For nearly as long as he can remember, Gersson Rosas has borne the weight of fulfilling—and perpetuating—the American dream of his immigrant family. The hopes and expectations invested in him helped establish a blueprint, and became a motivating force for his rise last May, at age of 41, to the position of president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Rosas was 3 years old in Bogota, Colombia, when his father told him that almost everything he knew—the landscape, the language, the culture—were going to change. The family was moving to Houston. Three or four years later, early in elementary school, another father-son talk focused on education, opportunity, and responsibility. He came to understand that he was the linchpin in his family’s immigration narrative.
The Rosas family lived in a relatively comfortable part of Bogota. Gersson’s father Leonardo was an agricultural entrepreneur and his mother Gloria worked in public relations. Yet by the early 1980s political unrest and drug-related violence were both on the rise, spurring their desire to seek a safer environment for their children.
“My parents went from being in white-collar professions back in Colombia to blue-collar jobs in Houston,” Gersson recalled, speaking over the phone in early May as he took his morning run along a wooded path near his home in suburban Minneapolis. “An even bigger sacrifice for them was being away from their families. I’m old enough to remember sending cassette tapes back and forth to my grandparents and uncles and cousins over the holidays, and only being able to call them once a month.”
Rosas had more than himself and his parents to consider. He was the oldest of four boys, two of them born after the family moved to Houston. “My dad is a very straightforward man. He told me, ‘Your mother and I will do everything we can, but you have to lead by example. If your brothers fail, it is on you.’ It helped me understand not only the responsibility, but the impact and influence I could have.”
He plunged into his schoolwork and paid attention to the fact that his abiding passion was sports, especially basketball. He was good enough to play high school hoops, but sufficiently self-aware to see that he was too short for that to be his best path forward. Instead, as early as 1993, at the age of 15, he told a girl in his driver’s ed class that he planned to become a general manager in the National Basketball Association—the architect for one of the teams performing at the game’s highest level. The girl, now his wife, Susana, stuck around to watch it happen.
It was a grand ambition: No one of Latino descent had ever operated an NBA franchise before, and there were precious few interns, players or front office executives from south of the border. Although basketball was gaining popularity in Argentina and Brazil, soccer and baseball still dominated the public interest in Colombia. Rosas came to the game via Sportscenter on ESPN and the local sports pages in Houston. The Houston Rockets won back-to-back championships when he was in high school.
Even so, “I was not a former player, not even in college, so that wasn’t going to be my ‘in,’” Rosas said. “My ‘in’ had to be that I was the most prepared, the most educated, the most creative.”
He earned his degree in marketing and international business at the University of Houston and scored an internship with the Rockets. When it was over, he was told he didn’t know the game well enough to get a staff position. So he logged some time as an assistant coach for a prominent high school team and then became a graduate assistant coach at his alma mater. After a few years, the Rockets hired him as an entry-level scout.
With his foot in the door, Rosas leveraged his comfort with diversity to move up the ladder. His family had always maintained its connection to Colombian culture, and he cites Houston as “per capita, the most diverse city in the United States.” He made himself useful as a translator for players needing to hone their skills in Spanish-speaking basketball leagues, and their agents. He sought out a role with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders international program. He prepared scouting reports on international players who would be opponents of the USA Basketball Team at the 2016 Olympics. He ran the Rockets minor-league affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, located along the Mexican border.
“I’ve been in places around the world—Argentina, Spain, Turkey, Lithuania—that allow me to appreciate how much basketball means to their culture and their country,” Rosas said, with an excitement that bumps off the breathing rhythm of his morning jog. “I’ve picked the brains of players, coaches, front-office executives from all over the world. Because they’re trying to do the same thing we are, but with a totally different perspective; different resources with different environments, with different leagues. Yeah, they are on different levels, but everybody is trying to be successful. That experience has shown me that we don’t have all the answers, or always have the best vantage point.”
Nearly a decade of education, preparation and creativity paid off in 2013, when the Dallas Mavericks seemingly fulfilled Rosas’ prophecy by hiring him to become the first Latino general manager in NBA history. At 35, he also was one of the youngest people of any nationality named to the post. Rosas concedes that the symbolic achievement and personal satisfaction derived from reaching this milestone was enormous. And yet he severed the arrangement and went back to Houston 90 days later, before the 2013-14 NBA season had even begun.
Rosas wanted to make sweeping changes and put his imprint on the franchise. High-profile owner Mark Cuban and the Mavericks organization were initially receptive. “But the reality was, they’d had recent success—they’d won a championship [in 2011] doing it their way and change was going to be hard,” said Rosas, who maintains he left on good terms. “Being first [as a Latino GM] was great, but I didn’t want a title for the sake of having a title. I wanted to really go and impact an organization and build it with the passion and beliefs that I had.”
It would be six years before Rosas found the right fit—up in frozen Minnesota, about as far from Houston as Bogota. No matter. Rosas talks about the kismet of his twins, son Grayson and daughter Gigi, being the same age, 3, as he was when he left Colombia, and how gaining a fresh perspective in a new place is a boon for his family as well as his career.
He and his family were established in Houston, but they were ready for the next step, Rosas said. “Experiencing the diversity of growing up in different environments was very beneficial to me and something I wanted to give my family,” he said. He had spent time in the Twin Cities working out draft choices when Hibbing native Kevin McHale was the Rockets’ head coach, and remembered it as a great sports town and a metropolitan area of growing diversity.
But it didn’t hurt that the Timberwolves had just suffered through another failed rebuild under old-school taskmaster Tom Thibodeau, or that over the course of its 31-year existence, the franchise had the worst winning percentage (39.6) of any NBA team. “This was an opportunity to come in and make an impact at the highest level, to do something that hasn’t been done—build a successful, sustainable model,” Rosas said.
He stocked the front office with diversified thinkers: A vice president who is a renowned expert in finessing the NBA’s salary-cap rules for maximum flexibility; assistant general managers from Italy and Australia, plus a former player-agent well versed in the league’s collective bargaining agreement; and two top assistant coaches with extensive experience working in Europe.
The Timberwolves traditionally have lagged behind the NBA trend of emphasizing three-point shots, as well as other fine points of the analytics movement. Despite not having a roster suited to the task, Rosas declared the Wolves would immediately adopt a more “space and pace” style of long-range shooting and fast tempo. He then proceeded to overhaul the roster twice, during the summer preseason of 2019 and again at the winter trading deadline in the winter of 2020. As a result, only two of the 15 players on the roster when he was hired in May 2019 are still with the team.
The bold moves have thus far produced a familiar ineptitude—only two NBA teams finished with a worse record than the Wolves in Rosas’ inaugural season at the helm, one cut short by the pandemic. But his confidence hasn’t wavered. He emphasizes that a change of culture and sustainable success aren’t achieved via quick fixes. Taking a page from his Latino roots, family is an abiding theme, with more attention paid to the parents, spouses and children of the players. The Wolves are also paying more attention to players’ overall health through extensive research on nutrition and conditioning.
Rosas is keenly aware that as the first Latino to guide the fortunes of an NBA team, his success or failure will be meaningful for others who seek to follow his lead. When he addresses groups, be they immigrants, students, or a more general audience, he talks about the importance of following your passion, keeping your focus on opportunities that might await you, and being thankful when they arise.
This too is about family. “Maybe their goal or desire is not basketball or sports, but it still helps for them to see someone different in this position. My passion to be first [at this job] is to help others be the second and the third and the fourth. It is the same way my father told me that if your brothers and family don’t have success coming after you, then you haven’t done enough. That is something that I live by, day in and day out.”