NOTE: This story is scheduled to appear in the March issue of the Heart River Voice, of which I am a contributing sports feature writer.
After Austin Dufault scored an interview to be a coaching associate for the Los Angeles Lakers, it took him about 10 minutes to realize the job opportunity was with one of the most storied franchises in professional sports, not its minor-league affiliate.
The confusion, laughable now, was created by the job history of the people who connected Dufault and Lakers head video coordinator Will Scott. Not to mention the National Basketball Association team shares a nickname with the G-League’s South Bay Lakers.
“For about the first 10 or 15 minutes I was on the phone, I just assumed he (Scott) was with the South Bay Lakers,” Dufault said. “We were talking for a while and he kept saying, ‘Luke likes things this way.’ … I’m like, ‘Wait, are you talking about the Los Angeles Lakers?’”
Dufault, a Killdeer High School graduate, didn’t hesitate when Scott eventually asked him to join Lakers head coach Luke Walton’s staff as a coaching associate. He handles video preparation and some scouting duties alongside two other coaching associates.
“It’s a paid internship,” Dufault said, describing his position. “We work all of our practices and all of our home games. We’re on the court helping guys out with pre-game workouts. They throw me in drills a lot. I’m used as a defender a lot when guys are working out.”
LinkedIn to the Lakers
While he’s relishing in the opportunity and laughs about how it came about, Dufault was in no position to be choosy about jobs before he got the call from Scott.
He was a career crossroads last spring when he retired from playing professional basketball.
After spending four seasons as a starter for the University of Colorado and six seasons with seven teams in pro leagues throughout Europe and Japan, the former North Dakota Mr. Basketball winner was ready to be done playing the game. But he wasn’t sure if he was done with it completely.
“All I had known for the last 10 years was basketball,” Dufault said. “I was taking online classes — real estate, different stuff like that. I was kind of willing to do anything.”
Dufault had settled in the Los Angeles area to be with his then-girlfriend (now-fiancé) Lauren Sanford, and began working any connection he could to find a job. Most of those connections derived from the sport of basketball.
Sanford helped Dufault set up a LinkedIn account, hoping it would help him establish a professional profile. Using the social media site aimed at business professionals and job-seekers, Dufault linked up with a Colorado classmate who knew Scott.
“He introduced himself and explained how they have a program every year where they hire a few interns, and they had one position open,” Dufault said. “They were looking for a former player. He checked out my resume, and thought I’d be a good fit.”
So far, he has been.
Dufault occasionally gets pulled onto the court during practices and workouts. Because of his 6-foot-9 frame and professional playing experience, it’s no surprise when he’s called in to match up with Lakers superstar LeBron James or rising stars like Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. He said experiences like that are humbling and, at times, surreal. Such as when Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, the team’s president of basketball operations, comes to the practice facility.
“After a while, it becomes routine,” he said. “A lot of them are a lot more down to earth than people realize. They’re just hoopers.”
Final pro season
At this time last year, Dufault was at the tail end of a career that lasted longer than he or really anyone thought it would. After setting Colorado’s school record for most games played in a career (136) and helping the Buffaloes win their first Pac-12 Tournament championship as a senior, he seized an opportunity to continue playing professionally in the Czech Republic’s top league.
He spent two years there before moving on to play in Macedonia, and then France and Hungary. Prior to the 2017-18 season, Dufault flirted with retirement before he was given what he called a “really good deal” to play for Niigata Albirex BB of the Japan B.League.
“I knew it was going to be my last year,” Dufault said.
So he settled into a backup role on the team and tried to enjoy himself on and off the court.
“I absolutely loved Japan,” he said. “It was a great country to be in. Our staff, the management, they treated us great. The people in Japan are some of the friendliest people I have ever come across in the world.”
Dufault said while he loved playing basketball, coaching one day was always in the back of his mind.
Rich Dufault, who coached his son’s Killdeer Cowboys boys basketball teams, believes Austin had an innate basketball savvy that will serve him well if he indeed begins to make a career out of coaching.
“I think he’s where he needs to be,” Rich said. “I think it’s just the beginning of what he wants to get into.”
Though Dufault’s position with the Lakers is only set to last through the end of this season, he’s happy to be back in the U.S. and hopes to use the position to build his coaching resume and springboard a career, wherever that may take him.
“I felt like it was kind of meant to be,” he said.
And unlike his days playing overseas, he won’t be alone wherever the game takes him. After nine years together — much of it spent apart while he played ball overseas — Dufault and Sanford got engaged last December. He proposed during a hike in Yosemite National Park on one of his off days. They’re planning a summer wedding.
Until then, however, he’s part of the Lakers organization trying to return to the NBA playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
“Now that I have my foot in the door in the NBA, my goal is to stay,” Dufault said. “Not to say I wouldn’t coach in college. But my goal would be to do the best job I can with the Lakers the rest of the year.”