Catherine Kwon

Fifteen minutes into my first face-to-face conversation with Trey Phills ’19 in three years, we started talking about a washing machine in Denmark.

I met Phills as a first year covering Yale’s men’s basketball team for the News. During that 2018–19 season, he was a starter whose relentless perimeter defense and soft-spoken senior leadership helped guide the Elis to an Ivy League championship and a March Madness berth. In the three years since, Phills has come to juggle three unique careers — a professional basketball player, a TikTok creator and the co-founder of an athletic facility reservation startup called Gymble. He played a stint in the NBA Summer League and signed a contract that took him to the Denmark BasketLigaen last fall as his TikTok audience, of more than 800,000 followers now, grew.

When we reconnected last month, I had a lot I could ask Phills, who wore a gray Yale hoodie and an infectious smile as Zoom transported him to my computer screen in New Haven. The now 25-year-old has turned the pandemic into a period of career advancement and self-discovery, and I wanted to hear about everything that has kept him busy since his Yale Commencement.

But his washing machine stood out among topics on my to-ask list. When Phills moved to Denmark last fall to play the season for Randers Cimbria, he found that the washer in his apartment was hilariously misplaced. Like an overturned tractor-trailer on the highway, the machine jutted out from the counter, obstructing the narrow lane of open space in Phills’ kitchen. This American Ninja Warrior obstacle would later go on to serve as the narrative framing device in a TikTok video with 1.3 million views that Phills published on Nov. 2, 2021, a day after tearing his Achilles’ tendon.

“It’s like the lowest you can go in sports,” Phills said of the injury, which ended his season in BasketLigaen after five games and sent him on a nine to 12-month-long recovery process. Hobbling around on crutches for two months also elevated the nagging inconvenience of his washer to an even greater impediment as Phills struggled to move around his kitchen. But in the span of this 50-second TikTok, Phills turns the appliance “that couldn’t have picked a worse place to be in” into “a perfectly-placed” object of his gratitude. By the end of the video, he sits on top of the machine, his crutches propped against the adjacent counter, swinging his legs lightly as he pours a container of “maelk” into a bowl of cereal. An inner calm seems to ground him as he glances out the window.

The shift in his mindset transpires so quickly in the TikTok — the response to a setback so impossibly and impressively optimistic — that I couldn’t help but push back. Does he always believe what he films? Phills said the answer is “absolutely.”

“No matter what happens, I am here, and I have no problem telling people that because I know I’m not going to be on the washing machine forever,” Phills said.

“And now I can walk,” he added to prove the point, having returned to America in mid-January to continue with his Achilles rehab.

It took him some time to develop this “I’ll-be-good” attitude, Phills admitted, but broadcasting painful moments has ballooned his following on TikTok. As Phills lets the world grow acquainted with the full scope of his story, his personal history and career journey have resonated with millions of pandemic-era viewers. What keeps those viewers around is Phills’ own mile-high vantage point, a frame of mind helping him weather the turbulence of his professional basketball career and the highs and lows of life as a young adult.

Trey Phills ’19, a former guard on the Yale men’s basketball team, speaks to the media after Yale’s Ivy Madness championship win over Harvard in March 2019. (Yale Daily News)

Opening Up

Before talking about his terribly, perfectly placed washing machine, Phills thought back to 2019, when Chicago’s G League affiliate, the Windy City Bulls, waived him on Halloween. The franchise cut him just five days after the team selected him in the fourth round of the 2019 NBA G League Draft. The Bulls purchased him a one-way flight when they cut him, but Phills was too ashamed to return home to Charlotte, where so many friends and family had congratulated him on getting drafted some 120 hours earlier. He instead flew to a cousin’s in Dallas, avoiding social media while he continued to train. 

“Not only am I in a bad situation,” Phillis said of being waived. “I’m not even telling people.”

While hundreds of thousands of TikTok users now hear about his Achilles injury and ongoing recovery, Phills was often private when mishaps arose earlier in his basketball career. During his final two games in a Yale jersey, a foot injury dealt him a different wound he chose not to pry open for public consumption. After the team’s most joyous moment that season, when the Elis beat Harvard in the Ivy Madness final to secure them a spot in the NCAA Tournament, I saw Phills walk through the makeshift media workroom and exit the back of Payne Whitney Gymnasium on crutches. A left-foot injury he suffered in that win should have kept him off the court for three months, he later explained in a TikTok video posted on the two-year anniversary of Yale’s first-round game. But Phills, who ended up playing only 16 minutes in the team’s five-point loss to No. 3 Louisiana State University, was intent on starting the final contest of his college career — an opportunity to showcase his game to professional scouts and a national audience. As a first-year beat reporter that season, I approached Phills in the locker room during the NCAA Tournament’s open practice day at Yale’s site in Jacksonville, Florida to ask if he would share what happened with his foot. He told me didn’t want to make it a story. 

