WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — To the unenlightened reader, the Walker University described in Emily Giffin’s novel “The One & Only” bears only a passing resemblance to Wake Forest University, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Those who know Wake Forest might suspect otherwise. Those who know Giffin would definitely know otherwise.
And there are many in the Wake Forest community who indeed know Giffin — a smashingly successful author whose latest work currently has the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best sellers’ list for hardcover fiction — from the four years she spent as manager for Coach Dave Odom’s basketball program.
It was from that experience that she drew the backdrop of major college athletics woven into “The One & Only,” belying such elements as the sport, in this instance football not basketball, and the setting, a fictitious town in Texas (between Dallas and Waco) and not Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“It really defined my college experience,” Giffin said in recent telephone interview about her four seasons (1989-90 to 1993-94) as the Deacons’ basketball manager. “I’m still so emotional about it.
“To me, that shows you why it’s more than a game. It was those relationships and those people, and I really wanted to tell a story set in this incredibly rich backdrop of loyalty, commitment and a common goal.”
Bent on getting it right, Giffin did her due diligence talking with Odom, basketball coach Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Pat Dye, a former football coach at East Carolina and Auburn, about the demands, responsibilities, heartaches and joy of their lives as they balanced the personal with the professional. She also talked with their wives and daughters about their perspectives from different angles.
Odom read the manuscript before publication, as did his wife, Lynn.
“She wanted that authenticity to come out as she wrote and as it progressed,” Odom said. “She didn’t want to go out on any tangent someplace and have that be unbelievable or something that would not happen in this day and age. I took that responsibility on to read it, and I think Lynn, she took the opportunity to read it and to contribute from a relationship standpoint. She knows what it’s like to live the life of a coach’s wife.”
Dave and Lynn Odom have remained close friends with Giffin, who attended high school in Chicago and chose Wake Forest for the expressed purpose of serving as manager of the basketball program.
“My parents are like ‘Are you going to look at Northwestern, or Michigan or the University of Chicago?’” Giffin said. “I said ‘No I’m only going to apply to Wake Forest because I had a manager’s job there.’”
She had an in. Her uncle Doug Elgin (to whom the book is dedicated) was the sports-information director at Virginia several years before, back when Odom was an assistant to Coach Terry Holland.
And her timing was good enough for her to arrive at Wake Forest the same year as Rodney Rogers, Randolph Childress, Trelonnie Owens, Marc Blucas, Stan King and Robert Doggett, the recruiting class that elevated the basketball program from the lower echelons of the ACC back to conference prominence.
“That was my class,” Giffin said.
She was a senior the year that a wide-eyed, unheralded freshman named Tim Duncan showed up from the U.S. Virgin Islands in jeans that didn’t quite reach his ankles and a T-shirt a size or two too small.
“First of all, I loved Timmy right out of the gate,” Giffin said. “I remember showing him around on his first recruiting trip.
“But I do remember saying to Coach Odom — and I can’t believe I’m about to tell a reporter this — I said ‘Coach I love this kid, but I just can’t see him fitting in at Wake Forest.’ How about that one?
“Fortunately for everyone involved, I was in charge of towels and water and a few other things, and not recruiting strategy.”
Giffin became and remains friends with the players, coaches, support staff, fellow managers and classmates — many of whom show up, at least in name, as background characters in “The One & Only.”
“She was great,” Odom said of Giffin as a manager. “She was equally as much a mentor to the players as she was a manager for us. Both were equally important roles.”
Although Giffin graduated from the University of Virginia Law School and practiced law in Manhattan for several years, those who knew her best at Wake Forest recognized that litigation was not her true calling. Odom knew it the day she walked into his office after a bitter defeat at North Carolina with a two-page essay of the experience.
“What it was, was a chronology of the day, the whole day, from the time we got to the arena,” Odom said. “She talked about their managers, with their smug looks on their face. She talked about the sweat on the brow of the players. She talked about the heartbreaking loss right at the end. She talked about (the players) and how they reacted.
“And the thing that really struck me is she said ‘I’m sitting on the bus with the other players, halfway back to Winston-Salem. I can hear the whining of the wheels as we churn west.’ And it said something like ‘The only consolation as I look to the western sky is that the sky is gray, and not Carolina blue.’”
The public at large has come to realize what Odom knew back then. Giffin has published six novels, with 11 million books in print in 31 languages. All have made the New York Times best sellers’ list, and five have reached the No. 2 spot.
But it wasn’t until “The One & Only” made its debut last week at No. 1 that she reached the top. One of the many friends from Wake Forest she has heard from is Childress, now an assistant basketball coach for the Deacons.
“When I just found out my book was going to debut at No. 1, I got a text from Randolph,” Giffin said. “And he said ‘Did we make No. 1?’
“And I wrote back, ‘Yes, thank you so much. It’s like your 1995 (ACC) championship.’”