Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik reveals he’s getting kidney transplant

The front office executive learned last fall he had polycystic kidney disease.

Last fall, Justin Zanik felt tired.

The Utah Jazz general manager’s fatigue made sense. He had crossed the Pacific Ocean four times in September: twice to attend the FIBA World Cup, twice to make a scouting trip to Australia. But Zanik’s wife, Gina, knowing the GM’s crazy travel schedule didn’t usually have this kind of impact on him, thought something was amiss. She demanded he get a physical.

What they found changed Zanik’s life.

His kidney function was at 14% — below the threshold considered kidney failure.

Further tests showed that Zanik’s kidney was growing cysts within, increasing its size but limiting its effectiveness. The condition is called polycystic kidney disease, or PKD. It’s a genetic disease that his father has as well, and one that would continue to worsen over time. Something had to be done.

On Tuesday, Zanik will get a kidney transplant.

The kidney comes from someone he doesn’t know, simply a good Samaritan who wanted to make a difference in a stranger’s life. The donor won’t have any clue where his kidney goes, nor does Zanik know nearly anything about the man. All he knows is that on Tuesday morning, the living donor’s kidney will be removed, then the organ will be immediately flown to University of Utah hospital.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Danny Ainge, left, Utah Jazz CEO of basketball operations and general manager Justin Zanik talk on the court prior to Game 6 of the 2022 NBA first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, Saturday, April 23, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

At 2 p.m., Zanik will receive the man’s gift. “It’s an unbelievable gift,” Zanik said.

It’s a process made possible in this case by the Alliance for Paired Kidney Donation. Twenty years ago, if somebody needed a new kidney, the most likely path was through a family match — asking a family member with the right blood type to donate directly. Today, though, the process is optimized nationwide. Organizations like APKD and the National Kidney Registry put all potential donors in a database, then send the organ to the right person optimized for blood type and antibody profile, which minimizes the chance of rejection.

Zanik is participating in a paired kidney exchange program. In other words, in order to get a kidney, he had to find someone who was eligible to give a working kidney on his behalf to the pool. Around 20 people volunteered to be tested, but in the end, Jeff Hart is the man who will give away one of his kidneys in a procedure that will be done Friday. Hart is a family friend of the Zaniks — Hart’s wife has known Zanik’s wife since they were 6 years old.

Hart’s procedure is relatively quick and simple. Zanik’s is a bit more complicated, where the cyst-ridden kidneys must be detached, and the new one installed. The transplant will take about two or three hours.

Zanik will spend three days in the hospital, then take a leave of absence from the Jazz’s offices for about a month.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz General Manager Justin Zanik, CEO Danny Ainge, Jazz owner Ryan Smith, and head coach Will Hardy, watch the Utah Jazz warm up before game action between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Delta Center, on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

The Utah Jazz send our love and support to general manager Justin Zanik, his wife Gina, and their family as Justin prepares for a kidney transplant to address polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic disorder that affects kidney function,” the Jazz said in a statement. “JZ is an instrumental part of our organization, and we look forward to his return in the coming weeks.”

Of course, that’s barring complications. But Zanik’s prognosis is “excellent,” says U. of U. kidney transplant surgeon Michael A. Zimmerman. “We expect these [donations] to last for the duration of the patient’s life.”

Zanik will have to take anti-rejection immuno-suppressant pills for his remaining years, but even those medications have drastically improved in recent decades — and come at a significant discount in cost, both financial and physical, over lifelong dialysis.

Zanik said his doctor was surprised at how well he was functioning with such low kidney function. After the transplant, he hopes to be back in full commission by the NBA Combine in mid-May.

“I’m not disabled. I’m not out of this business. I’m basically taking a rest for about three to six weeks,” Zanik said. “And then I’ll be back here and I’ll be on the phone. I’ll be running the draft and I’ll be running the team and trying to make us better.”

(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.

But not everything will be back to how it used to be.

Zanik says in the days, months, and years to come, he’ll be a vocal advocate, sharing his story and impressing on others to take the same life-saving actions he did.

“I went to the doctor because my wife was killing me to do it. It’s the only reason. She was so insistent on it and I finally gave in and did it,” Zanik said.

“It’s the best thing I ever did.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the donor organ came through the Alliance for Paired Kidney Donation.