April 15, 2024

Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik to have kidney transplant

SALT LAKE CITY — Justin Zanik didn’t think anything of the fatigue.

After all, he’s the general manager for the Utah Jazz, and he had just returned to Utah from a grueling offseason schedule that included following much of his roster to the FIBA World Cup in Asia. The fatigue was to be expected.

But when it persisted, his wife, Gina, made him go and get a physical. At first, Zanik, 49, balked. The Jazz were about to start a new season, and running a team is an endeavor that never ends. I’ll get to it later, Zanik said. I’ll be fine, he told himself.

His rationale: I have more important things to do.

Yet, Zanik and his wife knew his health had to take priority. It was bigger than basketball, especially since the fatigue had become constant.

So, Zanik went to get that physical. Then he underwent additional testing. The results were alarming.

One of Zanik’s kidneys was functioning at 14 percent, technically putting him in kidney failure. The official diagnosis: Polycystic Kidney Disease, a genetic disorder that Zanik said runs in the family, beginning with his father, Phil, who also had a transplant 20 years ago.

Zanik’s story, however, is trending toward a happy ending. On Tuesday morning, he will receive a transplant, and his prognosis for recovery is excellent. He is expected to be out for three to six weeks but could leave the University of Utah Hospital within three days.

A transplant is a serious medical procedure, and anything as serious as a transplant brings your mortality into focus. At the same time, it forces you to focus on the things that really matter. But, if we are talking about the best-case scenario, this has to be extremely close to it. Zanik’s recovery is expected to be 100 percent because, besides the kidney, he was in excellent health overall, and his process for receiving a transplant became easier.

Zanik was determined to be resilient. He hunkered down and spent time educating himself on what the disease meant for him and his family. He refused to feel sorry for himself.

But his biggest issue was realizing he needed help from others. When you’re an NBA general manager, taming the fire that burns to work is a difficult thing. Zanik is the one who usually makes decisions. He’s the one who asks the questions and analyzes others.

When you have to be on the other side of the table, it isn’t so simple. Doing that from a mental perspective took some work.

Gina and Justin Zanik. (Photo courtesy of the Zanik family)

“Feeling the need to be fixed and to ask for help was hard,” Zanik told reporters Saturday from the Jazz’s practice facility. “But I had to educate myself on what PKD meant. You ask yourself all kinds of questions. What if I drank more water? What if I hadn’t smoked?

“But the reality is this: It was a matter of when, and not if, for me. The disease is genetic, so that meant I was going to inherit it. What I want to say is that the support and the love that I’ve gotten from the Jazz and from the University of Utah has been unbelievable. I’ll be back running the team and on the phone and running the (upcoming NBA) draft before you know it. And I’m excited about it.”

According to pkdcure.org, PKD is usually passed from a parent to a child and affects about one in 500 adults. PKD causes uncontrolled cysts in the affected kidney, which is what leads to kidney failure. A typical kidney is roughly the size of a human fist, but a kidney affected by PKD can be much larger, according to Dr. Michael Zimmerman, who is a surgeon for University of Utah Health specializing in kidney, liver and pancreas transplantation, though he is not performing Zanik’s procedure. According to Zimmerman, the general trend following diagnosis is a general reduction in renal function that manifests itself over time. Severe cramping and nausea are other symptoms, among a wide range of others that can pop up over time.

Because Zanik has been otherwise healthy, his day-to-day life has been largely unaffected. Indeed, this season, he ran the Jazz without much, if any, physical effect. But, still, there has been some good fortune involved. According to the National Kidney Foundation, the average wait time for a kidney transplant can range from three to five years. Zanik was diagnosed with PKD on Oct. 1, 2023. His transplant will occur at just past the six-month mark.

“It got to the point where you basically have two options,” Zanik said. “You can go on dialysis, or you can get a transplant. In this case, a transplant became the best course of action.”

After extensive research, Zanik sought to enroll in the National Kidney Registry. Having an irreversible condition that requires dialysis is a baseline for qualifying for the program. But Zanik’s overall good health put him in a good spot for quick donation because it becomes easier to match for a transplant if you don’t have any other major health issues.

On Zanik’s behalf, 20 people, friends and family, went and tested for the possibility of donating. Jeff Hart, whose wife has been best friends with Zanik’s wife since childhood, will donate his kidney to Zanik.

On Saturday morning, Zanik was emotional. Wearing a gray hoodie and a black hat, his voice cracked, and a tear welled in his left eye. It’s one thing to generally know that people care for you. It’s a theory that all of us should want to carry in our everyday lives. It’s another for others to be there for you in a time of need.

Over the past six months, through the exhaustive testing, the exhaustive worry and the ambiguity of what would come next, the people close to Zanik stepped up for him. For that, he will forever be grateful.

“It’s still hard for me to talk about this,” Zanik said. “Because it’s humbling. Having motivated donors, all of that stuff has to work together. At the beginning, there are some doubts. I wondered if I could keep doing my job and do dialysis.

“But I never had the desire to not be doing what I’m doing. And fortunately, I haven’t been in position to where I had to make that choice.”

As much as Zanik wants to get back to work, he knows that his recovery has to be as thorough as possible because health comes first. In the face of a big challenge, Zanik is eager to conquer the issue. Then, Zanik is eager to go on living a healthy life.

“People have asked if I’m nervous, and I’m not,” Zanik said. “I’m not nervous because I know it has to be done. I’m just glad that we recognized there was a problem and that there is a solution.”

(Top photo of Justin Zanik: Courtesy of Utah Jazz)