How Utah Jazz GM Justin Zanik found himself fighting for not just his team, but his life

SALT LAKE CITY– In the days before having cake for her husband’s 49th birthday and a flight to Honolulu for the opening of training camp, Gina Zanik made her stand. Her husband, Justin, the general manager of the Utah Jazz, had gone eight years without a physical exam and she vowed that he wouldn’t go eight more hours without making an appointment with the team doctor.

She told him he looked tired, thinner. The long gap in physicals felt like an anvil hanging over them. Justin countered with what he always did: There were the late-summer scouting trips to Japan, the Philippines and Australia; the trades; the games; the endless NBA front office calendar

“Why wouldn’t I look a little tired?” he responded.

Gina had been on him for years to get the physical, but this felt different. Justin knew the steely look in Gina’s gaze — and knew his resistance was futile. For 15 years, he has witnessed her fighting for her family’s health and lives.

Gina is the co-founder and executive director of the Rare and Undiagnosed Network (RUN), an advocacy group with a mission has been both harrowing and heroic. Gina has advocated to everyone from hospital administrators to insurance providers to legislatures for children like their own — Ava (16), Oskar (14) and Lucy (12) — who live with unanswered questions and torturous symptoms from autonomic neuropathy.

The condition is borne of nerve damage that affects automatic body functions like temperature control, blood pressure and digestion. Neither Gina — who contracted it giving birth to Ava in 2007 — nor the kids have any treatments. There’s no possibility of a cure. Sleep is the only thing that they’ve ever found that helps on this endless diagnostic odyssey.

Gina has spent the entirety of motherhood pursuing complex medical questions that have no answers, and yet her husband had been too stubborn to get some answers of his own.

There are advantages to leading an NBA team. One is access to immediate medical evaluation and near immediate results. Justin set the physical for Sept. 28, 2023, with Jazz team physician David Petron. The Zaniks were celebrating Justin’s birthday on Oct. 1, the eve of the training camp trip to Hawai’i, when the results landed with a call.

“You’re in kidney failure,” Dr. Petron told him.

That Justin had been diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) — that he had only 14% use of his kidney left — did not come out of nowhere. PKD, a cluster of cysts that grows on the kidney and ultimately renders it functionless, is a 50-50 proposition on getting passed down to a child, according to studies. And PKD had a deep history in the Zanik family — including Justin’s father, Phil, who will celebrate his 21st anniversary of a successful kidney transplant Friday.

“It was always in the back of mind,” Justin said. “The whole time, knowing there was this 50% chance. But I always felt fine. I was always self-diagnosing myself.”

In early October, it was clear: Justin needed a kidney transplant, and needed it soon to stave off dialysis. He needed to get into the National Kidney Registry and on the donor list. Then he needed to get family and friends to test to see if they were matches. But with so much kidney disease in his own lineage and the low odds of an acquaintance becoming a match, the best chance to move to the top of the transplant list came with finding a friend or acquaintance — a good Samaritan, it’s called — to become a living donor. Essentially, you get someone to donate a kidney to the national bank, and you get a much better chance to move up the list to get paired with a match.

Now, this set something into motion that made him wildly uncomfortable: Asking for help, asking for attention.

“I’m a fixer by nature,” Justin said. “My job with the Jazz, my role with my family — I mean, I was a [player] agent for 15 years. I fixed a lot of s—. I’m the one who’s supposed to help. I’m the one who’s supposed to take care of everything. I really didn’t know how to ask for help, but I had to get over it.

“I knew I had to get over it.”

To tell owner Ryan Smith, CEO Danny Ainge and coach Will Hardy made him queasy. These are the franchise’s four leaders and a uniquely collegial decision-making group. Smith has a guiding principle: All-in on the franchise. “But that also means,” Smith said, “we’re all-in on our people. I made sure Justin knew: Whatever he needed, we had his back.”

For every blockbuster Jazz trade Justin had engineered in the GM job — from Donovan Mitchell to Rudy Gobert — his preference has been to let the owner, CEO and coach be the public touchstones. If nothing else, the relentless nature of the GM grind and navigating the bewildering illnesses of his wife and three kids had long ago grounded him in service to everyone else.

Hardy watches Justin walk office to office in the Jazz’s practice facility, popping in and encouraging his staff to open up about whatever they need from his leadership. Gathering them together to share his kidney prognosis hit him hard. In Justin’s mind, there are 100 or so people for whom he’s responsible every day. As he told them the news, he could see what flashed on a lot of faces: If Justin goes, what happens to me?

“I’m going to be around,” Justin told them all. “You’re going to be OK.”

Little moved him more than the scores of staff who offered to get tested to see if they could become kidney donors and matches for him.

“He is always a connector of people,” Hardy said. “He’s the guy who lets everyone else be the star despite having the title of NBA GM. He’s one of the least insecure people I’ve met in a business full of insecure people. I think it’s been hard for him to share this with people, because he knows that there will be attention that comes with that — and he doesn’t want it.”

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