The man who could become basketball's most enduring hero ever took - and sank - his last shot 26 years ago, a contested floater over a taller, younger, more athletic defender.

He'd first surfaced three decades earlier, when a fellow Pennsylvanian described what would be the most famous basket of his life:

"Setting his feet with care, wiggling the ball with nervousness in front of his chest, one widespread white hand on top of the ball and the other underneath, jiggling it patiently to get some adjustment in air itself. The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper."

In 1989, he suffered a fatal heart attack, fittingly on a Florida basketball court. Today you won't find his name in the Hall of Fame at Springfield or his throwback jersey in the Modell's at the mall. But don't let that fool you. This lean, 6-foot-2 Berks Countian was a basketball immortal, one who long after time swallows Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James will be recalled, read about, and discussed.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom was the fictional Pennsylvania high school hotshot at the heart of John Updike's four acclaimed Rabbit novels, 1960's Rabbit, Run, 1971's Rabbit Redux, 1980's Rabbit Is Rich, and 1990's Rabbit at Rest.

If you assume the lessons of great literature will survive longer than the memories of great athletes, then Rabbit will easily outlive his flesh-and-blood counterparts. Who today, for example, can name a whaler other than Captain Ahab?

When in 2002 NPR ranked the 100 greatest fictional characters post-1900, Rabbit was No. 5, ahead of Sherlock Holmes and Atticus Finch and behind only the dream team of Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Humbert Humbert, and Leopold Bloom.

Since no one ahead of him - no, the Catcher in the Rye wasn't about baseball - was an athlete, it's fair to suggest Angstrom's renown might linger beyond any sports star's.

Already he's the only fictional character to be a central figure in two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, the third and fourth of Updike's "Rabbit" series, a tetralogy many list among the 20th century's greatest literature.

Not bad for a small-town hoops star, a natural athlete who followed his "inner imperatives," never mastered a jump shot, and peaked in high school.

Now, with the 2015-16 high school basketball season set to begin in an America beset by the cultural chaos Updike's books detailed so richly, Rabbit Angstrom, the schoolboy hero who became a benchwarmer in life, seems as relevant as ever.

If the author had heeded his first New Yorker editor, we might never have had this compelling character. Katherine White advised a young Updike to avoid stories in which "a young man looks back nostalgically at his basketball-playing days."

The "Rabbit" books, of course, aren't about nostalgia any more than they're about basketball. They're unflinching chronicles of an angst-riddled Angstrom and the kaleidoscopic America he inhabited. Yet throughout his many flights, both fanciful and real, it's lost basketball glory that defines and dooms him.

"I once did something right," he says in Rabbit Run. "I played first-rate basketball, I really did. And after you're first-rate at something, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate."

Asked about the origins of his most famous character, Updike - who grew up in Shillington, a small town near Reading, and died in 2009 - said he found inspiration everywhere.

"Shillington was littered with the wrecks of former basketball stars," he said.

"You climb up through the little grades and then you get to the top and everybody cheers; with the sweat in your eyebrows you can't see very well and the noise swirls around you and lifts you up, and then you're out, not forgotten at first, just out, and it feels good and cool and free. You're out, and sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adults that hangs over them in the town, a piece that for some queer reason has clouded and visited them. They've not forgotten him; worse, they've never heard of him."

In 2009, the Reading Eagle, where Updike had worked his Harvard summers as an overqualified copy boy, tried to find Rabbit's real-life counterpart. Most likely, they deemed, it was Bob Arndt, a 6-foot-2 star at Shillington High when the writer was an impressionable teenager.

"The guy I had in mind dimly," Updike confirmed in a letter to a Shillington friend, "was Bob Arndt. Remember him?"

The Eagle found Arndt, living Rabbit-like with his third wife in Florida, oblivious to his role as muse.

"I never read the books," he said, "but my wife did."

When Rabbit at Rest concludes, Angstrom, 56, is also in Florida. Wracked with physical and psychic pain, the ex-hoops star is drawn again to the sport. At a playground court, he inexplicably challenges a black youngster to a game of 21.

" 'You played once?' the tall boy says.

" 'Long time ago. High school. . . . Different style then.' "

Their game's tied at 20 when Rabbit goes up - "way up toward the torn clouds" - for a shot, his last.

"His torso is ripped by a terrific pain, elbow to elbow. He bursts from within; he feels something immense persistently fumble at him, and falls unconscious in the dirt. Tiger catches the ball on its fall through the basket."

The circle that began with that back-alley basket in Rabbit, Run is complete. The loser at life has found a brief, familiar solace at its end.

He's a winner again.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz