I saw that the Denver Nuggets won their first NBA championship last night. I have been somewhat out of the NBA loop for several years, but I used to watch quite a bit. The first full season I followed the NBA was 1997-98. In that year, the Nuggets had a record of 11-71. They continued to struggle for several years thereafter, but the Nuggets had a turn-around in 2003-04 when they revamped their roster and drafted Carmelo Anthony. The Nuggets have been one of the NBA’s more solid franchises ever since, weathering Mr. Anthony’s forcing his way out by extracting a king’s ransom in a trade with the New York Knicks in the 2011-12 season. But the decisive step toward the franchise’s first championship came back in 2014 when the Nuggets used the 41st pick in that year’s NBA Draft on a certain Serbian big man named Nikola Jokic. Now the Nuggets, behind the now-two-time NBA MVP and now one-time Finals MVP Mr. Jokic, stand atop the basketball world. But the purpose of this post is not to assess the Nuggets’ triumph. Instead, itis a lead-in to discussing whether NBA Hall of Famer Tim Duncan is properly described as having been born overseas.

(Aside: In the lead-up to the 2014 NBA Draft, an ESPN analyst named Kevin Pelton (I think it was Mr. Pelton, but I could be mistaken), ranked draft prospects pursuant to some advanced statistical formulae he put together. I recall Mr. Jokic ranked very highly under the method, somewhere near the top-five. I recall there were some concerns about Mr. Jokic’s athleticism or how soon he would come to the NBA, but I suppose those concerns proved to be largely unfounded.)

Article describes Tim Duncan, who was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as having been born “overseas”

I did not watch any NBA games this season, so I have little in the way of analysis to offer about the Nuggets’ championship run or the well-run Miami Heat organization. But I did come across an interesting word-choice in an ESPN article about Mr. Jokic authored by Ohm Youngmisuk (archived). I quote from the pertinent section:

Jokic joins Antetokounmpo, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players born overseas to take home the Finals award.

The key words here are Tim Duncan and overseas. I not only associate the word overseas with over a physical body of water, but also with being outside the United States, at least in the context of writing about an award for an American-based sports league. Five of the six players noted satisfy the overseas criterion with no questions asked. Mr. Antetokounmpo is from Greece, Mr. Nowitzki is from Germany, Mr. Parker is from France, Mr. Olajuwon is from Nigeria, and Mr. Jokic is, as I noted above, from Serbia.

Some people who are familiar with Mr. Duncan may be surprised to find him on this list. Having followed the NBA for Mr. Duncan’s entire career, I knew the answer. But I will play ignorant for the purpose of this article. What foreign country is Mr. Duncan from? I turn to Basketball Reference

Born: April 25, 1976 … in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Questioning whether “overseas” is the correct term for birth in a U.S. territory

I suppose St. Croix is overseas relative to the continental United States in the sense that it is separated from the East Coast by the Atlantic Ocean. However, the U.S. Virgin Islands is, in fact, part of the United States – evinced by the U.S. preface. Taken together, the U.S. Virgin Islands is an unincorporated territory of the United States. By operation of statute, all persons born in the U.S. Virgin Islands are citizens and nationals of the United States at birth, and as such they afforded the privileges and immunities of such citizenship. However, although they are full citizens of the United States residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands cannot vote for president unless they reside in one of the 50 states, and the islands do not have Senators or Congressional representatives (they do have a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House and send delegates to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions for President).

In light of the fact that the U.S. Virgin Islands is part of the United States and all persons born there are citizens of the United States, I was perplexed by ESPN’s describing Mr. Duncan as being from overseas. I mean it is over a sea, but so is Hawaii and I doubt that most Americans would describe someone born in Hawaii as having been born overseas.

(If you think back to the conspiracy theories about the place of birth of former President Barack Obama, there is a reason that the theories placed his birth as being somewhere other than Hawaii notwithstanding the fact that Hawaii is physically overseas from the rest of the United States.)

Modern dictionary definitions of “overseas”

But perhaps I am misguided. Maybe the kids these days are using the term overseas to refer to places in the same country separated by a body of water. Maybe there is a special exception for States vs territories – thus explaining why the term would not be used for Hawaii but would be used for St. Croix. I decided to check the contemporary dictionaries for guidance to see how the term is understood now.

Pertinent definition from Merriam Webster:

[S]ituated, originating in, or relating to lands beyond the sea.

