John Updike’s ‘Ex-Basketball Player’ a poem of five stanzas each containing six lines and written in blank verse, describes the life of Flick Webb, once a high-school basketball star but now, his glorious past several years behind him, a gas-station attendant whose life appears to have reached a dead end. The first stanza begins with brief geographical detail of Flick’s hometown, a town never named in the poem but presumably somewhere fairly small and rural (possibly like Updike’s own hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania).
The reader learns that Flick spends his days helping out ‘Berth, ‘ who runs a garage located on the west-facing corner of Colonel McComsky Plaza.
The second stanza is a snapshot of Flick at Berth’s Garage, standing ‘tall among the idiot pumps.’ The ‘bubble-head style’ of gas pump, old-fashioned even at the time the poem was written in 1954, features a glass globe on top: In earlier decades of the twentieth century, gasoline was often sold at stations that might sell more than one brand, the brand identified by the globe.
One of the pumps at Berth’s dispenses Esso brand gasoline, and the narrator of the poem sees it and the other pumps as athletes, the hoses ‘rubber elbows hanging loose and low’ like a basketball player. Another squat pump, with no head, is ‘more of a football type.’
In stanzas 3 and 4, the narrator’s camera lens widens, and the reader begins to learn more about Flick’s story. The narrator reveals the fact that Flick was a fine high-school basketball player, having scored 390 points in 1946, still a county record.
The narrator also, in the third stanza, refers to himself directly for the first time in the poem, noting that he had once seen Flick score ‘thirty-eight or forty’ points during a home game, a detail implying that Flick and the narrator attended the same high school. However, as the reader learns in the fourth stanza, Flick’s successes were all in the past. Having never learned a trade, he just works at Berth’s now, selling gasoline, checking oil, and changing flat tires. Once in a while ‘he dribbles an inner tube’ for the amusement of friends, most of whom would not need the reminder of Flick’s past.
If Flick has seemed until this point in the poem a slightly comic figure, cheerfully dribbling his inner tubes, he begins to appear more pathetic, perhaps even sinister, in the fifth stanza. The picture of him here, ‘Grease-gray and kind of coiled, ‘ playing pinball, smoking cigars, and drinking lemon phosphates (a kind of soft drink) at Mae’s Luncheonette, where he hangs out when he is off work, is disturbing, as is the fact that he seldom speaks to Mae, but rather nods ‘Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers/ Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.’ The audience that loved him in high school when he was scoring points for the basketball team has moved forward. Yet still wanting the applause, Flick turns toward junk food and candy for sale at the small-town diner for the emotional sustenance he still craves.