Ex-Basketball Player, by John Updike (1958)
Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you’ll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.
Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more a football type.
Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46,
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.
He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.
Off work, he hangs around Mae’s luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.
John Updike’s poem Ex-Basketball Player, is about a man who never really found his place in life. Flick Webb, just a guy who works at Berth’s Garage and is just someone “who helps Berth out.” (6) But he wasn’t always like this; there was a better time. A time when Flick was a star – his nickname Flick probably comes from flicking a basketball – and he “bucketed three hundred ninety points.” (15) But ignoring the fact that three hundred and ninety points is quite a lot, the fact that he only got three hundred ninety, but not four hundred mirrors his whole life: he did well, but he never really got anywhere.
These days Flick is playing on a mockery of a basketball team; with pumps for players.
(An interesting thing to note is that the letters of their nostrils, E, S, S, and O, spell ESSO, a gasoline company at the time)
This reflects the team that Flick played on in high school – nobody else was really any good except for him, and so he seemed even greater. Not that he was any good to begin with (it was a county record, not a state record or area record or anything like that), because the other teams they played in the area probably weren’t very good either, and in the end he was never noticed by a scout from a university or a pro basketball team, and now is still playing on that same team of imbeciles, except now it’s in a gas station. The idea that Flick is still in the same life that he was in high school, even though he can’t live in the past and still live a good life, is also reflected in the way that he plays pool at Mae’s luncheonette, something that high school kids would have done. He enjoyed high school a little too much and couldn’t adjust to the real world, while his fellow students moved on.
In the same way we see how his life is different: “The ball loved Flick.” (16) But the lug wrench doesn’t love Flick, “it makes no difference to” it (24). This tells us that it wasn’t Flick who had as much talent as he did luck and intuition, and this leads us to the fact that one might argue that Flick is just living a simple life, without the complexities of adulthood, and that in the end of the day he probably enjoys himself. I think otherwise. Flick was a guy who had potential. He had talent, and he squandered it. He had a future, but look where he is now – selling gas, checking oil, and changing flats. These three things are all fixing other peoples’ cars, not his own. He might not even own his own car; but he is always fixing others’. Before, he was the person in charge; now he is subservient. He makes a joke out of the time when he was the top dog, by dribbling an inner tube “as a gag” (21).
The message of this poem is that of an example: Updike gives us a person who used to be great in others’ eyes, but now it isn’t as much so. A person who had a future but somewhere along the line didn’t cash in and got into a slump. Flick’s hands were like “wild birds,” and he couldn’t keep up with them and follow through on any talent that he had. If Flick found his place in life – which he didn’t, and if he did it probably would be with basketball, knowing what he was like in high school, whether it be coaching basketball at the high school or playing on a team at least – would he be reminiscing of playing basketball by thinking that candy is an audience, when he could be out playing it or coaching it himself? I think not. Flick is a person who focused on one aspect of their life and became good at it (which isn’t a bad thing) but didn’t follow through, and Updike is warning us of his fate.