You can go home again. Just ask new Jazz GM Justin Zanik

(Photo courtesy of the Zanik family) Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik, back right, with his family; Justin's wife, Gina, back center, daughter Ava, back left, son Oskar, front center, and daughter Lucy, front right.

Justin Zanik wanted to go home.

He had uprooted his family of five only a year earlier, carting them from Utah to Wisconsin for a job as general-manager-in-waiting for the Milwaukee Bucks. Then, when the position came open, the door slammed in his face. After interviewing twice more for a GM job many felt he had been groomed for, he was passed over.

It was 2017 and Zanik, who prior to his Milwaukee experiment had spent his entire career as an NBA executive in the Utah Jazz’s front office, had two years left on his contract with the Bucks. He could have stayed in Wisconsin, the home state of his wife, Gina. He could have bided his time and gotten paid to watch baseball and play with his kids. But, as Zanik said, “That’s just not in me.”

Besides, he couldn’t help wondering what he was missing out on in Utah. In 2013, the sports agent of 15 years gave up the firm he had helped build to join then-Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey in laying the foundation for a team that they believed would, in the near future, contend for an NBA championship. Sure, the team had just lost Gordon Hayward to the Celtics, but it had also just taken a talented kid named Donovan Mitchell with the 13th pick in the NBA Draft. A shift was happening, and Zanik wanted to see that dream through — even if it meant going back to his old job with the Jazz as assistant GM with no promise of a promotion on the horizon.

“I never really thought about it that way, that maybe there was that perception like, ‘Oh, he went and came back,’” Zanik said. “But for me, I wanted to get back to the people who I loved and trusted and who supported me. My conversations with Dennis were: 'I don’t need a job, but if I’m needed ….’

Zanik, 45, has proven you can go home again. A year after the Jazz welcomed him back with open arms, he embarks upon the 2019-20 season with the GM title finally etched onto his name plate and a fervor building over the potential of a team he helped piece together.

“When it didn’t work out [in Milwaukee], I wondered, ‘Should I have taken the job in the first place and uprooted the family?’” Zanik said. “The opportunity came up to come back here. There were some other ones, too, but I wanted to come back here. Even that uprooted my family and caused some chaos. But looking back, that’s one of the better things, from an experience standpoint, that I could go through. I’m grateful for it, frankly.”

Returning home

Lindsey hadn’t wished for Zanik to flame out in Milwaukee. As much as he valued his former right-hand man, he hoped, as a friend, that Zanik would find success with the Bucks.

That said, Lindsey also didn’t hire another assistant GM during the span of Zanik’s absence.

“I didn’t leave it open intentionally,” Lindsey said. “I’m fairly particular and deliberate in personnel decisions. It’s a lot harder to let go of someone that’s not a fit than to take your time on the front end.”

He found just the person he was looking for in the living room of Zanik’s rental house after Lindsey had flown out to Milwaukee in a show of support for his friend. Who better to fill the vacancy than the man who had created the void in the first place? Zanik still had all the connections with the other NBA clubs, and especially within the international basketball scene, that had convinced Lindsey six years ago that the lifelong sports agent would be a good hire. He still had a vast knowledge of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. Plus, he came equipped with an intimate knowledge of the inner-workings of the Jazz organization.

Perhaps most importantly, he had Lindsey’s trust.

“I believe in experience and good people and a trained eye,” Lindsey said. “It’s just worked out.”

As an added bonus, Zanik had gained valuable experience and perspective working with an organization other than the Jazz. Without going into specifics, he said he discovered some tactics that worked and some that did not.

When he returned to Utah, Zanik didn’t ask for a promotion. He said he “of course” wanted to become a general manager, but it wasn’t his priority.

“I’m not so concerned about titles,” he said. “I’m concerned about what impact or role I have in helping organizations, so you can make my title whatever it is.”

Nonetheless, Zanik exhibited the chops for the job. He was a finalist for the position with the Philadelphia 76ers at the end of his first season back in Utah. This past April, he was rumored to be among the candidates for the Washington Wizards’ vacant GM position.

Then, in May, the Jazz announced they would be promoting Zanik to GM while simultaneously moving Lindsey into the role of executive vice president of basketball operations.

Lindsey said his request for a change in his own standing, rather than the attention of other NBA teams, prompted Zanik’s promotion. But, he added, it was also time.

“It’s not like Justin had asked for this or another team had called. It was just time for me to move into the executive level and Justin to move into that role,” Lindsey said. He added that he plans to stick around for a while, but, “When I fade away, he’ll be hopefully more ready for that primary seat.”