While this definition seems to technically fit ESPN’s usage, the examples suggest that Merriam Webster does not understand the term as being used domestically. All of the adjective usage examples are international examples. Take for example this usage case from Billboard Japan:

Recently, there’s been a prominent trend of Japanese rock bands reaching overseas audiences through anime.

Japan has thousands of islands. The country itself is split into four main islands. Assuming arguendo the author here is writing from Tokyo, no ordinary reader would understand him or her as including Hokkaido in the ambit of overseas. Overseas clearly refers to countries other than Japan.

Or for an American case, see this excerpt from Mr. Jon Wallace of the Wall Street Journal that is included among the usage examples:

This upcoming tour in support of U.S. Africa Command marks his second active-duty overseas deployment, according to the source familiar with the plans.

Hawaii was not a State when the now-former Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was a territory of the United States, albeit an organized incorporated territory (different status than the U.S. Virgin Islands). But I doubt that many people viewed it as being overseas in the sense that the term is being used in the usage examples. Were troops stationed at Pearl Harbor deployed overseas in the sense that troops being deployed to Africa are now? Do we, or did we, think of troops stationed in Hawaii in World War II as being overseas in the same way as troops fighting in Okinawa? I think not. (One could argue that the Philippines were more viewed as being overseas despite the fact the Philippines legally remained a U.S. territory for the entirety of World War II, but the Philippines had a different history than other U.S. territories, in that were already on a defined path to independence prior to the war, and they were under Japanese occupation and rule for much of the War.)

Merriam Webster’s definition was more equivocal on the scope of the term overseas than its usage examples. However, some other definitions are less equivocal. The Wiktionary offers three definitions:

  1. Abroad
  2. Used with ethnicities, nationalities, or religions affiliations: living (being resident) in a foreign country
  3. Across a sea; to or in an area across a sea.

I understood ESPN as using the second definition to describe NBA Finals MVPs who were born outside the United States. I did not understand it, and do not understand it, as using the third definition pertaining only to being physically across a sea. I strongly doubt that ESPN would have described a Hawaii-born player as being from overseas.

There has been much interest in foreign-born NBA players and prospects since the early 2000s (one could argue late 1990s – but that is not to say no great foreign-born players were drafted before that, see for example Mr. Olajuwon and stars such as Jamaica’s Patrick Ewing and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Dikembe Mutombo). I will state for the record that when there was much discussion and debate about foreign-born NBA players in the early 2000s, Tim Duncan, who compiled the best overall resume of any NBA player in the 2000s, was not typically grouped with international stars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Yao Ming, or Mr. Duncan’s own teammates, Manu Ginobili and fellow Finals MVP Tony Parker.

Finally, let’s take a look at the Cambridge Dictionary. We have three on-point definitions:

  1. in, from, or to countries that are across the sea
  2. in, from, or connected with another country or countries, especially across the sea
  3. in or to another country or countries, especially across the sea

None of these definitions would define the U.S. Virgin Islands as being overseas from the perspective of an American in the continental United States. However, these definitions are broader than the first set. Read strictly, Cambridge’s definition of overseas includes foreign countries that are not, in fact, over a sea. It does note that the term would generally refer to such cases, but strictly read, it would not clearly exclude Canada and Mexico from being overseas countries from the perspective of an American.

My proposed definition of overseas

Having considered the issue, I think that overseas is best used to refer to a foreign country separated by a large body of water, usually an ocean. Thus, from my perspective as an American, I would not refer in the ambit of overseas to any territory of the United States – e.g., the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, or even American Samoa in which persons are U.S. nationals but not citizens at birth (see article on permanent resident status through marriage to a noncitizen national). I would not have even described the Philippines as being overseas when it was a territory of the United States. I will venture most people implicitly agree with me here. That Mr. Duncan was from the U.S. Virgin Islands was not unknown (there were some stories about how he had been a competitive swimmer as a teen there), and he was not generally thought of as an international NBA player. I recall a few references from sports journalists trying to be too-cute-by-a-half (a well-known tendency of sports journalism), but as I noted, Mr. Duncan was not grouped with his contemporary Mr. Nowitzki in that respect.

Similarly, even though Canada and Mexico are foreign countries, I would not describe either as being overseas. They satisfy the element of not being subject to American sovereignty, but if you can walk across a border to a different country – it is not overseas. I doubt that anyone described Germany’s invasions of France in the two World Wars as being overseas military expeditions. Few today would say that Russia is fighting an overseas war in Ukraine.

