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11 Apr, 2020 17:42

'I only saw him once': NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal distances himself from Joe Exotic but discusses deal with Tiger King star

'I only saw him once': NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal distances himself from Joe Exotic but discusses deal with Tiger King star

Despite previously namechecking television's most notorious current figure, Shaquille O'Neal has responded to ribbing by insisting that he only met Joe Exotic once and did not accept animals from the prolific tiger breeder.

Historic footage of O’Neal visiting Greater Wynnewood, the Oklahoma exotic animal park that was run by Exotic before he was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2019, has added to the story of Tiger King, the documentary that has shocked the world and become the most talked-about show on Netflix in recent weeks.

O’Neal can be seen leading a tour of the zoo in a YouTube video posted last year and once gave Exotic – real name Maldonado – a personal mention on primetime television while working as a pundit in the build-up to NBA coverage.

Another video, published in 2014, shows O'Neal meeting Exotic, calling him "my main man Joe" and saying "he gave me this tiger as a present" while holding a cub.

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Reports have also suggested that the four-time NBA champion bought 10 tiger cubs while he was playing for Miami Heat, raising questions about ethics at a time when Exotic’s conviction, which included eight counts of animal abuse, has heightened concerns about tiger welfare.

“I only saw Joe once,” O’Neal recalled of the former presidential candidate, whose federal charges included two counts of murder for hire against Carole Baskin, his regular adversary on the show and the owner of nearby zoo Big Cat Rescue.

When hosts including former All-Star Charles Barkley quizzed O’Neal about his impressions of the flamboyant Exotic, O’Neal told The Steam Room: “I ain’t gotta lie, when I got there his hair was done, he had eyeliner on. He was like one of those performing artists at a circus.

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"I actually had a great time. I stayed there for a couple of hours and just sat with animals and chilled.”

O’Neal’s comments made it unclear whether he had in fact met Exotic twice. “The second time I went there, they said ‘hey man, I don’t think you should come back, there’s a lot of stuff going on.’ I never went back,” he explained, emphasizing that his patronage of tigers was purely remote.

“I want people to understand: when I say I own tigers, I always go to these zoos and make donations. The tigers never come into my possession.”

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His first visit to Greater Wynnewood, which has been criticized for its treatment of animals and an apparent lack of safety measures that saw one member of staff lose part of their arm to a tiger in the show, took place when he was driving to watch San Antonio at Oklahoma City Thunder.

“On the way there, on the highway, I saw a sign that said tigers, so I went, said 'hi,' gave them some money to give me a couple white tigers.”

Around 19 million people watched Tiger King in just over a week in the US, leading O’Neal to joke: “Listen to my attorney-general at large – I only went twice, America.”

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Fans who tuned in also heard O’Neal reminiscing about seeing a white tiger during a visit to boxing icon Mike Tyson’s home, and the 48-year-old's guest appearance on the lighthearted show seemed to charm viewers.

One wrote: “I couldn’t care less if Shaq has tigers at his house. Does he now? Highly doubt it. Did he have tigers when he was hyping Exotic Joe? Yes.”