In his first game at the Roundball Classic, Cowan drove toward the basket for a layup and collided with an opposing player. He fell to the court, hitting his head. A local news article from that day described the scene, noting how Cowan “seemed to convulse for a couple of seconds.”
Cowan’s father headed onto the court and toward his oldest child, who tried to speak to a referee and his coaches: “I’m … I’m … I’m …” Anthony Cowan remembered his son saying. That’s when worry spread, but then the 15-year-old calmed down and took a deep breath.
“I’m okay,” he said.
According to the Post and Courier, medical personnel placed Cowan in a neck brace and loaded him onto a backboard, and he rode an ambulance to the hospital for further assessment. Cowan insisted he felt fine, ready to play again. Doctors asked whether he felt nauseous. Cowan said he didn’t. But just before his family left, Cowan vomited, and the doctor said he could not play.
Diagnosed with a concussion, Cowan missed the next two games of the tournament and one more after returning home, but that remains his only significant absence since he began high school in 2012. (He also missed one AAU game at a tournament heading into his senior year because of a sore ankle.)
Those four games are the only ones the point guard has missed in the past eight years. Cowan has started all 126 games since arriving in College Park and is set to break the school record, passing Keith Booth, with his 127th consecutive start Wednesday at Minnesota. Cowan’s durability has become as impressive as the 1,819 points he has scored during his four-year career with the Terrapins.
Starting 126 straight games requires “a lot of stretching,” Cowan said before taking a more serious tone. “Just knowing that your teammates need you on the court. So whatever you’ve got going on, just trying to put it aside for whatever time it may be. At the end of the day, you’re here to try to help your team and your university win games.”
Leading the No. 9 Terps (22-5, 12-4 Big Ten) as they get closer to the regular season conference title, Cowan has amassed 4,247 career minutes of game time and climbed numerous school lists. He is eighth in points, fourth in minutes and fifth in assists (561). By convincing himself he was underrated out of high school and still underappreciated nationally, Cowan has thrived.
“It’s about 1,000 percent more mental,” said Sean McAloon, the coach at IMG Academy in Florida who previously coached St. John’s College High in the District, where Cowan did not miss a game over three seasons. “Anyone that tells you it’s just physical is crazy. It is such a mental game in every aspect of it, and he is elite in that sense.”
Cowan transferred to St. John’s before his sophomore year; he came off the bench that season and then started the next two. With the Cadets, Cowan played through sickness and minor injury. But holding Cowan out never felt like an option because “he’d give you that look,” McAloon said, then walk onto the court.
It’s hard to know what ailments Cowan has played through during his college career because, as his dad said, “He won’t tell you.” Cowan maintains that he is ready to play, just as he did that night at a hospital in South Carolina.
In high school, Cowan usually only came out of the game if he missed a defensive assignment and McAloon wanted to talk with him for a few minutes. Back then, Cowan hated leaving games. And he still does.
He also wants the ball in critical moments. In December, Cowan made the tying three-pointer with 19 seconds to go against visiting Illinois, then added the winning free throw. This month at Michigan State, he scored the game’s final 11 points to lead a Maryland comeback.
Nothing bothers Cowan like watching from the bench. Everything about that runs counter to his personality. Cowan fouled out for the third time in his career Sunday at Ohio State. The Terps played nearly the final four minutes without their leader, and their rally fell short.
“That's the time when I'm comfortable,” Cowan said. “That's when I really start getting going.”
Missing those moments is rare for Cowan. But his longevity and records like the one he is in line to break Wednesday can be touchy topics. Cowan’s dad knocked on his dining room table when he said the only injury his son has dealt with in college was a lingering bruise on his shooting hand. Coach Mark Turgeon, known to be superstitious, sometimes sighs at questions referencing good fortune. He bent over to knock on the court Tuesday when he mentioned Cowan’s good health. Luck certainly plays a role, but Maryland’s staff — from the coaches to the strength staff and medical staff — deserve credit, too.
Turgeon didn’t expect Cowan to start as a freshman, but that changed quickly. Cowan’s dad remembers his son asking him and his wife if they thought he would play — not start, just play — when he got to College Park. Cowan’s dad reminded his son to focus on defense and to make his minutes count. Looking back on whether he thought he would start that season, Cowan confidently said, “Why wouldn’t I?”
In the 2016-17 season opener against American, Cowan started. He played 27 minutes and scored 12 points as his marathon of a career began.
“He was ready for it,” Turgeon said. “And he wanted it.”
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