IN CITY OF CHANGE, KNAULS REMAINS CONSTANT
You may not know the name, but if you were a Trail Blazers fan during the NBA franchise's first three decades of existence, you know the face.
You remember those toothpaste-ad white teeth, the inviting smile, the dapper look and the natty attire of the distinguished-looking gentleman who sat underneath the visitors' basket in the front row of virtually every home game.
You might recall Paul Knauls kibitzing with LeRoy Ellis or Maurice Lucas or Clyde Drexler or any one of the many Blazers whom he befriended.
"Paul has a magnetic personality," says Drexler, the Hall-of-Famer who graced the courts in a Portland uniform for 11 1/2 seasons. "He was at all the games at (Memorial Coliseum), and is the nicest guy you could meet."
But Knauls wasn't just a fan. He was a successful businessman, an integral part of the fabric of the city of Portland, a charismatic leader in the community.
"An icon," many have called Knauls. "The Mayor of Northeast Portland," he was dubbed in honorary fashion.
"Larger than life," says his son, Paul Knauls Jr.
Knauls Sr. is still around, though he no longer is a regular at Blazer games.
At 86, he puts in regular hours operating the barber/beauty salon, Geneva's Shear Perfection, he has run for 38 years.
"Have nothing else to do," Knauls says. "Might as well come down and mind the shop."
When a reporter whom he has never met spends an hour with him on the premises, Knauls flashes the famous smile often, ending many sentences with a Bill Russell-like cackle that is both charming and infectious.
"If you make as much as eye contact with my father, you are going to have interaction with him, if for nothing else than to exchange a 'good morning,'" says Knauls Jr., who manages Geneva's. "If you cross paths with my father, you will remember him, that's for sure. You cannot forget him."
It's that way with some people. It's especially that way with Paul Knauls, an ambassador of goodwill in Portland, a pioneer and leading light in the city's black community. His story should not be forgotten.
Knauls grew up in rural Arkansas, the middle of seven children to Governor (his surname, not an elected title) and Gladys Knauls. Paul's siblings were all girls.
"The bad part was wearing those hand-me-downs," says Paul, laughing heartily at the thought. "That's what gets you, man."
His father was a coal miner who died of black lung at age 51. His mother was a homemaker who also worked cleaning and cooking for white families.
Paul attended a segregated school in Huntington until his family moved to Fort Smith when he was in fifth grade, and he enrolled in an integrated Catholic school. "First time I'd been around whites," he says.
The Knauls were devoted members of the charismatic Church of God in Christ.
"We were known as the 'Holy Rollers,'" he says of the Pentecostal denomination. "My job every Sunday morning was to build a fire in the potbelly (stove) to heat up the church. I'd go to Sunday school, stay for church service, then come back at night for our YPWW (Young People Willing Workers) meeting.
"When I was 16, I told my mom I had a chance to get a job shining shoes at a country club on Sundays. That's when I stopped going to church."
The 5-8 Knauls was a scrappy basketball player in high school.
"They tell me I was pretty good," he says. "I must have been, because I made the varsity as a freshman. Started three years for the mighty Pirates of Lincoln High School."
Upon graduation in 1949, Knauls enlisted in the Air Force. He was sent to Spokane, Washington.
"They picked me to integrate Fairchild Air Force Base," Knauls says. "It worked out for me. Not for a lot of other guys, who had never been around white people. I'd been around whites quite a bit. I worked at a country club. I shined shoes.
"The other guys who came from the ghetto, they'd had no interaction with whites whatsoever. They went to segregated schools. They couldn't handle being in barracks next to white people, and the whites couldn't handle them. Six other black guys came in, and they all got in trouble."
Knauls ultimately was promoted to four-star staff sergeant.
"In those days, that was big," he says. "They didn't promote blacks like that. You might get two stripes, but not four. That was just the system. No African-American was going to be above the whites, and that's the way it was."
Knauls was discharged after the Korean War ended in 1953 and remained in Spokane for a decade.
He got married, had his only child and went about making a living. He learned how to repair typewriters. He got a job at the Davenport Hotel, at first as a dishwasher. Then he was promoted to wine steward.