Phills helped Yale punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament in 2019, but only played 16 minutes in March Madness because of an injury to his foot. (Yale Daily News)

“I’ve learned as a pro athlete how to separate my ups and downs in my career from who I am as a person,” Phills said looking back on the injury. “Back then when you asked me that, basketball was tied more to my identity and happiness. So it hurt not being able to play [fully healthy] in March. It sucked.”

As a professional, fighting for a spot in the G League helped him treat basketball like a job that he could disassociate from his self-worth. 

“Basketball is basketball,” Phills said of that evolving relationship. “If I’m myself and I’m vulnerable, I can cope with the lows a lot better than I could back then.”

But even when he was not transparent about every pitfall, Phills was still not fully closed off to the world. From a young age, a very personal element of his life was public the moment it happened. His father — Bobby Phills, an NBA player for the Charlotte Hornets — died in a car accident leaving a pregame shootaround in early 2000. Trey, whose full name is Bobby Ray Phills III, was three at the time, and his mother Kendall raised him and his younger sister Kerstie, who is currently a graduate-student guard at Florida Gulf Coast. In honor of their father, both children have sported No. 13 for much of their careers. Trey’s father grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where LSU is also based, and that connection added an extra spotlight on Phills at March Madness. The same morning I asked Trey about his foot injury, reporters asked Yale’s head coach James Jones questions about Phills too. Speaking in a press conference room tucked among the concrete maze of hallways in the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, Jones told them, “He’s the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry. I don’t know if you have any daughters, but if you do, try to get his number.”

The attention on any March Madness matchup is immense — 691,000 viewers watched that Thursday Yale-LSU game on truTV, according to television viewership statistics. But today, the reach of Phills’ online presence is even greater, and he’s not just a part of the story. He’s the very narrative itself.

Phills has participated in sponsored TikTok campaigns with Gatorade, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Planters, Spotify and Under Armour, among others. (Courtesy of Trey Phills)

Exploring Content Creation

Phills’ TikTok page has accumulated over 21 million likes to date. The content he produces now is largely inspirational and autobiographical, videos that feature snippets of his past and glimpses into his current life. There are both positive moments, like footage of his daily routine with the Houston Rockets during the 2021 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, and gloomier ones, like shots of his surgical boot and the early days of his Achilles recovery. All of them are hopeful — Phills tags many of his recent videos #motivation. A smattering of lighthearted basketball content — “NBA Free Agency updates be like:” — which are now often sponsored by brands that market in the sports industry, accompanies the personal narratives. 

Edvin Dapcevic, a team lead on TikTok’s media and entertainment vertical who first saw Phills in his “For You” feed, helped invite Phills to make his first sponsored content on behalf of Gatorade. A former Division III college basketball player at Concordia University in Milwaukee, Dapcevic works with brands who advertise on the TikTok platform and loops in creators to participate in campaigns. He said TikTok’s Creator Solutions team also facilitates Phills’ involvement in other sports campaigns, which in addition to Gatorade include videos for Dick’s Sporting Goods, the nut brand Planters, Spotify and Under Armour, among others. Last February, Phills became an official TikTok partner when he was selected to join a cohort of 100 creators in the TikTok for Black Creatives incubator program.

When I told Phills I had scrolled down far enough to watch the first video available on his feed, dated March 14, 2020, he let out a lighthearted groan.

“Pandemic Trey on TikTok was a dream, right? It felt so fake,” Phills said. “It’s always embarrassing when people are like, ‘I’ve watched your first 10 TikToks,’ he added, raising the pitch of his voice. 

Last February, Phills became an official TikTok partner when he was selected to join a cohort of 100 creators in the TikTok for Black Creatives incubator program. (Courtesy of Trey Phills)

While Phills’ first actual TikToks are now archived, the earliest surviving videos on his profile date back to the early moments of America’s COVID-19 lockdown, three days after Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert’s positive test shut down the NBA. At the time, Phills had been playing in the NBA G League, the NBA’s minor league, having recently been signed by the Greensboro Swarm, the Charlotte Hornets’ development team, in late February. He’d only played four games, averaging 12.5 minutes off the bench, before the Swarm’s season abruptly ended.

With no games to play and little else to do at home, Phills decided to apply his competitive nature to TikTok and made a bet with a friend to see who could be the first to score a million-view video. A self-described “nerd at heart,” Phills’ interest in the algorithm and the analytics — e.g. “What are the metrics that produce virality?” — helped him take off. 

