Leonardo bluntly told his son, who was 3 when the family relocated from Bogota to Houston in the early 1980s, that he bore dual responsibilities as the eldest of four boys and as the beneficiary of the family’s sacrifices.
“America is the land of opportunity, but only if you take advantage of it,” Leonardo instructed. “If you don’t make the most of this, what was our purpose in coming here? Why did we leave home? You are the example for your brothers. This opportunity is too critical for you not to execute.”
Rosas proved exceptionally receptive to the pressure. By the time he graduated elementary school, he knew basketball was his calling. In high school, he decided he wanted to become an NBA executive. Before graduating college, he was itching for an internship that launched a 20-year trek which culminated this year in a major milestone.
When the Timberwolves hired Rosas in May, he became the first Latino to lead an NBA front office. But that professional breakthrough coincided with rising political division over immigration, including controversies related to detention camps housing immigrant children near the Texas-Mexico border. Achieving his lifelong goal, while others are suffering, has led Rosas to reflect on his obligations to his fellow immigrants and to his adopted country.
“We’re in an extreme place,” Rosas, 41, said at the NBA Summer League. “The images are heartbreaking. There are people dying every day, sacrificing and trying to go through the same processes my family went through.
“My motivation has been to present a different face for immigrants. My family sacrificed and is making good on the opportunity that we were given. I want to do well for my family and for my organization, but also for this country. If you give immigrants a chance, we’ll pay it back to you. We are here for the right reasons.”
Working ‘from the ground up’
Upon arriving in Houston, the Rosas family felt an intense separation from their classmates and neighbors. They taught one another English and gradually adapted to American culture and cuisine. Baseball and soccer were universal connectors.
By age 9, Rosas began his mornings with “SportsCenter” and newspaper listings of sports transactions. His afternoons were devoted to basketball, the only sport in which he enjoyed practice as much as the games.
As a 15-year-old point guard, Rosas was confident enough to tell a fellow student in his driver’s ed class that he planned to be an NBA general manager. Never mind that most teenagers dream of playing, or that the student, a girl named Susana, dismissed it as a pickup line. (They’d later marry.)
“If I had any talent, I would have hoped to be like Carlos Arroyo,” Rosas said, comparing his pass-first, spot-shooting game to the former NBA guard from Puerto Rico. “One of my strengths is cutting through noise to see reality. Playing professionally wasn’t going to be for me, but the evaluation of players, transactions and team-building piqued my interest.”
Despite landing an internship with the hometown Rockets and earning a degree in marketing and international business from the University of Houston, Rosas had to confront harsh realities. NBA front offices were much smaller in the late 1990s. He was an outsider because he hadn’t played or coached professionally. And, Rosas explained, he had no Latino mentors because, unlike in professional baseball, “there was nobody who looked like me in the NBA besides a select group of players.”
Dennis Lindsey, the Utah Jazz president then serving as a Rockets executive, delivered bad news once Rosas’s internship ended. “You’re not ready to scout,” he said, preaching the virtues of acquiring more hands-on experience.
That assessment, Rosas said, was the “best advice I ever received.” He spent the next few years as an assistant coach at Westbury Christian School, a powerhouse high school program in Houston, and as a graduate assistant under Ray McCallum at the University of Houston. He faced a crossroads when McCallum was fired in 2004.
“Susana and I had just gotten married and bought a house,” he said. “It hit me for the first time: Is my passion going to pay the bills?”
Later that summer, Lindsey called to offer Rosas his long-awaited break: a full-time, entry-level scouting position with the Rockets.
“Gersson did it from the ground up,” said New York Knicks assistant coach Kaleb Canales, a Mexican American who has worked alongside Rosas at basketball camps in South America. “He took the stairs one at a time.”
A path for others
Just 2.4 percent of NBA players are Latino, according to the NBA’s annual racial and gender report card. Charlotte Hornets Coach James Borrego and Washington Wizards vice chairman Raul Fernandez are the only Latinos at their respective positions. Rosas is the only Latino to hold the president of basketball operations or general manager title.
Rosas has regularly found ways to put his background to use. He worked as a translator for American agents looking to place their clients in Spanish-speaking countries. He was USA Basketball’s international player personnel scout during the 2016 Olympics and director of the Americas for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program.
During his 16 years with the Rockets, Rosas honed his scouting philosophies. While overseeing Houston’s minor league affiliate, he sought players with “court character” — pure passion for the game — and versatility.
When the Rockets hired Daryl Morey as general manager in 2007, he found Rosas to be a keen evaluator of draft prospects such as Chandler Parsons and Clint Capela. After Rosas’s three-month stint as general manager of the Dallas Mavericks in 2013 dissolved because of fit issues, Morey welcomed him back to Houston despite knowing that other teams would come calling.
“He should have been hired [as a lead executive] a long time ago,” Morey said, referring to Rosas’s many unsuccessful interviews for general manager positions. “A lot of teams made mistakes.”
Rosas inherits a Timberwolves organization in need of healing. While his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau, ruled with a single-minded and territorial style as both president and coach, Rosas has struck a more inclusive tone.
He invited employees from Minnesota’s basketball and business sides to attend a Gwen Stefani concert in Las Vegas. Even his language has a lighter touch. Referring to owner Glen Taylor or all-star Karl-Anthony Towns, Rosas uses the word “partner” — evoking both Texas twang and his boardroom duties.
Rosas approached his first major task — selecting a head coach — with trademark thoroughness. Although he had known Minnesota’s interim coach, Ryan Saunders, for years, he conducted a full search. Rosas quizzed Saunders for more than two hours during an extended interview, then decided to hire him only after meeting with multiple other candidates.
“He leaves no stone unturned, and he invests in the people around him,” Saunders said. “He wanted my opinion on every move during the draft and free agency. He’s not just giving me the team and saying, ‘Here you go.’ ”
Minnesota’s outlook revolves around Towns. In just four seasons, the 23-year-old center has had three coaches and an ill-fated pairing with Jimmy Butler.
Rosas is working to repair any damage and to pitch the benefits of staying in Minnesota. With little prodding, he called Towns a “top-10 player in the league” and forecast a “legendary career.”
“I want him to be confident in his ability to succeed with us so he can do something that’s never been done here,” Rosas said. “That’s starting and finishing his career as a Minnesota Timberwolf.”
Rosas aggressively pursued D’Angelo Russell this summer in hopes of pairing him with Towns but came up short when the restricted free agent guard was dealt to the Golden State Warriors in a sign-and-trade move.
While he is still getting his bearings, Rosas swelled with pride while joining Fernandez and Borrego as representatives of their teams at May’s draft lottery. There he was, on national television, living up to his father’s directives.
“I grabbed [Fernandez and Borrego] and said we need to take a picture because this has never happened before,” Rosas said. “You want young kids to have somebody to look up to. I shouldn’t have been the first Latino president, and I can’t be the only one. If we don’t have another, then I’ve failed because I didn’t do my part to help others.”