"I'd work with typewriters from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., take the bus downtown and work at the hotel from 6 to 11 p.m.," he says. He learned how to ski and began teaching youngsters.
"On Saturdays, I taught skiing and I cleaned up the typewriter shop I worked at," he says. "So I was working four jobs. Lost my first wife because I was working all the time."
Knauls moved to Portland in 1963 with the goal of running his own business. A local businessman, Way Lee, loaned him $50,000 to buy a nightclub, The Cotton Club.
"The payment was $1,488.22 a month," Knauls says. "I made extra payments and paid off the mortgage in three years."
The Cotton Club, located on North Vancouver Avenue, was the spot for nightlife in the city for music fans of all races through the 1960s. The salad days ended when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
"We had white clients and black clients," Knauls says. "We'd play the first show for whites at 10 p.m., and the blacks would come for the last show. After Dr. King got killed, the whites stopped coming. They were concerned about coming into the inner city. Pretty soon, I had to bail and sold the club."
By that time, Knauls owned two other restaurant/lounges in Northeast Portland — Paul's and Geneva's. Paul's shut down in 1971. Geneva's was sold in 1984.
The Knauls opened Geneva's Shear Perfection on Northeast Williams Avenue and Going Street in 1979. They moved the business to its current location shortly after the city renamed Grand Avenue for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1989. It remains a bustling hub of activity in the area.
Geneva Knauls — who married Paul in 1965 — was the matriarch of the business until she retired in 2006. She died in 2014, nine months short of their 50th wedding anniversary.
"Multiple myeloma, bone cancer, dementia and Parkinson's," Paul says. "You name it, she had it."
Knauls still thrives in her memory.
"Geneva was the queen," he says. "She was everything. Everyone in the city knew her. When she passed, the City Council passed a resolution, proclaiming 'Geneva Knauls Day' in her memory. The state of Oregon Senate voted on Geneva becoming a part of Oregon history in the archives. The Trail Blazers sent a letter describing Geneva and our participation with their organization over the years."
That began in the NBA team's inaugural season of 1970-71. Before the first game, Knauls paid a visit to the team's general manager, Harry Glickman.
"I own a nightclub," Knauls told Glickman. "Black folks aren't familiar with the NBA. I'd like to request four tickets, and I will bring two people with my wife and me to every game. We'll bring different people to every game so they get to know the team and the game."
Glickman comped Knauls four tickets close to the floor through the first season. In the second season, he downgraded it to two free tickets. Before the third season, Glickman called Knauls to his office.
"They were selling more tickets, and Mr. Glickman didn't think he could give me free tickets anymore," Knauls says. "But he said, 'I'll give you a press pass.'"
Knauls sat with the photographers on the floor.
"I had a camera that didn't have any film in it," Knauls says, cackling at the memory. "But I had a great seat."
Before the 1974-75 season, the Blazers drafted Bill Walton, and interest in the team heightened.
"I went to Mr. Glickman and said, 'I can't afford those front-row seats, but I'd like to buy two in the second row,'" Knauls says. "He gave me two under the basket."
That was fine for one season. Then the Blazers strengthened the basket support and obstructed the view.
"I couldn't see," Knauls says. "I told Mr. Glickman, 'You messed up my seats.'"
Glickman gave him one seat in the front row at the same price.
"My wife would be right behind me in the second row," Knauls says. "The next year, she moved up in the front row with me. I never did tell her how much the seats cost. They were $25. That was a lot of money in those days."
Knauls remained in those seats for nearly 25 years. He became legendary, to both fans in Portland and across the country.
"You didn't see blacks anywhere in the country at a game in the front row," he says. "A friend of mine from L.A. said he'd travel around and say, 'I'm from Portland.' People would ask, 'Who's that black guy sitting in the front row?' He'd tell them I was the mayor of Portland.
"When I went to ski conferences, people would say, 'I know you. You're the dude be sitting in the front row.' I was like Spike Lee in New York, before he became Spike Lee."
The Knauls kept their tickets until the late 1990s, after local kid Damon Stoudamire was traded to the Blazers. Shortly thereafter, Stoudamire's niece, Kara, relayed an invitation from Damon for the Knauls to sit in his suite.