Were ESPN to have removed Mr. Duncan from the list of overseas NBA Finals MVPs, its use of the term would be perfectly acceptable. However, I would advise using international instead of overseas. The essential point of the list is to highlight players who were born outside the United States. For example, let us set aside the fact that two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash was born in South Africa and pretend that he was born in his country of nationality, Canada (Mr. Nash’s family moved from South Africa when he was 7 months old). He was a Canadian citizen who grew up in Canada and was thought of as being Canadian. Unlike Mr. Duncan, Mr. Nash was regularly included in the discussion of best international players. Had a few things gone differently in select NBA playoff series against the Mr. Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs and Mr. Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks in 2005-07 and the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009, Mr. Nash may well have found himself among the list of foreign-born Finals MVPs. In light of the fact that Mr. Nash was Canadian for all normal intents and purposes, we had an international NBA MVP who does not meet what I think is the ordinary definition of overseas.

(Hot take: I think that Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers, rather than his teammate Kobe Bryant, should have been named NBA Finals MVP in 2010. Had he received the nod, we would have had another name to add to the foreign born and overseas Finals MVP list since Mr. Gasol was from Spain.)

If I had written the ESPN article, I would have written that Mr. Jokic joined the list of foreign-born NBA Finals MVPs, which includes Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, and Hakeem Olajuwon. I would have left Tim Duncan off the list because he was not, in fact, foreign born. Unlike overseas, I would not have to alter the sentence in the future were a Canadian player to win the NBA Finals MVP award.

Extra notes

The limits of the significance of being foreign-born in NBA analysis

Foreign born is more of a curiosity point than a meaningful one. Foreign born players have different backgrounds and experiences. For example, Mr. Olajuwon is unique in the list of foreign born MVPs in that he played college basketball in the United States, whereas the other five members of the club went straight from playing professionally overseas to the NBA. Mr. Nash, the only foreign-born NBA MVP not on the Finals MVP list, played college basketball at Santa Clara before going to the NBA. Although Mr. Duncan was not foreign born or overseas per my definition, he played high school basketball in the U.S. Virgin Islands before playing college basketball at Wake Forest. Mr. Nash’s journey to the NBA in terms of the steps he took were certainly closer to Mr. Duncan’s and Mr. Olajuwon’s than his former teammate, Mr. Nowitzki’s, regardless of how you define the terms.

Jason Whitlock describes Tim Duncan as having been born outside the United States

After writing my final draft of this essay, I read a provocative essay by Mr. Jason Whitlock (once discussed in these pages) arguing that globalism has had a negative effect on the NBA for fans and that Mr. Jokic’s personality and outlook will not inspire the masses, notwithstanding his greatness on the court. Agree or disagree, it is an interesting piece. But rather than adjudicate the merits, I note Mr. Whitlock’s description of Mr. Duncan:

Starting with Tim Duncan, who was born and reared in the Virgin Islands, 10 of the last 22 NBA MVPs were born outside the United States. Antetokounmpo, Jokic, and Embiid have won the last five MVP titles.

Jason Whitlock

This passage is factually wrong. As I explained above, the U.S. Virgin Islands is part of the United States. As a result, Mr. Duncan was not born outside the United States. However, technical points aside, Mr. Whitlock’s focus is on players who grew up in a different basketball culture. Before reading Mr. Whitlock’s piece, I had written my section arguing that Mr. Nash’s journey to the NBA (growing up outside the continental United States and playing four years of college basketball in the United States) was more similar to Mr. Duncan’s journey than to the journeys of fellow international stars such as Mr. Jokic and Mr. Nowitzki (I added Mr. Olajuwon for having played college basketball in the United States as well). Thus, Mr. Whitlock’s greater point may hold in the context of his argument even though describing Mr. Duncan as having been born outside the United States is incorrect. (Had Mr. Whitlock written outside the continental United States, his statement would have been accurate in all respects.)

Fun fact on U.S. Virgin Islands-born NBA players

I remembered that Mr. Duncan was not the only U.S. Virgin Islands-born NBA player. There was also Raja Bell, an excellent defensive wing in the 2000s who was a sort of early prototype for the 3-and-D wing players that would become increasingly important after major rule changes in the early-and-mid-2000s. I was curious whether there were any other U.S. Virgin Islands players. According to Basketball Reference, the only other in the club was Mr. Charles Claxton, who played three games in 1996.