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It is no surprise that in 2015, Awenate Cobbina stepped into the role of Director of Business Affairs and Associate Counsel for Palace Sports & Entertainment (PS&E) and the Detroit Pistons, as well as became the Executive Director of the Detroit Pistons Foundation. From an early age, Cobbina says, “I was always interested in sports, particularly basketball.”
Growing up in and around Washington, D.C. also fueled his interest in politics. Cobbina’s twin passions, sports and politics, intersected and paved the way for a professional career that most can only dream about.
Cobbina earned a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Political Science from Emory University and a Juris Doctorate from the Howard University School of Law. It was at Howard where he became active in campus politics.
“As far as I can remember I’ve always been interested in sports and politics,” says Cobbina. “While in law school I began looking at areas to launch my professional career, and realized that sports and politics would be natural industries for me.”
While in law school, Cobbina spent two summers working in New York at the headquarters for the NFL. Upon graduating in 2009, he landed an internship at the White House of then newly elected President Obama.
It was an opportunity that changed the trajectory of his life as the four month internship turned into a six-year career in politics. “It started a journey for me…I was able to work with a lot of great people and get some amazing professional experience.”
While serving in the Obama White House, Cobbina worked with senior White House staff and administration officials to manage policy development, design strategy, and implement plans on a broad range of issues and initiatives. He held roles in the Chief of Staff's Office, the Office of Legislative Affairs, and the Office of Management and Budget.
THE ROAD TO DETROIT
In 2015, Cobbina was looking to leave the government, but wanted to find an opportunity that still embraced those aspects of his career which he greatly enjoyed. He targeted sports. Cobbina was quickly tapped by the Pistons organization to spearhead many of its key initiatives, including relocating the team to the new Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit. In his current role, Cobbina assists with Detroit Pistons business strategy and manages corporate, legal, and regulatory matters for the company as well as all aspects of the Foundation, including fundraising, grant making, and reporting to the Foundation’s Board.
Cobbina is also actively involved in another Piston’s investment project—the building of a $65 million team headquarters and practice facility in Detroit’s New Center area. This new state-of-the-art facility will relocate the organization’s headquarters from Auburn Hills to the heart of Detroit.
Cobbina points out that the new facility will be a community resource. While most practice facilities are only open to teams and employees, the Detroit Pistons intend to make the new building accessible to the community.
According to Cobbina, “We are going to create ways for people in the community to interact with this building. The main way to accomplish this is to incorporate retail space on the ground level of the new facility.”
The facility will feature a Plum Market, the low-cost fitness center Blink Fitness, and event space that can be utilized by the Pistons’ commercial and non-profit partners.
“It’s a win for everyone,” says Cobbina.
JOINING THE DETROIT LISC LOCAL ADVISORY BOARD
When Cobbina relocated to Detroit, he was also looking for an opportunity to actively contribute to Detroit’s resurgence and have a positive impact on local communities. So when Detroit LISC Local Advisory Board (LAB) member Melanca Clark, President and CEO of Hudson-Weber Foundation, reached out to him and suggested he join the Detroit LISC board, it resonated with him.
Cobbina observed that Detroit LISC’s initiatives aligned with the work being done by the Pistons organization and its Foundation. “We could have easily had our headquarters and practice facility in the downtown arena, but we made a conscious choice to build in New Center. It is vital to spread growth and prosperity into neighborhoods…it’s important that all of our communities flourish.”
Last year, Cobbina accepted the appointment to the LAB and became its Fund Development Committee Co-chair. In this role, he is actively working on funding strategies around Detroit LISC’s three-year, $75 million neighborhood and workforce investment initiatives.
“Organizations like Detroit LISC provide avenues for area residents and businesses to be a part of the growth that’s happening in the city,” says Cobbina. “We are also actively working to ensure that equitable development happens in all parts of the city. I love being a part of the work we are doing.”
Not that Cobbina has much spare time, but when he does, he travels and explores other U.S. and international cities, watches his favorite sports, and spends time with family and friends.
And, at the time of this interview, politics called again. Awenate Cobbina recently served on newly elected Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s transition team.