"So I moved up there for eight years, until Damon left the team," Paul says.
Over the years, Knauls befriended many of the Blazers. Geneva cut the hair of many of the players, including Buck Williams.
"She gave the best haircuts in the world," Williams says. "She had the softest hands. I never told Paul that, of course. Ah, the soft loving touch from Geneva. They were two great people."
Knauls says his favorite Blazer was Maurice Lucas.
"Luke was so huge, he'd put his arm around you and squeeze the life out of you," he says. "So powerful. I loved his personality. What a guy he was."
The Blazers felt the same way about Knauls.
"Paul loved the Blazers," Drexler says. "He was a staple of the energetic fan base that would get all of the opposition and give us an advantage. And he was the nicest guy. He and his wife were first class, A-1 people. I had so much respect for them."
"Paul was a die-hard Blazer," Williams recalls. "He probably still wears Trail Blazer underwear every day. A good human being, and a very honorable, soft-spoken kind of guy. He is part of the Trail Blazer legacy, as far as I'm concerned. It runs deep in his blood."
During the early years, Knauls had a bus that carried customers of his restaurants to Blazer games.
"He bought an old school bus," Knauls Jr. says. "He painted it green. He wrote on the side of it, 'Soul Train.' The Soul Train got permission to park at the front door of Memorial Coliseum. People would purchase cocktails on the Soul Train, get taken to the game, then get brought back from the game.
"The players would say, 'Where do I go after the game?' He'd say, 'Well, come on over to Geneva's.' It was genius. It was something special 'The Chief' had going. He's such a marketing man, and a promoter."
Knauls no longer attends many games.
"Too hard now at my age," he says. "It's not worth it. But I watch the games on TV. I follow the team, keep up with the stats."
Knauls went to one game this past season, when the Blazers honored the 1977 team on the 40th anniversary of their championship. A friend gave him a ticket and brought him to the game. He was greeted by fans as if he were a celebrity.
"Everybody was coming up, taking pictures," he says. "People were saying, 'You used to sit next to my father. I want to show him a picture.' My friend was amazed. He said, 'I guess I'll be your bodyguard tonight.'"
Knauls has no greater admirer than his son.
"My father and I have a good relationship," says Knauls Jr., 64. "It's special because we both have large personalities. Being around my dad at a young age, I picked up his behavior.
"He was always friendly to people. He was always ahead of his time. In 1968, I was 5 when my father taught me how to ski. We were doing something that black people just didn't do. When he was a wine steward, they treated my father like he was a king. Everyone in that dang place knew his name."
Knauls Jr. appreciates what his father became.
"He wanted to be his own man, to own his own business," he says. "He decided that was going to be a nightclub. He didn't just buy a nightclub. My father was hands-on. He'd work every weekend, and he worked harder than anyone I knew.
"My father busted his behind to live his dream. I've never seen anybody to this day work as hard as my father did. He was after something, and he wanted it like he wanted to breathe."
Before he moved to Portland, Knauls developed a relationship with Spokane's Triple-A baseball club, the Indians.
"Players like Willie Davis and Tommy Harper would come by the house and hang out," Knauls Jr. says.
Knauls Jr. loved baseball, too, and was a talented shortstop. In the late 1970s, he tried out for the Portland Mavericks.
"(Manager) Frank Peters asked me to tend bar at his nightclub," Knauls Jr. says. "I said, 'No, I work at Geneva's.' I was the last player they released. I got released on the Joe Garagiola Show. Too bad, because Dad was going to ferry people on his bus to the Mavericks games."
Knauls Jr. remembers the relationship his father had with NBA players.
"Jerome Kersey came to my grandmother's house for Thanksgiving one year," he says. "Maurice Lucas and Bill Walton would come by. He knew all the players from around the league — Calvin Murphy, Julius Erving, George Gervin, Willis Reed, Bob Lanier. I can go on and on."
One of Knauls' best friends is Harvey Rice, whom he met shortly after Knauls arrived in Portland. Rice worked for him at one of his restaurants for six years.
