On Christmas Day 2016, Duquesne women’s basketball director of operations Melissa Franko stopped by her office at the Palumbo Center. She was en route to Heinz Field for the Steelers-Ravens game.
She assumed the facility would be empty.
“I walked in, and there’s Kadri-Ann on the court. Shooting. With her mom,” Franko recalled.
“Kadri-Ann” is Dukes forward Kadri-Ann Lass. And her mother, Kai Lass, is a former national team player in Estonia and an All-Star in Finland.
Despite seven knee surgeries, Kai still plays competitive basketball in Estonia. At age 54, she participates in international “masters” (senior) tournaments.
“It’s a disease,” Kai said with a shrug of the shoulders. “You go until you can’t anymore.”
Very little gets in the way of basketball for Kai and Kadri-Ann. If you get to see your daughter only once or twice a year and you have to travel 4,300 miles to do it, eggnog and presents can wait if basketball is your bond.
In Kai’s case, even the pinnacle of the “The Singing Revolution,” which led to the restoration of Estonia’s independence, waited for basketball.
In August 1991, Russian tanks rolled into Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, in an attempt to take control of the city’s television tower. Kai watched it all unfold while training.
“I remember running on the hills,” Kai said. “I saw so many warships on the seas. And I didn’t understand what was happening. It wasn’t until after (the confrontation ended) we heard what the Russians were trying to do.”
Kadri-Ann attended the same Estonian sports academy as her mother — Audentese Spordigümnaasium, formerly called “TSIK.” Now a senior at Duquesne, Kadri-Ann is likely to follow in her mother’s footsteps and play well beyond her college years. She hopes to become the first player from her home country of Estonia to be drafted into the WNBA.
“Estonian basketball means so much to me,” the younger Lass said. “I just want to be a role model to the Estonian kids to show that it is possible (to make the WNBA).”
She said it also a “life goal” to help Estonian basketball ascend to the level that it enjoyed when her mother was her age. Kadri-Ann said it has dipped in international stature recently.
Lass would also be the first Duquesne player drafted by a WNBA team since Candace Futrell in 2004. At 6-foot-3, she will graduate with the school record for shot blocks. That number currently stands at 273. Her resume also features 1,340 career points.
When Lass was recruited to Duquesne, she had interest from other schools, such as South Florida and Texas Tech. But she felt Pittsburgh reminded her of Estonia, a place she describes as looking like “West Virginia without the mountains.”
“I needed snow,” Lass laughed.
Dukes coach Dan Burt said he has been in communication with the Connecticut Sun after every game.
“She’s a bigger kid that can shoot 3s,” Burt said. “She will know every play from every position. She’s not going to cause an ounce of trouble. She’d be a great bench player in the WNBA. She is the best post defender in our league. Not only can she defend bigger fives, she can switch out and defend athletic guards.”
Lass’ skills are enhanced by what her teammate Conor Richardson described as an “impeccable” memory which allows her to understand most offensive or defensive sets on the first try.
“She knows everything,” Richardson said. “She doesn’t forget a thing. She’s one of the smartest people I know.”
Despite being the tallest player on the Dukes’ roster, Lass may have inherited some of the offensive diversification in her game from her mother, who played most of her career as a guard at 5-foot-9.
“She started very small,” Kai Lass said of her daughter, who didn’t have a significant growth spurt until 10th grade. “But that’s good to start and learn.”
Kai said she never wanted to be a parent that over-coached Kadri-Ann.
“I gave her to the professionals. I left her alone. That’s not a good match. Plus she didn’t listen,” Kai said with a smile. “If a coach says the same thing, she’s OK. So I stopped teaching.”
Kai is in Pittsburgh to see her daughter play her final few college games. She was on hand for Lass’ senior night, when the Dukes beat St. Bonaventure, 80-64, in a game that featured seven blocked shots by her daughter. Their next game is Tuesday against Rhode Island in an Atlantic-10 tournament first-round home game. The Palumbo Center will also host the final three rounds of the tournament Friday through Sunday in the last basketball event before the building gets reconfigured.
Should Kadri-Ann play well in the postseason, a WNBA career could be calling. That’s an opportunity that came along a few years too late for her mother.
“It’s not easy as a parent to let her go (overseas),” Kai said. “But having played myself, if I had that opportunity, I think I would’ve done it, too.”
Kai says that even if Kadri-Ann does get drafted, she has no plans to move to the United States full time. After all, she still has a full-time job as an office administrator at a construction company. And she still has those masters tournaments to play.
Maybe when Kadri-Ann eventually retires, she’ll move back to Estonia to cheer on her mom.
That’s assuming Kai will still be playing.
And why shouldn’t we assume that?