The poem “Ex-Basketball Player” by John Updike chronicles the life and daily routine of the former high school basketball standout, Flick Webb. The speaker leads the reader on a journey through Flick’s life, starting with the principal road in the town, progressing to Flick’s lowly job, and then finishing with his menial habits. Flick was once the best basketball player in the area. However, he has since fallen from stardom and now he just “sells gas, checks oil, and changes flats.” (l. 19-20)
Poetic Style in "Ex-Basketball Player"
Updike laces this poem with proper diction, figurative language, and allusions to the post-World War II era. These elements have a great effect on the tone and meaning of the poem. The ESSO gas station, lemon phosphate drink, Nibs, Juju Beads, and Necco wafers all snap the black and white photograph typical of the late 1940’s. The winding road leading through town is a metaphor for Flick’s own life. It turns past the high school, his glory days, and halts abruptly at the gas station where he will most likely work for the rest of his life. All of this gives us the nostalgic feeling of living in the 1940’s, which helps us connect to the poem and its meaning.
An analysis of "Ex-Basketball Player" shows that John Updike does an effective job of conveying the possible consequences of failing to acquire valuable skills and knowledge. It serves to persuade people to become more than just a ballin’ G, but rather a ballin’ G with an education. Flick had the talent necessary to shine in high school athletics. Unfortunately, those skills are obsolete after graduation day. Flick had lofty dreams, but as John Steinbeck so eloquently put it, “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” This work provides a relatively depressing view on life, partly because of Flick’s bad luck and circumstances, but also because of his self-incurred problems.
Updike tries very hard to make this a generic, relatable story. This sad tale has been played out countless times in countless cities by countless ex-athletes. That is what makes it so powerful. We all have a mental image of Flick from our own life. Perhaps we worshiped that person. Perhaps we loathed him. Perhaps we are Flick. It's a universal theme that relates to almost everyone. The emotions and memories that it provokes are what make this a powerful and enduring poem.
Flick is analogous to Biff from The Death of a Salesman, because in their youth, both aspired to become athletes, only to have their dreams sidetracked by reality and a lack of education. Flick never attended college and Biff’s poor math scores prevented him from even finishing high school. In their later years, both are pigeonholed in dead-end jobs, devoid of a family, and spending their days reliving the past. It’s amazing how the plethora of adoring fans fade away when Flick no longer dons a sports jersey. Flick provides an excellent lesson to all high school students.
A Video of the Poem
Herb Duplissea on October 27, 2018:
Steinbeck may have said, “ the best laid plans ...” but the original quote is in a poem by the great Scottish writer Robert Burns.
Mark Tulin from Ventura, California on October 16, 2017:
Interesting poem. Didn't know Updike wrote poetry. Thanks for introducing me to his poems.