His early hits featured phone stunts, dunk challenges and a 9.5-million-view rendition of the CatchTheSplashChallenge, where Phills timed two deep shots on his backyard court to music. He created a threevideo saga imitating the pregame runway stroll of high-fashion NBA players, who had been off the court for about a month at that point. Six or seven weeks into the pandemic, Phills’ follower count had crossed 100,000. Nagging at him was the understanding that people weren’t following Trey Phills for Trey Phills. They just liked his content. When he realized he had a platform, Phills said he wanted to do more with his content. “I’m not doing these trick shots when the pandemic’s over,” he thought.

Beginning his shift towards more personal and authentic content, Phills reached out to Mady Dewey for a brand consultation in early April 2020. Dewey, a former Google and YouTube employee, was making her own TikToks with tips targeted at content creators when Phills came across one of her videos in his feed. Dewey could tell Phills was a strong storyteller; the traction his early content generated was significant.

With no games to play and little else to do at home in spring 2020, Phills, pictured above in 2019, decided to apply his competitive nature to TikTok. (William McCormack, Contributing Photographer)

“We were able to pick out different pieces of his life that he wanted to talk about,” Dewey said. The goal: to allow Phills to open up and be “more of a personal trainer versus just making short videos about random stories that he comes up with.”

“Working with creators, you have to understand that [these are] some of people’s biggest insecurities coming out, things that they struggled with in the past,” Dewey added. “And that makes really good content, but they have to be fully confident and ready to put that out to the world.”

Phills’ first video after talking with Dewey marked a new start for his feed, and they started opening Phills up to the world. “Kind of like peeling back layers of an onion,” Dewey said. He debuted his updated style with the story of his basketball journey, a personally-narrated, 60-second montage of photos and videos from childhood and high school through his time at Yale and his pre-pandemic action with the Greensboro Swarm.

“Sadly, I wasn’t comfortable being open until I was back up,” Phills said. “But that’s not healthy. You can’t just wait until you’re up to be yourself. It took me a little while to understand that.”

Phills, pictured above warming up for a game at Penn in 2019, now has more than 800,000 followers on TikTok. (William McCormack, Contributing Photographer)

A New Niche for Basketball Content

Being able to watch Phills work through hardship might be one of the main reasons his audience remains engaged. Rey Crossman, who coached Phills as the Yale program’s director of basketball operations from 2018-20, pointed out that Phills’ path to college basketball is somewhat relatable to the majority of high-school athletes looking to play collegiately. Compared to high-school basketball players with the largest social footprints today, Phills was a relatively underrecruited prospect without any NBA Draft buzz or offers from powerhouse, power-conference schools.

In recent years, basketball-loving American teenagers have consumed short-form highlight bursts from social media superstars like Zion Williamson — 4.8 million Instagram followers — LaMelo Ball — 8 million — and high-schooler Mikey Williams — 3.6 million. Their screen-shattering dunks and superhuman feats represent the pinnacle of individual basketball achievement — the highest seconds of success stories — and have helped power the growth of basketball media companies like Overtime and On TikTok, Phills’ content adds a twist to the genre, using the same medium with slightly longer videos, a personal focus and an emphasis on the bumps that set up successes. 

The result is more accessible, honest content that is both inspiring and entertaining. Dewey said that most creators’ followers segment themselves into one of those categories, but Phills appeals for both reasons. When Williamson had committed to Duke and was bound for the top echelon of the NBA Draft, users could “oooh” and “ahhh” at his latest windmill dunk. Williamson’s clips are very fun to watch but not directly applicable to most viewers. Phills complements that existing super-highlight strain of content: When young basketball-playing TikTok users listen to Phills overview his college career and his attempts at making the pros, they can at least envision a similar future for themselves and get to work, trusting that commitment, drive and some skill will move them forward.

Phills’ professional basketball career has included time with the Greensboro Swarm, left, and a stint in the NBA Summer League with the Houston Rockets, right. (Courtesy of Trey Phills)

“There’s only a select few that are going to be five-star, four-star, so big and so fast and so skilled that they’re just more elite than everybody,” said Crossman, who is now a full-time basketball trainer working with younger athletes in the greater Charlotte area. “[Phills’] story is more so being consistent, having your blockers on, not being worried about what the person next to you is doing, focusing on yourself and what you’re doing. That’s what the kids need to hear more than anything.”

In fall 2020, Crossman, who also briefly worked with Phills on strength and conditioning in North Carolina, brought the former Yale guard to speak to eighth-grade players at a defensive skills clinic. Phills, who talked to them about playing defense with effort and intensity, a role that he owned at Yale, shared his basketball experience in person instead of via smartphone. With Crossman on his left, Phills lectured from a seat up against the wall as the small group of middle-schoolers stood and listened attentively in a semicircle. A sportwide bias for scoring and shooters exists in basketball — “Because after every single game that every kid has ever played, the first question they’re asked [is] ‘how many points did you score?’” Yale coach Jones said at March Madness in 2019 — but Phills made defense his specialty. “I’m just gonna embrace my role and see where it takes me,” Phills told the younger players at Crossman’s clinic. “And it ended up working out: I’m in the G League.” His speech would have seamlessly fit in with the rest of his TikTok feed — and it soon did, with a 40-second fragment of the conversation that got 315,000 plays. Phills in-person was Phills on-screen.

