“Ex-Basketball Player” by John Updike

The main idea of John Updike’s poem, Ex-Basketball Player is that a young man named Flick who was a really good athlete in high school. However, after high school he became nothing more than a gas station attendant. During high school he was an excellent basketball player. He set records that many kids are still trying to surpass today. During and after high school he never learned a trade, so

he wasn’t able to obtain a high paying job where he could move up in life. He just ended up selling gas, checking oil, and fixing flats.

A street goes in front of a high school
Curves with paths to a dead end
Before it has an opportunity to travel two blocks
A shop at a certain place
Facing west where two streets conjoin
Usually you can see Berth’s helper, Flick Webb

Flick towers above gas pumps
With five old in each row
The hoses hanging down low
Two S’s comprise his nose
His eyes form an E and an O. One is flat
Oblong shaped, with no head

Flick was a high-school basketball player
He was the best of the team
He scored three hundred ninety points in 1946
He set records that lasted. The ball always went in the hoop.
One observed him score 38-40 points in a game.
He always kept his hands moving

He never went to college, but he got a decent gas station job
He bounces a tube for entertainment
Beside the grease, everyone still remembers the points
His appendages are careless on the lug wrench
The carelessness doesn’t hurt the lug wrench

He is at a diner when not working
His hands greasy and clenched while playing pinball
As he plays, he smokes and slurps soft drinks
He doesn’t speak to the owner
He stares at appealing stacks
The stacks composed of candy

The poem Ex-Basketball Player contains five stanzas and thirty lines. The first stanza describes the ex-basketball player, Flick. It tells how Flick works at “Berth’s Garage” which doesn’t even have a “chance to go two blocks” from his old high school. Flick more than likely ended up working at Berth’s Garage because Flick didn’t want to be very far from the place where he had been a hero. Flick doesn’t even own the business, he just simply “helps Berth out.” The job he was at was taking him nowhere and it was suited for someone with less potential.

This poem contains no rhyming. Therefore, it doesn’t contain a rhyme scheme. This poem does not contain a consistent meter. The author uses free verse to write this poem and tell a story. The use of free verse in this poem also allows the author to express his feelings towards the importance of learning a trade and using your potential to make something of yourself.

This poem contains specific rhyming devices such as alliteration and onomatopoeia. The alliteration used was in the second and ninth lines. The first use of alliteration was the “trolley tracks” in the verse “Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off.” The second use of alliteration was the “loose and low” in the verse “Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.” There were uses of onomatopoeia in the fifteenth, seventeenth, twenty-first, and twenty-seventh lines. The words used for onomatopoeia were bucketed, rack, dribbles, and smokes. These uses of sound techniques help enhance the theme by allowing the reader to get a better mindset of the story the poem is telling by reading action terms.

The kind of language used in this poem was Colloquial Language. This type of language was a mid range between proper grammar and cursing. The use of this type of language made the main idea of the poem more understandable. It made the main idea more understandable by not using perfect grammar, which helps represent a person who is nothing more than a “gas station attendant.” This type of language enhances the theme by helping show that a high school basketball star has taken his talent nowhere because a lack of learning a trade. The lack of learning a trade can also be perceived through the use of words that are not used in formal setting.

There were similes, metaphors, and personification used in this poem. One of the similes used was “His hands were like wild birds.” The first four lines can be considered a metaphor, being a comparison to Flick’s life of “turning a corner and stopping before it has a chance to go further.” The personification used was “Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.” The use of these figurative language components helps understand the life Flick had been and is living.

Updike uses imagery to depict a dim, grimy world of the present and compare it with the brilliant, shining magnificence of Flick’s past. Imagery is initially used in the first two lines of the poem, where Pearl Avenue “bends with the trolley tracks and stops, cut off.” Those two lines show how Flick’s life has been cut short, just like the road that leads to Berth’s Garage where he works. The train passes by the high school Flick went to, but just like him, it doesn’t go very far beyond. The words “cut off” are very important in the understanding of Flick’s circumstances. His days of fame came to an abrupt ending with the realization that “he never learned a trade.”

The second stanza used imagery to show that Flick is out of place amongst the “idiot pumps” with their “rubber elbows hanging loose and low.” The imagery suggests that these non-living objects are as close as Flick comes to any sort of real contact with others. It is further suggested by the last stanza of the poem, in which he ignores Mae to stare of into “applauding tiers of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and JuJu Beads.” The reference to one of the pumps as “more of a football type” also points to the fact that Flick views the world through sports analogies and his past. The fact that there are five pumps, like five men on a basketball court for each team, also suggests that Flick still views life in terms of basketball.

These details verify the notion that Flick did not concentrate on anything other than basketball during his formative years. Not relationships with others, not academics, nor a fallback plan. Just basketball. The expression “idiot” used to describe the pumps also separates Flick from the other basketball players he used to play with and against. Just as he is out of place amongst the pumps, his talent put him out of place amongst his peers. Even though he was admired, Flick was never really a part of the town. His presence was simply ornamental, and continues to be.
The theme of this poem is about a high school basketball star that has taken his talent nowhere. If one doesn’t work on their goals, they will never reach their dreams. Also, if you do not reach your goals you can end up living an out of place life. The theme that Flick is not necessarily unhappy, but out of place, carries throughout the poem. The poem says, “the ball loved Flick” and “he was the best,” and this allows everyone to see that it is not just Flick who looks upon his past with a sort of admiration and pride. It is the entire city, and he is the local hero. The boy who didn’t exactly make it big, but he made it big enough that he’s remembered. Perhaps the town longs for that hero the same way Flick does. But it is not longing for Flick, specifically.

What the town, as shown by the narrator, wants is another hero. Until one comes along, they will live vicariously through Flick’s past. “As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube, but most of us remember anyway,” the narrator ponders. It’s as though Flick wants to remind the town of his past, but he has no need because the town clings to it just as he does. Flick does not see people, he sees spectators. He does not see gas pumps, he sees opponents, teammates, and athletes. He does not see candy, he sees a high school gymnasium full of admiring fans. And also, the town does not see a person, but the person’s past. It appears to be a very mutual need for recollection.

Flick and his fans are a community isolated from reality, and reality is what matters. Flick is not necessarily skilled with the lug wrench, but “it makes no difference to the lug wrench.” The warmth of memories and “a gag” are contrasted with the harsh reality that Flick’s path is a permanent one, and in the end, it doesn’t matter how many points he scored or who remembers what. The only thing that matters is the fact that Flick pumps gas. To the townspeople, he is a hero. To the rest of the world, he is nothing, if even that. However, the cold reality does not seem to affect Flick very deeply. The last image one gets is that of Flick staring past a person into “applauding tiers” of candy. The use of the word “tiers” plays as almost a joke, suggesting that Flick may be unhappy with his place in life, but he portrays himself as almost carefree by what has happened to him and content to live his life through the glory of his past.

This poem contained an appropriate title that generated interest and hinted what the poem was about. The subject of this poem did a great job of depicting what the situation was, who is talking, and under what circumstances. The tone of this poem was very neutral by not saying that the life flick is living is good or bad. With the author not putting his opinion into the poem, it can be interpreted in many different ways. There was an excellent choice of words in this poem. The words were very simple, economical, varied and energizing, and the words used didn’t have to be complex to get a point across and paint a good picture. The metaphors, similes and personification used were striking and convincing. The use of the simile “His hands were like wild birds” did a great job at describing how Flick played basketball, and the use of “cut off” as imagery did an excellent job at showing how all of Flick’s hopes and dreams came to an end.