From TikTok to the NBA: The journey of a viral star amid a pandemic

Kevin Borba, Contributing Writer

Austin Mills is a magician of the highest order. His life, like many of ours, changed in 2020 because of the pandemic. Mills went from being an unknown basketball player, whose career was in jeopardy to a social media star with an opportunity he had been dreaming of his whole life. He somehow converged COVID-19, TikTok and the NBA together in his life, all for the good.

Photo from Austin Mills

Seriously, how else can a basketball player at an obscure National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) school parlay a video made out of lockdown-fueled boredom to the front door of an NBA team?

Mills’ path, however, began with failure. His poor academic record in high school left him little choice but to attend Webber International University, a small school in the NAIA, which is an organizing body for colleges too small — and generally poor — for the NCAA.

“College wasn’t a great experience, but it definitely was a big growth period,” said Mills, 26, of Clermont, Florida.

His tenure at Webber International was short-lived as his academic struggles persisted, ultimately costing himself his scholarship.

He earned a second chance, though, at Florida College, a Christian school in Temple Terrace, Florida.

“I actually did better,” Mills said. “I was more into school, because I knew I needed it to play.”

Adversity, however, continued to follow Mills. Through five games in his junior year, he was averaging 17 points, seven assists and seven rebounds per game while maintaining a 3.0 GPA. Then, Mills suffered injuries in a car crash. He broke his right elbow — his shooting elbow — and missed most of the season. The crash also left him with a fractured bone in his neck and knocked some of his teeth out. Despite this, he rejoined the team with 10 games left, but the injuries still affected him.

“I wasn’t ready, I was still hurt,” Mills said. “My first game back I couldn’t shoot a three because my elbow wasn’t fully healed. I literally could only shoot mid-range (jumpers) and layups.”

Approaching his senior year, Mills used the offseason to regain his strength, hoping his final year would be a memorable one. He had All-American aspirations, with hopes it would manifest to an overseas opportunity. However, devastation struck again. He became ineligible because he did not meet his school’s GPA requirement and was unable to finish out the season. He saw his college career end abruptly. 

“I left Florida College at winter break and was thinking I really screwed up now,” Mills said. “I didn’t finish school, and I was just heartbroken. I sulked for a few weeks.”

Mills was at an all-time low, with his passion for the game fading.

“It was really unfulfilling for me, it made me not enjoy basketball,” Mills said. “For me, that was the low point. I didn’t like school and now I don’t like basketball, so I didn’t enjoy any part of my day.” 

Nevertheless, Mills returned to basketball in hopes of finding much-needed redemption. He attended a camp for international scouts and earned a contract with a Spanish team. He packed his bags and booked a plane ticket. He was all set to move to Spain.

However, misfortune struck again.

“Three days before I was supposed to leave, it fell through and they had signed another player,” Mills said.

Photo from Austin Mills

Mills was not only heartbroken, but also embarrassed.

“Now I’m really down, this sucked,” Mills said. ”There was a going-away party for me, and a lot of people were supposed to attend, and now I am not going.”

Despondency gripped Mills, as basketball kept its distance no matter his efforts. His girlfriend, Morgan Kerns, paid the bills, but Mills felt the burden of his situation, so he looked for work.

Yet bad luck persisted. COVID-19 made it difficult to find work, but when he did, it was as a receptionist at a gym in Orlando, Florida.

Despite its negatives, Mills found a positive light through the pandemic.

“(The pandemic) 100% factored into me getting TikTok,” Mills said. “I never thought I would even download the app.”

Mills was hesitant to post as comment sections can be ruthless. Little did Mills know, he would gain over thousands of followers within the first week of posting a video of himself playing basketball. He currently has 182,000 followers, and TikTok has gotten him knocking on the NBA’s door. 

After so much failure, Mills felt that he finally found some success.

In a post, Mills unexpectedly noticed a comment from the Dallas Mavericks. He jokingly made a video in response, inquiring what he would have to do for a G-League try out with the Texas Legends, the Mavericks’ minor league team. 

“100,000 likes,” the Legends said in a reply.

Mills barely had 10,000 followers at the time, so the 100,000 mark was certainly a steep one. He posted a video hoping to reach the mark but couldn’t do so in the allotted time. However, after he reposted the same video a few times, he finally reached his goal.

He garnered over 130,000 likes, but not in time for the Mavericks. It was, however, in time for the Sacramento Kings. The Kings TikTok account messaged him saying that Mills had secured a tryout for the Stockton Kings, their G-League team.

“One door closes and another one opens,” Mills said. “I know people will say I wouldn’t have a tryout if it wasn’t for social media, but I’m going to take this opportunity regardless.”

Mills and the Kings had been in constant contact to determine when the tryout would be held, as issues with COVID-19 added many complications. On Nov. 9, the Kings emailed giving him a date. He rejoiced with his followers, as he believed his time had finally come. 

However, things changed three days after receiving the email.

“Just received word from the Kings organization, there will not be a tryout for me,” Mills said in a TikTok post addressing the tryout. “Due to COVID, the league has decided that it will take place in a bubble. They don’t want to take any chances with tryouts or external factors.”

The Kings told Mills that they will stay in touch, but Mills has found redemption through Tik Tok. 

I’m in a great spot, I love making content and inspiring

— Austin Mills

“I’m in a great spot, I love making content and inspiring. Mills said in a TikTok post. “ Nothing changes, I’m going to make my way up the east coast and try out for multiple teams. I can accept failure, I learn, I move on. I will continue this road until it is all said and done.”