Phills said he thinks his main viewership demographic, mostly teenagers aged 12 to 18, has not changed over time, but those younger players have come to inform his TikTok “why.” He hopes to be the figure a younger Phills would have appreciated seeing when he was working towards college offers and dreaming of a professional career: the athlete who cares about education and life outside of basketball. 

Dapcevic, the team lead on TikTok’s media and entertainment vertical, suggested Phills’ appeal also spans outside sports. “I really think [his audience is] anyone looking for growth — people that have a growth mindset looking to better themselves,” he said.

Phills, right, embraces former teammate and Yale forward Jordan Bruner ’20 after Yale won the Ivy League’s conference tournament championship in 2019. (Yale Daily News)

Embracing the Ride

For the time being, Phills’ Achilles tear has temporarily derailed his playing career — not so unlike the pandemic in March 2020 — but as he recovers, Phills has more time to devote to work as a creator and to building Gymble, his startup. The concept for the company emerged from his own experience as a professional basketball player in fall 2019. Once he returned home to Charlotte after getting cut by the Windy City Bulls, he and his trainer struggled to secure consistent access to a basketball court. Phills wanted software to make the process earlier. Gymble seeks to fill that gap, with an app that allows users in a community to find and reserve local athletic facilities.

Phills co-founded the company with a former high school classmate at Charlotte Christian School, Akim Mitchell and Mitchell’s basketball teammate at Hampton University, Devon Oakley. The three founders, along with family and friends — including Houston Rockets head coach Stephen Silas and former Yale guard Miye Oni, a 2019 NBA Draft pick — have put forth an initial $50,000 in funding. The app, which conducted a soft launch in June 2021, currently has more than 60 athletic facility business partners in Charlotte and Atlanta on the platform. The team is planning an official nationwide launch in March 2022.

Phills’ specific role at the company is chief marketing officer, a role that connects directly to the skill set that has helped mushroom his TikTok following. There are other synergies that could connect the two pursuits. Phills cited the example of Emma Chamberlain, a YouTube personality who now owns an eponymous coffee brand. “She loves to drink coffee the same way I love sports,” he said, noting that her personal platform doubles as a marketing tool. Phills realizes that his own TikTok following — and the transparent glimpses into life as a tech founder balancing fundraising and growth that he can add to his feed — can drive interest in Gymble: “For me, I am going to continue to tell my story on TikTok and social media channels. I’m a young, Black athlete who is starting a business. I will continue to tell the story and be transparent on how to balance things, how to get into the tech industry. I learned a lot, and I’m gonna share all that to my ‘why,’ people I wish I would have had when I was younger,” Phills said.

Phills is now devoting more time to his startup Gymble. On the right, Phills, right, is pictured with co-founders Akim Mitchell, left, and Devon Oakley, sitting. (Courtesy of Trey Phills)

Being public about his progress with Gymble also relates to the young viewers that Phills sees as his core audience. “Kids out there, they think they want to go to the league until they see themselves able to do something else,” he added. “You can’t become what you don’t see … Kids just want to emulate what they see, so I’m just showing them what else they can be in addition to playing a sport.”

As he and his co-founders get set for Gymble’s full launch in March 2022, Phills’ most immediate basketball story is still one of incremental progress and a long, patient recovery from his Achilles tear.

Looking back, Phills’ growth on TikTok seems directly tied to the pandemic. COVID-19 was what allowed him to commit time to the platform during the infancy of his content creation. Lockdowns and a complete reliance on online life also gave him a captive audience. TikTok’s monthly active users in the U.S. more than doubled between October 2019 and June 2020. As the state of the pandemic developed, what began as a need for distraction and entertainment — trick shots, NBA fashion spoofs, funny stories — evolved into a deeper search for inspiration. Phills’ content matured to fill a need for those seeking purpose, support and perspective — an elusive quality that he, at just 25 years old, has found and shared over the past couple years.

In a TikTok about his last night in Denmark, Phills eases himself off his crutches and crumples onto the top of his bed, laying on his back as he reflects on his basketball career in 2021. We hear his thoughts, captioned on the screen over basketball footage: “I reached unbelievable highs and I thought, ‘You know what? I’ll be good. Things might just work out after all.’ Months later I’m at unbelievable lows, and you know what? I think I’ll be good. I’ll be good because I’m embracing the ride. I’ll be good because I know what I do doesn’t define who I am.”

William McCormack covered Yale men's basketball from 2018 to 2022. He served as Sports Editor and Digital Editor for the Managing Board of 2022 and also reported on the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he was in Timothy Dwight College.