Ex-Basketball Player

by John Updike

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

Updike was a young man, just twenty-two, when he wrote “Ex-Basketball Player,” but he has returned to the figure of a high-school basketball star and his anticlimactic adulthood throughout his career. Updike’s “Rabbit” novels, Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit At Rest (1990), considered by many to be the author’s masterpieces and arguably milestones in twentieth century American fiction, trace the life of their hero, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, through his late twenties until his death in his mid-fifties. Flick Webb is surely a prototype for Updike’s much more famous literary creation.

Like Rabbit, Flick was a high-school basketball record holder whose early successes and, within a provincial context, fame, have dire consequences. Readers might ask themselves who is to blame for what appears to be Flick’s certain future demise. Is the problem that Flick allowed adoration to get to his head and never bothered to prepare a better future for himself, or is the problem that Flick lives in a society that confers such status on exceptionally talented high-school athletes that their future failings are almost preordained? The casual reader who reads the poem as a simple indictment of Flick or simply as a portrait of a pathetic former high-school basketball star rapidly approaching a disappointing middle age might consider a few of the poem’s details.

There is Pearl Avenue, “cut off/ Before it has a chance.” If the comparison is with Flick, then he too is “cut off,” perhaps not by his personal failings so much as by the town itself. One might want to consider the names of the places Flick works and frequents as well, “Berth’s Garage” and “Mae’s Luncheonette.” Updike might be employing puns here on the words “birth” and “may.” Both words imply possibility, forward movement, but both are transformed by the poem into images of stultification: the garage where Flick can never hope to make much money and the luncheonette where nothing nourishing is offered to sustain either body or soul.

Flick’s essential goodness is suggested by his good humor dribbling inner tubes, and his spiritual capacity is suggested by the name of his high-school team (Wizards), his hands “like wild birds,” and the fact that “The ball loved Flick.” Perhaps he has been transformed into a pitiable man/boy who, smoking “those thin cigars, nurs[ing] lemon phosphates” cannot leave his past behind because his society idolized him in a way that would eventually leave him emotionally, intellectually, and economically unprepared to meet the demands of adulthood. The narrator is a fellow townsman who sees gas pumps in athletic terms (as basketball and football “types”), who cheered Flick at basketball games, and who needs no reminder of Flick’s glory days because the worship of sports heroes is as much a part of his own worldview as everyone else’s. The narrator implicates himself in Flick’s tragedy more than he implicates Flick himself.

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