On the day his oldest daughter turned 6, Justin Zanik flew out of Salt Lake City hoping he had just convinced the Utah Jazz to make a significant offseason addition. The agent had worked with top Jazz executives Dennis Lindsey and Kevin O’Connor before, promoting players and negotiating contracts.
This time, though, it was different. This time Zanik was the free agent.
A closer look
Assistant general manager, Utah Jazz
Age » 39
Past » NBPA certified agent for ASM Sports; agent at Mark Bartelstein & Associates
Education » Northwestern University, economics
Family » Wife Gina, daughters Ava (6) and Lucy (2), son Oskar (4)
Of note » First met agent Mark Bartelstein when he coached Josh Bartelstein’s sixth-grade team as a college job. Josh Bartelstein went on to play at Michigan, where he was a teammate of Jazz point guard Trey Burke.
Quotable » “I had always privately thought about being on the other side and working for an organization. I’d never advertised it. But then Dennis [Lindsey] called. The Utah Jazz are one of the top five organizations that I respect.”
A 39-year-old Northwestern graduate with an economics degree, Zanik had described the position in front of him to his wife, Gina, as his "dream job." For him, switching sides and joining an NBA franchise, one he deeply admired, would be a reflex.
But on June 4, a Tuesday, his mind was elsewhere. He was on a plane, heading not for Chicago, where he might have driven home to suburban Barrington in time for a birthday party with streamers and a pink-frosted cake, but instead to Rochester, Minn., home to the famed Mayo Clinic. Gina and their daughter Ava sat in a hotel room, hoping a doctor would call.
For weeks, headaches had tormented Ava, the first of three children. She screamed through every night. She lay on her pink beanbag in the family’s Barrington home, always moaning.
"Why won’t anyone help me?" was a common plea. Justin and Gina tried, making three separate trips to the emergency room in May, according to a journal Gina kept throughout the summer.
An MRI was performed, but it revealed nothing unusual. Three years earlier, a brain scan revealed a pocket of spinal fluid contained in a thin, cobweb-like cyst. Called an arachnoid cyst, the discovery itself was not particularly troubling. One to 3 percent of people are born with such cysts, said Dr. Sean Lew, the program director of Neurosurgery Epilepsy at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Ruptured arachnoid cysts are not a common enough occurrence to have an incidence rate, he said.
Ava had hit her head on the coffee table five days before the MRI, but the scan reassured the family that the cyst had not burst.
Doctors prescribed medication meant to counter the pain, according to Gina’s written account, but with the recent MRI in Ava’s file, were baffled by the severity of the headaches.
Justin Zanik was preparing for free agency and the NBA Draft. His agency, ASM Sports, represented Nerlens Noel, the projected No. 1 overall pick — who ultimately was drafted sixth and went to Philadelphia. Zanik shoehorned the interview with the Jazz into his schedule, but what he found when he arrived in Rochester was heartbreaking. Ava, who loves ice cream and Taylor Swift, was consumed by the pain.
That it was her birthday didn’t register. She did not want a cake and was uninterested when Justin and Gina took her to Toys R’ Us.
"It was just crushing," Justin said.
When they returned home to Barrington, presents sat unopened on the dining room table for weeks.
"Why," Justin remembered repeatedly asking himself, "aren’t we getting any answers from doctors?"
Seeking answers • The family returned to sleepy Barrington, a village of about 10,000 people. They settled there after moving across the country, from Los Angeles to New York to Chicago. Justin and Gina met when he worked for agent Mark Bartelstein — who coincidentally represents several Jazz players, including Gordon Hayward — and Gina was Bartelstein’s assistant.
Friends always teased them that they had a "designer" family, perfect children and the perfect house in a storybook town. But by mid-summer, life was far off script.
Following the trip to the Mayo Clinic, Ava’s pain had only gotten worse. Gina described her as "lethargic" in an update to family. She wasn’t eating.
"It was the most heartbreaking experience of our lives," Gina wrote.
On June 13, Gina drove with Ava the 90 minutes to Milwaukee, home of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
Frustrated by the response from medical professionals in the six weeks since Ava first began complaining of severe headaches, Gina put her foot down. "We are not leaving," she remembered saying in the ER.Next Page >
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