In everyones life there will be peaks and valleys. What happens when a boy peaks before he has even had the chance to be a man? Can he be content to live in his remembrances of the past even though he seemingly has no future? John Updikes poem, Ex-Basketball Player, suggests that whether happy or not, both the man and the town he lives in need those remembrances. They need them so much, in fact, that the man and town become dependant on each other for reaffirmation of the past. The poem is built around the character Flick Webb, who was a highschool basketball star, but is now confined to the monotony of pumping gas the small town where he was born and raised. Updike does not take an obvious “good or bad” stance on Flicks situation, but rather uses imagery to portray a dark, dingy world of the present and contrast it with the bright, shining glory of Flicks past. The imagery is evident in the first two lines of the poem, where Pearl Avenue “bends with the trolley tracks and stops, cut off.” (2) Already we see that Flicks future has been cut short, like the very road that leads to Berths Garage, where he pumps gas.
In fact, the train even passes by the very high school Flick attended. Like Flick, though the train passes the high school, it does not go far beyond. The words “cut off” are the key to understanding Flicks situation. Abruptly, his course was changed. Without warning, his stardom was exchanged for mediocrity.
A highschool basketball stars glory days were cut off by the striking reality that he, as the poem suggests, “never learned a trade.” (19) In the poems next stanza, it becomes obvious that Flick is out of place amongst the “idiot pumps” (7) with their “rubber elbows hanging loose and low.” (9) The imagery suggests that these inanimate objects are as close as Flick comes to any sort of real contact with others, as is further suggested by the last stanza of the poem, in which he ignores Mae to stare of into “applauding tiers of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and JuJu Beads.” (30) The reference to one of the pumps as “more of a football type” (12) also points to the fact that Flick views the world through sports analogies and his past. The fact that there are five pumps, like five men on a basketball court for each team, also suggests that Flick still views life in terms of basketball. These facts affirm the notion that Flick did not concentrate on anything other than basketball throughout his formative years. Not relationships with others, not academics, not a fallback plan. Just basketball. The term “idiot” used to describe the pumps (7) also separates Flick from the other basketball players he used to play with and against. Just as he is out of place amongst the pumps, his talent put him out of place amongst his peers.
In fact, though he was revered and lauded, Flick was never really a part of the town. His presence was merely ornamental, and continues to be. The theme that Flick is not necessarily unhappy, but out of place, continues throughout the poem. As we are told that “the ball loved Flick” (16) and “he was the best,” (14) we see that it is not just Flick who looks upon his past with a sort of admiration and pride. It is the entire city.
He is, in fact, the local hero. The boy who didnt exactly make it big, but he made it big enough that hes remembered. Perhaps the town longs for that hero the same way Flick does. But it is not longing for Flick, specifically. What the town, as represented by the narrator, wants is another hero.
Until one comes along, they will live vicariously through Flicks past. “As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube, but most of us remember anyway,” (21-22) the narrator muses. Its as though Flick wants to remind the town of his past, but he has no need, for they cling to it just as he does. He does not see people, he sees spectators. He does not see gas pumps, he sees opponents, team mates, and athletes. He does not see candy, he sees a highschool gymnasium full of adoring fans. And likewise, the town does not see a person, but the persons past.
It appears to be a very mutual need for reminiscence. However, Flick and his fans are a community isolated from reality. And reality is what matters. Flick is not necessarily skilled with the lug wrench, but “it makes no difference to the lug wrench.” (24) Again, the warmth of memories and “a gag” (21) are contrasted with the harsh reality that Flicks path is a permanent one, and in the end, it doesnt matter how many points he scored or who remembers what. All that matters is the fact that Flick pumps gas.
To the townspeople, he is a hero. To the rest of the world, he is nothing, if even that. However, the cold reality does not seem to affect Flick too deeply. The last image one gets is that of Flick staring past a person in to “applauding tiers” (29) of candy. The use of the word “tiers” plays as almost a pun, suggesting that Flick may be unhappy with is lot in life, but he portrays himself as almost undaunted by what has happened to him and content to live his life through the glory of his past.
Is he happy? The poem suggests that he realizes his circumstances are less than ideal, but Flick seems content to exist in the present but live in the past. For better or worse, Flick will never be a “gas station attendant,” no matter how long that is his actual position. For better or worse, Flick will always be an ex-basketball player.