All In? Cleveland dares to believe after all the crushing heartbreak

CLEVELAND -- He said his name was Jack and that he'd been driving around for the past two hours just to get a fare.

He's 70 years old, working more than he ever thought he would at this age because, "The cab business in Cleveland is shot because of the frigging Uber," but he said he's thrilled this ride is to the airport so he can get away from the traffic and construction of downtown.

He doesn't even go near Quicken Loans Arena on nights when LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing. "Too crowded," he scoffed. "Too crazy."

But don't worry, Jack said. This is the last time the NBA Finals will be in Cleveland for a while.

"I'm telling you, this is Cleveland, Ohio," he said. "People get their hopes up. They get their hearts broken. They just don't understand, Cleveland will never win anything. It's just in the cards, in the tarot cards.

"I want the Cavs to win, but I know they will not. ... And after they lose, [LeBron] is out of here, because he can't win."

It's a hell of a thing to say on the eve of Cleveland's latest best chance at ending 52 years of sporting misery.

LeBron James has rallied the Cavaliers to two straight wins with magnificent 41-point games to force a decisive Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday.

Fans around the city are wearing Cavaliers gear and shouting "All In" as an everyday greeting. Even the guy who burned James' jersey when he left the Cavs as a free agent in 2010 is optimistic about Cleveland's chances to end this historic championship drought.

"Usually I'd be like, 'We're probably going to lose, Cleveland curse and whatever,'" said Jason Herron, the Cavs season-ticket holder who famously burned his No. 23 jersey on national TV after James announced he was leaving to sign with the Miami Heat.

"But for the first time in my life, I feel like my team is going to win a championship. It just feels like the perfect ending. LeBron came home, he led us back from a 3-1 deficit, the game is on Father's Day."

Jack laughs at the youngsters. He has seen this before.

"This town is so desperate for something good to happen to it," he said. "This is all just people jumping on the bandwagon. They're going crazy over Game 6? It was Game 6!"

Jack's a native -- old enough to remember The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble and The Move. He said the worst heartbreak is the one that doesn't have a snappy name, when Browns quarterback Brian Sipe threw an interception in the end zone when the team needed only a short field goal to beat the Oakland Raiders in the 1980-81 AFC divisional playoffs.

"That crushed this town," he said.

And now Cleveland is right back on the metaphorical goal line: close enough to dream about a championship and for it to hurt deeply if the Cavs can't pull it out.

All of that is way too much for LeBron James to process in the moment.

"I just play," James said after an incredible Game 6 victory Thursday night in which he scored or assisted on the Cavaliers' final 27 points. "I know what I put into the game. I know how true I am to the game. I know how true I am to these fans. So, no, I don't let it get to me."

Yes, his legacy depends on bringing a championship to his hometown. It's what he came back for in 2014. But pressure isn't helpful to him now.

Keith Dambrot can tell by the way James sits during his postgame news conference that he's bursting with excitement at the chance to win a championship Sunday. But he also knows James well enough to understand that those thoughts must be managed.

"I think this is his way of dealing with [pressure]," Dambrot said from his office inside the University of Akron arena. Dambrot coached James in his first two years of high school and has remained close to him ever since.

They talk when James needs support, when things get difficult and overwhelming -- like in 2011, after James and the Heat lost to Dallas in the Finals.

"This is the central tension for everyone in this moment with the Cavaliers: Is it possible to fully embrace the situation without leaving the heart unguarded?"

But right now, Dambrot said James looks like he's handling the pressure well.

"I think what he meant was, 'Look, I just prepare as hard as I can prepare,'" Dambrot said by way of translating his former player. "'I have fun in the game. I try to be true.' He always says this, too, 'I try to be true to myself and true to the game, which I am.'"

This, Dambrot said, is James' way of saying he has put so much of himself into winning that he will be at peace with whichever way Game 7 turns out.

It's a variation on the Cavaliers' rallying cry, "ALL IN."

They print it on T-shirts, coffee mugs and banners all across the region. Each home game, the Cavs leave white towels on every seat at Quicken Loans Arena that say "ALL IN." It's a bit of a mixed message. White towels generally indicate surrender to an opponent, while the "ALL IN" message is about surrendering control of an outcome.

"'ALL IN, to me, is being able to live and accept the results, whether it's for you or against you," said Eric Harper, a 24-year-old graduate assistant at Akron who grew up in Youngstown rooting for James during his first tour with the Cavs from 2003-10.

This is the central tension for everyone in this moment with the Cavaliers: Is it possible to fully embrace the situation without leaving the heart unguarded?

It's harder when you've been hurt by sports and by life, over and over, like Jack. When you drive around for two hours looking for a fare because the friggin' Uber undercuts your business.

In a lot of ways, the Warriors are the perfect foil for the Cavaliers and their fans. The technology companies that rule the Bay Area are indirectly responsible for the drying up of the blue-collar jobs in Rust Belt towns like Cleveland. Uber, for example, was created and has its headquarters in San Francisco.

The series has gotten personal on the court, too. James has skirmished with Draymond Green and Stephen Curry; both coaches have been fined for criticizing officials and relatives on both sides have added to the rhetorical firestorm.

But ultimately, this is about Cleveland and LeBron James, as a city and its native son try to exorcise 52 years of losing.

"It's just such a great story," said Herron, who has gone on basically every local radio and TV station to apologize to James for burning his jersey back in 2010. "LeBron left the way he did. He destroyed us, destroyed the city. ... And now he's back ... and we could win a championship?

"This is the way LeBron's legacy will be cemented forever."

Jack the cab driver was right about one thing: Downtown Cleveland has been a mess to drive around the past few months. The whole city seems like it's under construction as it prepares to host 50,000 visitors during the Republican National Convention in mid-July.

Streets are torn up. Buildings are being renovated. Construction dust is everywhere. The sounds of huge forklifts backing up and loudly beeping serenade visitors walking through the streets.

Convention organizers are on such a time crunch getting things ready; the public watch party for Game 7 is on track for Quicken Loans Arena while crews are already hard at work reshaping the Q for the RNC.

But a funny thing happened the morning after the Cavaliers won Game 6.

The streets around the Q were paved.

For weeks, they have been torn up, awaiting crews to lay new blacktop. Then, by the middle of the day Friday, it was done. Jack said he'll be rooting for James and the Cavaliers on Sunday. He always roots for the Cleveland team. He just doesn't let his heart get caught up anymore. It's too hard to take.

"I never was mad at him. The man spent seven years here. We couldn't win anything," he said. "If he does win, he'll stay in this town and go crazy. I hope he does it. I hope I'm wrong.

"The only thing is, I'm wrong 99 percent of the time. My whole life, I'm always wrong."