"He must have trusted me," says Rice, 80. "When he and Geneva went on their honeymoon, he left me in charge."
Rice came to know Knauls well.
"Paul has more energy than the average man," Rice says. "He's straightforward. He treats people right. He demands they treat him right. He's a people person. Whenever he owned something, he made sure to hire community people. He has always been involved in neighborhood matters."
Knauls has never let race become an issue, Rice says.
"Put it this way," Rice says. "He believes in being friends with everybody. There's no divide as far he's concerned. When white people came into his club, he demanded they respect the blacks, and vice versa. That's just the kind of person he always was."
And still is.
"He's been a public figure for a long time," Knauls Jr. says. "He's a loved man. He doesn't carry any animosity and hatred. To my Dad, that's like drinking poison."
Knauls remains a conduit to getting things done in the community.
"People call me and say, 'Mr. Knauls, I have this car parked in front of my house. What do I do about it?'" Knauls says. "I look up the number and give it to them to call. Or if somebody in the neighborhood isn't taking care of their yard, they'll call. They actually think I can do something about it. It's constant like that."
He smiles, and breaks into a big laugh.
Says Knauls: "Somebody told me the other day, 'Mr. Knauls, you ought to run for mayor. These mayors we got, they don't know what they're doing.'"
Part of it is, Knauls gets things done. Part of it may be his sunny disposition.
"I used to get in trouble a lot with my wife," he says. "She'd get serious, and I'd laugh. She'd say, 'I'm serious.'
"I got in trouble when I was in the service, too. The sergeant would be barking and calling everybody names, and I'd start laughing, because I never had anybody call me those names. I thought it was funny. The next thing I knew, I'd be outside scrubbing the barrack steps with a toothbrush."
Where did the positive attitude come from?
"I don't know," he says, leaning back in his barber chair, "but I had a great childhood, I know that. I did good in school. Never got in trouble. I'm one of the few black men you'll meet who has never been in jail, never been arrested. I'm 86 and have never had a driving citation."
Knauls remains the same person he's always been. He likes to work.
"Tuesday's my day off," he says. "The rest of the week I'm here from 9 a.m. to noon. I go home and take a nap. I'm back here at 3 and stay till 6 or 6:30. That's my daily routine. I'm in here on Sundays, too.
"People ask me, 'Why do you come here every day?' Well, I can stay home and watch Judge Judy, or I can come down here and be with people. Imagine all the people my age who have nothing to do. They get up in the morning and there's nowhere to go, so they watch TV all day long. They don't go out and exercise. I walk an hour nearly every day."
Knauls still drives a car.
"I go out a lot alone most of the time," he says. "I don't have to wait for someone that way. I can go and stay a half-hour or stay three hours. Still live by myself. No girlfriend. Just somebody to take to a party. I have two engagements tomorrow, and I'm going by myself."
Knauls looks like a man much younger than his age. The pearly teeth remain perfect.
"They have those white strips," he says with a giggle. "They work."
He remains a spiffy dresser, almost always wearing a captain's hat he bought at John Helmer Haberdasher 20 years ago.
"Tried it on, and it looked cool," he says. "Bought two of them. My wife hated the cap, but I wore it all the time.
"I dressed like this when I was in high school. My dad opened up an account for me at a clothing store called Louie's Man Shop. I have one pair of Levi's. The first time I bought them was three years ago. Went over to Goodwill and got some for $6.99, and I love them."
Knauls lives alone in the Northeast Portland home he has owned for many years, and is paid for. He regrets that many of his black neighbors have moved away.
"I drive around, and the biggest thing I see is African-Americans have moved out of the community," he says. "The houses that cost $8,000 in the '40s go for a half-million dollars today. Nobody can afford to live here anymore.
"Used to be you'd never see a white person on Mississippi Avenue. I drove down there the other day and there was a sign that said, 'Historic Mississippi.' I was laughing driving up the street. I remember when I wouldn't even go up Mississippi, it was so rough. I didn't want to get caught over there."
Things have changed in Portland. There remain only a few constants. One of them is Paul Knauls. We should all be thankful for that.