For the love of the deal

Zanik had moved plenty of times before landing in Utah. He grew up in the Missouri and graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in economics — quite a detour from his initial major of music, specifically opera. While volunteering as a coach of a sixth-grade basketball team, he met player agent Mark Bartelstein, who offered him an internship in his office. In addition to finding his first job in that Chicago office, he found his wife, Gina, who also worked for Bartelstein.

“I fell in love with him listening to him negotiating these deals,” Gina said.

Zanik became good at it and soon joined the firm ASM Sports. He developed a reputation for being fair and knowledgeable in his negotiations. In particular, he was known for his international connections. Lindsey said even while the two were on different sides of the business, he would often turn to Zanik to help him unearth information on potential players from Europe or Asia.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dennis Lindsey, Bojan Bogdanovic, Justin Zanik, and Mike Conley show off the players' new Jazz jerseys following a news conference to introduce them on Monday, July 8, 2019, in Las Vegas.

When Lindsey decided to bring Zanik over to his side of the negotiating table, a year into his tenure as the Jazz GM, Zanik had one question for him: Why me? As far as Zanik could see, they had a two-dimensional relationship. Surely Lindsey had some friends who could fill the job.

Lindsey then passed on some wisdom his mentor, former Houston Rockets GM Carroll Dawson, ingrained in him.

“‘I think there are people out there with your skill set who would be good for the organization, and we’ve worked closely together before, and I think you’re a good person. I think I can trust you,’” Zanik recalled Lindsey saying. “‘All the work we do together and time we spend, we’re going to become friends. I’m not hiring my friends, I’m hiring the best people for the job and the things we need.’

“I said, ‘OK.’”

It wasn’t that simple, though. Zanik’s oldest daughter, Ava, then 6, was in the midst of undergoing the first of four cranial surgeries during a six-week hospital stay when the Jazz officially called with an offer. A subdural hygroma — a liquid-filled sac that formed between her brain and her skull — was building spinal fluid pressure on her brain, causing excruciating headaches. With Zanik’s attention on his daughter, not to mention his clients entering the 2013 NBA Draft, he couldn’t entertain an offer for another job. The Jazz front office said it would wait. Family comes first.

Doctors eventually stopped Ava’s pain by inserting a shunt under the skin of her head. It drains the spinal fluid into her stomach through a tube down her neck. Now 12, she lives with that and an undiagnosed disease that she shares with both her brother Oskar, 10, and sister Lucy, 8.

Two days after Ava was released from the hospital, Zanik accepted the job. At first, Gina wasn’t so sure she liked the idea of moving from Chicago to Utah, and later from her childhood home of Wisconsin back to Salt Lake City. But she has family here, too — chosen family. Gina also has an undiagnosed condition that revealed itself shortly after she gave birth to Ava. She now runs a nonprofit called the Rare and Undiagnosed Network (RUN), which provides support and outreach in Utah for those patients and their families. Thanks to her advocacy and support from Zanik and Jazz owners Gail and Larry Miller, the Jazz and several other NBA teams have made it an annual tradition to recognize Undiagnosed Rare Disease Day (April 29) by inviting children with rare or undiagnosed diseases and their families to attend a game.

“The way we feel when here with the Jazz and the Millers in Salt Lake, it’s home to us now,” she said, noting her children have lived in Utah longer than anywhere else. “We feel so blessed to be a part of this organization with what we’ve gone through.”

Culmination of efforts

Now that Zanik is back home, he has set out to bring some of the league’s best players to Utah. The team has a solid foundation in Mitchell, Joe Ingles and center Rudy Gobert, whom the team acquired in a draft-day trade in 2013, the same year Zanik joined the team. It also has coach Quin Snyder, whom Zanik helped hire and called, “a special guy. He’s a really good guy and a great teacher.”

In his first year back, Zanik worked with Lindsey and assistant GM David Morway to add players such as Royce O’Neale, Georges Niang and Tony Bradley. This year, the team acquired guard Mike Conley, who in turn became what Lindsey called a Pied Piper for his role in bringing in proven forwards Jeff Green, Ed Davis and Bojan Bogdanović and guard Emmanuel Mudiay.

Zanik has done more than just negotiate their contracts, however. He has tried to make the Salt Lake area feel like home for those players. That includes being integral in bringing in chef Anthony Zamora to the Zion Bank Basketball Campus training facility. Zamora, one of three registered dietitians working for an NBA team, visits players’ homes and gives them personalized meal plans upon request. Zanik also played a significant role in hiring Cory Jez to handle the team’s analytics.

Lindsey acknowledged those contributions aren’t flashy, but they go a long way in helping the Jazz recruit and retain talented players.

“It allows me to go to agents and say player wellness, health, performance and care are at a higher level,” he said. “And players talk, agents talk. The players are very aware of what we offer here.”

Zanik’s hope is that it all comes together for the greater purpose of bringing something else home: the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy, given to the team that wins the NBA Championship.