play behind anybody. During the games you could tell from his body language, he was pissed.”
Cowan’s AAU teammates rose in recruiting rankings while he didn’t have many opportunities to prove himself to scouts.
Cowan worked harder for playing time than he ever had. McAloon said Cowan came to St. John’s as a poor off-the-ball defender, and the coach benched him whenever he botched an assignment. Cowan learned to take advantage of his chances, and Terps coach Mark Turgeon now lauds him as one of his team’s best defenders.
“He never backed down,” McAloon said. “It was ultra-competitive, and it was fun to watch.”
When the seniors graduated, Cowan emerged as a star, making All-WCAC First Team his final two seasons. His family credited his sophomore campaign to furthering his drive and teaching him how to earn playing time at Maryland in his first year.
So, when the final buzzer blared on that upset WCAC Championship win, the one Cowan warned his mom would happen, St. John’s students stormed the American University court.
Cowan hugged the Under Armour game ball and spun away from the mob. He walked to the sidelines with a smile, reflecting on one of his proudest feats before taking photos and completing interviews with the ball in his arms.
Cowan still keeps that ball in his room.
ABOVE: Cowan calls a play from the top of the key during Maryland’s 83-69 loss to Iowa on Feb. 25, 2017 at Xfinity Center. (Sammi Silber/The Diamondback)
After committing to Maryland in January 2015, Cowan asked his mom almost every day until he left for College Park in May if she thought he would play.
“We must’ve had this conversation 100 times,” Traci Cowan said. “We weren’t able to live with him from that point on. He drove us nuts.”
The first time Maryland assistant coach Dustin Clark watched Cowan Jr. play at Good Counsel’s gym in December 2012, he noticed his tenacity. He attended many of Cowan’s high school games, and Turgeon promised he wouldn’t recruit another small, gritty guard. Cowan’s childhood favorite Georgetown, meanwhile, offered him, but his dad felt the program didn’t put much effort into recruitment because of his son’s short stature.
Still, Cowan had to adjust to the physicality in college. While defending forward L.G. Gill in a pick-up game at Xfinty Center last summer, the graduate transfer fell on Cowan’s face and gave him a bruise on his right eye. The athletic department was forced to give Cowan limited face time when filming the team’s pregame hype video.
But Clark said Cowan separated himself with his work ethic. He wanted to guard Trimble every practice. When the team met after a workout last summer, Maryland’s coaching staff emphasized the team needed to bring the same energy as Cowan Jr.
Cowan put up shots at Xfinity Center until midnight most nights. His mom just asked he didn’t go alone.
“Whether it’s in practice in August, in a Midnight Madness scrimmage or when the ball goes up against Michigan State,” Clark said, “his approach is the same.”
That’s helped him start every outing of his rookie campaign, lead the team in assists (116) and average the third-most points per game (10.4) on a squad that enters the Big Ten tournament as the No. 3-seed, poised for its third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Skeeter said Cowan plays with an “emotional high” in high-pressure contests, and he won’t have a shortage of inspirational sources. He can check his Twitter mentions, read articles his dad sends him or remind himself of the work ethic that led him to Maryland.
When he’s on the Verizon Center court this weekend with thousands of fans watching the biggest tournament of his life, Cowan can also look down toward the words that shield his chest.
“Any physical limitations that Anthony has are more than compensated by the competitor he is and the size of his heart,” Clark said. “He’s always brought the fight.”