Poets use literary devices, methods of using language to create new ways of perceiving things. In "The Ex-Basketball Player," while Updike's recurring character of the former high school athlete who has missed his chance for success works at Berth's Garage reminisces about his former glory days, Updike portrays this reminiscence in creative ways. He uses the literary devices of imagery, simile, metaphor, and personification,
Personification [the attribution of human qualities to non-human things]
That Pearl Avenue "runs" past the high-school lot and "Bends" with the tracks, then "stops, cut off" suggests life on the street and helps the reader to visualize the settings.
The gas pumps are described as "idiot pumps" with "rubber elbows" and "nostrils" and "squat, without a head" like a "football type." This personification underscores the ex-basketball player's failure as it suggests that only the idiot pumps now are Flick's audience.
Flick nods to "bright applauding tiers/ Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads." The only audience he has is not human; behind Flick is merely a counter of snacks.
That Flick has such "fine and nervous" hands "makes no difference to the lug wrench" suggests that the lug wrench can think.
Simile [a comparison using like or as ]
In describing Flick, the Updike writes, "His hands were like wild birds."
Imagery [descriptive language to recreate sensory experiences]
In stanza two the image of Flick towering over the "idiot pumps" suggests that at one time Flick was like nobility among the townspeople.
"the bright applauding tiers" suggests the crowds that once came to watch the town's superstar.
Flick now is no superstar; he is "Grease-gray," dirty from his menial job.
Parallelism [two or more lines are directly related in structure]
The parallel structure in the verb phrases "just sells gas,/Cehck oil, and changes flats" creates a routine sound to Flick's menial job.
Each stanza is six lines long, with each line about the same length. This appearance also suggests the routine life of Flick now in contrast to the excitement of having been a basketball star.
The poem is written in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter which lends the poem a natural feeling, almost conversational.
The poem has a controlling metaphor in which Flick is like the street of the first line. He was once a "Pearl," but because of missed opportunities, he also has been "stopped" and "cut off" before having "a chance" to go further in life.
All of the above-mentioned devices contribute to the theme of the poem. For, with the use of these poetic devices, John Updike captures the poignancy of the misfortune of people who miss opportunities to capitalize upon their talents.